David Suzuki cuts straight to the chase. The state of Canada’s climate action is “disgusting,” he says, and the federal government should be ashamed.
“Canada should hang its head,” he told National Observer in an interview. “(Trudeau) has given no indication that he was serious about the promise made at Paris.”
It’s a typically frank assessment by the 81-year-old star environmentalist, scientist and broadcaster. In 2015, he famously called Justin Trudeau a “twerp” during a phone call about the Liberal climate change platform, after Trudeau reportedly indicated that his comments were “sanctimonious crap.”
As Trudeau’s Liberals today cling to widely-criticized Harper-era climate change targets and continue to approve new oilsands pipelines, Suzuki says countries like Sweden, Morocco and Costa Rica are blazing ahead in climate leadership. Even India and China, two of the world’s biggest emitters of heat-trapping carbon pollution, are leaders in wind and solar investment — statistics that put Canada to shame, he says.
“We’re using the earth as a garbage can and we’re going to pay a huge consequence of that," Suzuki fired over the phone. "The very life support systems of earth are being sacrificed all in the name of economic development."
The scientist's comments are at odds with the Trudeau government's mantra that the environment and economy "go together," and that a balance can be struck between getting Canadian oil to tidewater and cutting down on heat-trapping carbon pollution. Responding to Suzuki's criticism, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said she’s “extraordinarily proud” of what the federal government has accomplished on climate change.
Feds proud of climate portfolio
“We have an incredible climate change plan that includes putting a price on carbon pollution, also investing in clean innovation,” McKenna told National Observer. “But we also know we need to get our natural resources to market and we’re doing both. That’s what Canadians expect us to do.”
Since 2015, the federal government has adopted a historic Pan-Canadian Framework of Clean Growth and Climate Change, along with plans to run all federal buildings on renewable energy by 2025. Budget 2017 also included $200 million over four years to bring clean tech to Canada’s natural resource sectors, and more than $1 billion to help Canadian clean tech companies expand.
Such efforts are overshadowed however, by the approval of unsustainable development projects that put land and water at risk, said Suzuki. In November last year, the Trudeau government approved two controversial oilsands expansion pipelines: the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge Line 3.
Oil is the "dirtiest energy we've got," he told National Observer, adding that there's no such thing as "world class" ability to clean up after an oil spill.
McKenna's department has described the oilsands industry as the country's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. The sector's emissions, however, would be capped under a new framework introduced by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's government. Even under the NDP's so-called "Climate Leadership Plan", however, annual emissions would still be allowed to grow by 43 per cent.
But for Suzuki, the $8.8-billion Site C Dam, currently under construction in British Columbia, is Canada's "classic example" of where government priorities lie. Upon completion, it will produce enough power to light up roughly 450,000 B.C. homes per year, but is expected to destroy more than 100 kilometres of river valley bottoms along the Peace River and its tributaries.
"We know that with climate change, we cannot have a food system where food is growing an average of 3,000 miles from where it’s grown to where it’s eaten," he explained. "The Peace River Valley is one of the real bread baskets of the north...We’ve got to use that to be the bread basket of the world and instead, we’re going to flood it and contribute to the basic problem."
Suzuki credited the Trudeau government for putting climate action “back on the table” after a decade of denial from the Harper government and said in the first year, Trudeau's progress was "amazing." Today, the prime minister's climate portfolio is still far from demonstrating "the real action that is needed now."
And as glaciers melt into the ocean, sea levels continue to rise, and droughts strike in full force, Suzuki called on journalists to hold governments accountable for their commitments to the race against climate change.
Declaring war on climate change
According to Suzuki, Canada should react to climate change the way the world reacted when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941:
“When they attacked, nobody said, ‘Oh my god, we can’t afford to fight these guys, we better make peace with them in the Pacific.’ You knew that you were drawn into a battle and you had to throw everything you could at it, because the only possibility you could accept was victory.”
As it stands, no legislation or organization has the authority to impose sanctions on a government for failing to meet its climate obligations. Such a body would be "ideal," he said, but given that none exist, journalists must put their elected officials' feet to the fire. It's a tall order, Suzuki acknowledged, in a world where infinite information is available online, and 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' run rampant.
The new world of online information means the public must not only learn to be critical of the information it consumes, he said, but also that the media must learn to present climate reporting in a way that it engages a modern audience. After all, it has to compete with reality TV socialites Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, he added, questioning "how the hell" such individuals capture our attention.
"As long as we’re focused on celebrity and economics, we’re not going to see the world in a way that allows us to live and thrive," he said.
In Suzuki's ideal world, instead of reporting daily on the stock market and the value of the loonie to four decimal points, Canadian media would report daily on how many acres of ancient forest are being torn down, how many tonnes of pesticides have been sprayed, and how much carbon has been dumped into the atmosphere.
"Why don’t you at least give us an indicator of what we’re doing to the planet?” he asked. “We don’t do that. Our priorities are indicated by things like the Dow Jones average and all that crap.
"I believe that the more better information people had, the better decisions they would make. That’s always been my drive in television — give people the best scientific information available so that they can make more informed decisions.”
Suzuki was recently in Ottawa to accept a lifetime leadership award in animal welfare at the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies' National Animal Welfare Conference.