Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis by June 3

Goal: $100k

Glen Murray — former Ontario climate minister and the first openly gay mayor of a major North American city — believes big social changes don't happen without people taking personal risks to drive change.

Before entering politics, Murray was an outreach worker, co-ordinating health programs for homeless people at high risk of HIV infection, and was an outspoken advocate for human rights. He successfully ran for city council in 1989, winning two re-elections before winning his mayoral race in 1998.

Despite receiving homophobic death threats, he went on to win consecutive terms in office. He created affordable housing for low and moderate income citizens and led a successful campaign to transfer five cents per litre of the federal gas tax to municipalities for infrastructure renewal. He later moved to Toronto and was elected as a Liberal MPP, eventually getting appointed to numerous cabinet positions including Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure and Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

He would later step back from politics to serve as executive director of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, for one year in 2017. Murray is now working as a software and environmental entrepreneur at CAST (Creative Applications for Sustainable Technologies) to "accelerate the transition to zero waste and to zero carbon."

Despite death threats, he focused on positive change

“As a city councillor, after I got elected, I had to wear Kevlar jackets to work because of threats in my life,” he recalled.

“People tried to set my house on fire a couple times. They poisoned my dog, killed my neighbour's cat thinking it was mine. I went through a lot of horrendous things ... I never talked about them publicly because I knew that if I was going to lead a complicated city with a lot of religious and social-conservative people, I had to focus on the positive change that I thought I could bring.”

Murray spoke to Canada's National Observer recently for the first in a series of profiles we'll be publishing that will shine a spotlight on the many outstanding people who help make our in-depth climate journalism possible through subscriptions and support. From think tanks to universities to city councils to ridings and universities across the country, leaders the race against climate change are part of our community. We will be celebrating their knowledge and their achievements over the coming weeks.

Election 2021: 'most consequential choice' for generations

Progress is unlikely to be made by those waiting on politics to become a “safe space” for people of all backgrounds, Murray said.

“Change comes from people who stare down the haters, the deniers and take them on,” he said. “The reality for how change gets created is when someone says: ‘This is unacceptable. I’m going to stand up and be counted.'”

With the federal election just days away, the former Liberal Ontario climate minister and Pembina Institute executive director warns Monday's vote is likely the most consequential choice Canadians will make for generations.

“This is the last election you're going to have in Canadian history where a government has even the remotest chance of having enough runway to make choices necessary to avoid a major extinction event within a couple of decades,” Murray said.

He is worried none of the party leaders truly grasp the gravity of what a changed climate could do to Canada, and that time is running out. Last month, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned human survival on the planet could become increasingly precarious, with rising sea levels, extreme heat, droughts and floods, unless nations act fast to stabilize the climate.

“I think there's so much posturing,” Murray said. “There are so many politicians who don't really understand how far advanced climate change is. As a matter of fact, I think I can say this about 90 per cent of politicians and most parties.”

'Unacceptable' level of risk from climate change

Murray said Canada’s politicians don’t seem to grasp that climate change is ultimately a “risk management issue” for citizens.

“We have 'acceptable' levels of risk, which we normalize,” he said. “There are things that as a society and as individuals, we know are 'unacceptable' levels of risk. COVID-19 has been an object lesson in personal decisions about taking risks, but it's very tangible. People can understand a virus — everyone's caught viruses before.”

Climate change, he said, is another story.

“We don't understand the tipping points,” he explained, “we don't understand at what point ... climate change (becomes) planet change … and we've already put enough carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere to risk catastrophic events that can kill millions of people.”

Despite the federal government's climate promises in the 2015 Paris Agreement, emissions have continued to rise, so much that Canada ranks as the worst performing country in the G7 on climate. Murray spoke with concern about Canada's forests, which have now been logged to the point that trees are no longer absorbing CO2 and are instead becoming a net source of emissions.

“So much environmental damage is done to the natural capacity of the planet to absorb carbon dioxide and methane — our oceans and our forests, particularly. You get to a point of no return,” he said.

“There is something between a possibility and a probability. We can hit tipping points (from) which there is no way human beings can pull back ... we could leave ourselves with a planet that is largely unlivable for billions of people."

