As a young activist, I was taught to speak truth to power. That means demanding government and industry stop ignoring people and the environment, and banging on doors until those powers-that-be open them. But it also means that when the door does finally open, you step through, sit down, talk, and listen.
Talking is meaningless without listening and sometimes the hardest part isn’t disrupting the powers-that-be, it’s engaging with them afterwards to find solutions. That’s how I found myself on a stage in November to support a carbon pollution reduction plan for Alberta. Power knocked on our door, we answered and spoke truth.
At the beginning of this year, I don’t think anyone could have imagined that before the end of 2015 we would have a workable plan to reduce carbon pollution and a cap on carbon emissions from the tar sands in Alberta. What we did know then was that no national climate policy would be meaningful unless it dealt with the 40 percent of Canada’s carbon pollution that comes from Alberta and the tar sands.
But this fall, plummeting oil prices and the election of the Notley government threw open a door that we didn’t anticipate. All of a sudden, we had a government in Alberta that understood the reality and severity of the problem, and that was motivated to take action before the UN Paris Climate Summit so that Canada could have a realistic chance to chart a new course forward.
Even so, it seemed too good to be true when the Alberta government started talking about an ambitious climate plan for the province. We were skeptical, and we knew that no climate plan would solve the entire problem, but that getting something real and legislated was a necessary starting point.
So ForestEthics dove in. We consulted with the Alberta and First Nations governments. We met with the oil industry, and in particular with a number of companies we had been discussing carbon reduction plans with for some time. We discussed policy options with academics, and other environmental groups. We engaged directly with all the stakeholders to share our views because that is our model of advocacy – we confront, we disrupt, but we also engage with decision makers and policy makers to find workable solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
We thought long and hard about the details and the possible drawbacks of the climate plan as we gave input on multiple different ideas and plans. We kept an open mind, we listened to proposals and suggestions, even some very unpalatable ones, but we tried to keep our eyes on the big picture.
When the dust settled on the final plan, we consulted and deliberated again, and while the plan doesn’t do everything we want, we decided to support it. Here’s why, Alberta is now one of the only oil producing regions on Earth that will cap expansion of an oil reserve and raise the price on carbon pollution. Instead of the 6.4 million barrels per day of tar sands production that was already permitted and approved, the new emissions cap will mean that with current technlogy there is now a ceiling of 3.2 million barrels per day.
That limit, plus the $30/ton tax on carbon pollution, convinced us, and many others, that this is quite a good step forward for the climate (of course, we like the phase- out of coal and promotion of renewable energy too).
By cutting the planned expansion of the oil sands in half (and it might be less) we also ensured that we no longer need the three new pipelines. The maximum output of 3.2 million barrels per days does not equate to enough volume of oil to warrant the construction of all of the pipelines that are currently proposed. While we assume Alberta and the industry will continue to advocate for at least one pipeline (and who knows which one), they no longer need all three. And that is progress.
After Alberta announced its climate policy, I went to Paris in December as a delegate to the UN climate conference. There, the debate raged around the goals of the convention. In the end the world’s governments agreed that the 2 degree goal was not ambitious enough, and landed on a 1.5 degree goal. And Canada helped fight that good fight, emboldened in part by Alberta’s new climate plan. The Paris agreement sets a new expectation, shared among 194 nations, that we will phase out of coal and oil and re-power our world with clean energy.
Does the Paris agreement get us there? Not even close. But no single action or treaty will repower the globe in a single shot. That’s why we are confident when we say that we made real progress in Paris. Not because this agreement offers a comprehensive solution, but because the global community finally agreed on the fundamental crisis that we face and admitted that we need a drastic turnaround to ensure our survival.
In the complex, messy world of climate change and energy, we fight for our voices to be heard above those with more money and power, and then we engage to get the best solutions we can in that moment. Knowing that tomorrow we will wake up and continue the fight.
Neither the Alberta Plan nor the Paris Agreement is good enough. But today we start our daily fight for our children’s right to a safe climate a lot closer to our goal than we were just a few weeks ago. That’s not total victory, but it is progress. We’ve run strong campaigns against government and the tar sands industry for years. And when they finally picked up the phone to talk, we answered the call.
Now, with the Alberta Plan (and Paris) under our belt, we are right back at it again, disrupting the status quo, creating momentum for change, and engaging on the next set of solutions that step-by-step will bring us to a climate-stable world.
There is no single silver bullet that will solve climate change. One step, one policy at a time, we will have to make the path to a stable climate by walking it. It’s taken humanity two centuries to make this mess, now we have a decade (at best) to solve it. And we have to expect debate and controversy along the way, and there has been plenty – is Alberta’s plan a good one, is Paris a real step forward? These are essentially debates about fast we can make change and these are great debates to be having.
The truth is, none of us knows with certainty the exact path humanity will follow in getting us out of this mess. So, we will continue to do what we do, to speak truth to power, to debate with each other, and to celebrate progress wherever we see it. This journey will be long and hard. At the close of 2015, I find myself more hopeful than ever. And hope is the fuel that we most need to save this world that we love so dearly.