Individual efforts cancelled by harmful government policies

When it comes to minimizing carbon emissions, Murray walks the talk in his daily life.

Despite living in Winnipeg, one of Canada’s coldest cities, Murray refuses to own a car and cycles through snowy streets in winter. But he laments that even though he and other Canadians make serious changes and sacrifices to reduce emissions, one poor choice by the federal government could wipe out all the efforts of individual citizens.

“Government is asking us all to do things, but a single decision that this government, and that most governments of all political stripes have made, wipes out the entire efforts of 37 million Canadians,” he said, referring to the federal Liberal government's purchase of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil pipeline and expansion project in 2018.

“You see politicians show up to recycling drives and encouraging bikes. They encourage these sorts of socially cool things that they want to be associated with. But none of the things that we're doing as people even come close to offsetting the decisions of government.”

'We already have solutions'

Even though many people perceive climate solutions to be a monumental task involving new, cutting-edge technology, Murray said Canada already has the solutions on hand — it just has to implement them. For example, constructing more energy-efficient buildings, for example, can help to drastically reduce emissions overall. Homes and buildings account for 13 per cent of national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (18 per cent including electricity use).

“I’ve been involved with climate for three decades. The transformation is not that hard,” he said, referencing projects like Green Earth Village, a proposed sustainable housing project planned for East Gwillimbury, Ont.

“Passive buildings are easy to design using geothermal systems, solar energy ... our problem is we're not translating our own knowledge and our own technology. We're the country of pilot projects. We can show how it works. But we don't have the kind of political leadership that is needed to deploy and rapidly deploy these technologies,” Murray said.

“We don't need more research or more new technologies. We need to rapidly deploy what we already know. And if we do that over the next 10 years, Canada can show the world how (to lead on climate).”

Grounding in the reality of climate change

Canada’s National Observer is valuable to Murray, he said, because it’s “foundationally one of the only publications grounded in the reality of things like climate change.”

“When I read the National Observer, I actually feel like I have some sense of community in this country still, which I don’t find in a lot of places anymore,” he said.

Murray feels media often pays attention to the wrong people, and is baffled that the people who created the “biggest change” in climate politics also get the “smallest voice.”

“We don't often hear from Gordon Campbell, because he's too politically right-wing,” he said, of the former B.C. premier who implemented the provincial carbon tax in 2008 set up a Climate Action Secretariat and set some of the most aggressive climate goals in North America at the time. “But … I'd much rather listen to him than Erin O'Toole or Stephen Harper.”

He also said media should be listening more to former Ontario premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne, whom he believes paid the biggest personal political price for her bold climate initiatives.

“Under (Wynne’s) leadership, (Ontario) was hitting records for direct foreign investment and employment ... and the economy ... She has a lot of understanding and expertise in the interface between the economy and the environment,” he said. Wynne's government eliminated coal-fired electricity generation in Ontario and partnered up with Quebec and California for a cap-and-trade system to push businesses to curb greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

'Democracy can't survive tribalism'

Meanwhile, with little time left to act climate, he fears Canadians are becoming too entrenched in tribalism to co-operate with each other in an all-hands-on-deck effort, which is what it will take to tackle the climate emergency.

“I always get tired of hearing people who get to know me saying, 'You're so cool for an old guy,'” Murray said with exasperation. “We really need to come together. We are in such a bubble society right now. People are joining tribes with people who are like themselves socially, culturally ... and democracy cannot survive tribalism."

“...When climate change becomes a cultural issue, and then it becomes a tribal issue, what your tribe believes is more important than science or fact ... We are seeing the collapse of much of the pluralistic institutions and forces that support a celebration of diversity of opinion, and see democracy as the idea of constructive engagement of differences into a sense of tribal identity and cultural warriors.”

Murray worries the division in Canada's political landscape will come to a head when climate change forces mass migrations, which was written about in depth by the Pentagon in a series of reports predicting that Europe and the U.S. may be forced to close their borders to "millions" of migrants displaced by rising sea levels and drought, and that the lack of potable water may lead to war.

“The next few years are going to be an issue of not just mass migration, but political destabilization,” he said, referencing the effect of drought on civil strife in Syria and the odds of something similar happening in Mexico, as well as how that could affect North American democracies.

He said as a former environment minister, he finds people are responsive and take an interest in climate change when he begins to discuss the ramifications of it on the world's economy and security. Once people do their research, he said, they start to realize how urgent it is for Canada to act before it's too late.

“They get a little more aware of how serious and how advanced these things are. And that's what really concerns me ... that we're already way into that.”

Keep reading

"'Government is asking us all to do things, but a single decision that this government, and that most governments of all political stripes have made, wipes out the entire efforts of 37 million Canadians,' he said, referring to the federal Liberal government's purchase of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain oil pipeline and expansion project in 2018."

So that's a definite non-endorsement of the Liberals' anti-climate plan? Put Glenn Murray in the NO column. Post his words on The Observer's homepage.

After the recent string of Liberal endorsements from academic sell-outs, it's nice to see someone act with integrity. I was beginning to lose hope.

"Murray spoke with concern about Canada's forests, which have now been logged to the point that trees are no longer absorbing CO2 and are instead becoming a net source of emissions."

Just a quibble. Due to more forest fires and insect infestations, Canada's managed forests have been a net carbon source since 2001. Adding to our man-made totals, not subtracting. This would be the case even without logging.
The forestry industry makes the situation worse by replacing diverse forests with monocultures of the same age more susceptible to insects and by eliminating deciduous trees like poplars, which are less likely to burn and act as a firebreak — and replacing them with conifers, which are more likely to burn.
NRCan: "Canada’s forests both emit and absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). In any given year, depending on the area of natural disturbances such as forest fires, insect outbreaks and windthrow, Canada’s forests will either be a source or a sink of CO2. A source adds carbon to the atmosphere, while a sink absorbs it. Data from 2018 suggest that overall the forests were a source of CO2 due to 1.4 million hectares (ha) of area burned.
"In 2018, the total net emissions of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from Canada’s managed forests (forest lands managed for timber production) and forest products were about 243 million tonnes (Mt).
"The total net emissions are calculated by adding emissions/removals caused by human activities in Canada’s managed forests to emissions/removals caused by large-scale natural disturbances in Canada’s managed forests."

"Forest management activities in Canada’s managed forests, such as harvesting, slash pile burning, and regeneration, as well as the use and disposal of harvested wood products, were a net sink of about 8 Mt CO2e in 2018."
"Natural disturbances in Canada’s managed forests resulted in net emissions of about 251 Mt CO2e in 2018."
"Natural disturbances, mostly outside the control of humans, significantly impact the ability of Canada’s managed forests to consistently absorb more CO2 than they emit."
"Indicator: Carbon emissions and removals"

"Forest management activities in Canada’s managed forests, such as harvesting, slash pile burning, and regeneration, as well as the use and disposal of harvested wood products, were a net sink of about 8 Mt CO2e in 2018."
I'm having difficulty bending my brain around how "management" activities of "harvesting, slash pile burning ... and the use and disposal of harvested wood products" amounts to a carbon sink.
Must have planted an awful lot of seedlings that year.
I wonder how many times a given plantation gets counted, and how it gets to be counted as a carbon sink against the trees it was supposed to replace ...
Creative accounting?

I just found this article today. What interests me is Glen Murray's comments at the end which refer to the political destabilization and mass migrations that will be caused by Climate Change. This is happening now. For, example look at the wave of refugees from Haiti at the US border. Yes, I have read that the Pentagon is now taking these threats seriously and that it predicts there will be many failed states in the not too distant future. The natural disasters (heat waves, fires, floods etc.) associated with Climate Change are bad enough, but these possibilities are truly frightening.

Is Canada aware of these possibilities and preparing for all this? I agree that most MP's don't really understand the depth of the challenge posed by CC. Sadly, I think most Canadians don't fully understand the problem either and what is in store for us if we continue with business as usual.

It would be great if the National Observer could further explore some of these topics.