The case for optimism
That’s basically what I told the distraught congregant who cornered me at my mother’s church a few Sundays ago. A professional educator, she’s used to dealing with young people anguished about the climate crisis but had just run into her toughest situation yet — a boy just 10 years old in despair that animals, people, places are dying and no one is doing anything about it.
Casting around for something useful to say, towards the end of our conversation I blurted, “Chris Turner has a new book out — How to be a climate optimist: Blueprints for a Better World. That’s well worth reading.”
Truth be told, I hadn’t read Chris’ new book at that point but ever since his 2007 Geography of Hope, and especially in my bleaker periods, I’ve clung to the mental picture of a world map already punctuated with points of light, and those points brightening, expanding, multiplying, eventually merging.
“I wanted to speak to the overwhelming sense of paralysis and futility, especially among younger people,” Chris told me this week from his home in Calgary. “And fill in the undercovered pieces of the whole climate crisis response, because I’ve seen a pretty extraordinary transformation in 20 years and it’s not well covered because it’s happening in so many fields at once.”
Living in Calgary allows Chris no delusions about the sheer scale of the challenge and the power of the incumbent fossil industry. Nor is he a purveyor of uncut hopeium. He describes his climate awakening as relatively gradual but points to one chilling moment interviewing Andrew Weaver for Time magazine. “It was the tone of it. How worried he was. As if your family doctor had told you to get more sleep and exercise and then you go to the specialist who looks up from the MRI and says: ‘No, this is much more serious — however big you think this problem is, it’s way bigger.’”
Chris had planned a trip reporting on climate hot spots around the world but, as a new father, couldn’t bear the idea of dragging his son on such a wretched journey. He pitched his editors on a trip with a twist — to find and report on people and places implementing solutions that could scale up to be the new basis for society. And so he embarked on what would become a 20-year career (and counting) covering climate solutions.
He’s the best kind of tour guide: a great storyteller and writer, avuncular and compelling. Chris guides us through “renewable islands” in the North Sea already running on reliable, smart, clean energy grids; a city in China with 16,000 electric buses (22,000 electric taxis); we meet the architects of Germany’s Energiewende whose down-to-earth, roof-by-roof approach catalyzed the astonishing worldwide plummet in clean energy prices, now the cheapest power for most people and most places in the world today. (If you keep reading through this week’s Roundup, you’ll find it’s four times cheaper to build new offshore wind than to keep existing gas plants running.)
Along the tour, we ride two-wheeled through cities transformed into human spaces and streak across continents on high-speed trains. The world of climate solutions can apparently double as a tipple tour for those with the taste for it — Andalusian sherry in the calm cabin of a Spanish AVE train hurtling through the countryside at 300 km/h, aquavit on the quiet shores of Bornholm Island in the Danish archipelago.
What gives Chris licence to talk about “plausible optimism” is that these examples are now spreading rapidly even though they were pooh-poohed by bigshot energy experts just a few short years ago. There has been a sea change in the last decade, transforming even the crusty International Energy Agency. “I wouldn’t be able to make the case if the past decade hadn’t provided so much evidence for the trajectory,” he says.
And the solutions we visit aren’t just “less bad,” for the world, they are typically “much better” for us. Cleaner, healthier homes, better ways to get around, more vibrant neighbourhoods and cities. It’s Chris’ first lesson from the climate solutions beat: “the best solutions arise by … assembling a much better way of living,” he writes.
Although the early architects understood the gravity of the climate crisis and harboured hopes of breaking our global addiction to fossil fuels, the actual tactics of implementation were based on tapping into our “powerful yearning.”
“That’s the stuff of mass movements, grand migrations, hopefully of global energy transitions accelerating to fast-forward speed,” he writes.
Not that the assembling is any easy task. How to be a Climate Optimist is decidedly realistic about the nature of politics. The examples we tour all emerged from a combination of visionaries, hard work and political support from local and national elected leaders. Political will isn’t just nice to have, it’s a crucial component. And it’s here that Chris is most critical of climate activism — a critique based on innumerable, insufferable local planning meetings and even a federal run in Calgary Centre under the Green Party banner.
It’s one thing to declare what should happen, Chris insists we also need an answer to how? Much of the climate movement tends to focus on ends at the expense of means, treating goals as if they were programs capable of surviving reversals, crises and the general sausage-making of politics.
But even on that front, Chris finds reason for “plausible optimism.” He points to Germany’s response to the invasion of Ukraine and consequent energy crisis. Having begun with a modest, unthreatening 100,000 solar roofs initiative, the program expanded nationwide and the energy transition has built too much momentum, too much public buy-in to be stopped even by Putin’s battalions and energy blackmail. “What you see in the German response to Ukraine was not abandonment of the Energiewende but actually significantly deepening the commitment to get off fossil fuels even more quickly.”
Federal ministers declared it to be #EVWeek and fanned out across the country announcing cash for 6,100 new charging stations. Quebec got 840 and city hall in Burnaby, B.C., unveiled the largest hub in Canada — 100 chargers shaded by a canopy of solar panels to juice up the city’s municipal fleet. Perhaps even more importantly, the feds announced a new program for medium and heavy-duty zero-emissions vehicles (the name could use some work. It’s currently the catchy “iMHZEV program”).
Big Oil aboard the banks
All Canada’s big banks have at least one fossil-linked director on the board. John Woodside combed through corporate filings and found that, on average, one in five bank directors is also on the board of a fossil fuel company.
And that’s a conservative number — it doesn’t include bank directors tied to other climate-wrecking companies like chemical firms or asset managers that own coal, oil or gas infrastructure.
Independent Sen. Rosa Galvez told John we should learn from the treaty to cut tobacco use when 200 countries agreed to protect public health from the vested interests of Big Tobacco.
“Now it's exactly the same situation with fossil fuels,” said Galvez. We shouldn’t be asking the fossil fuel industry to weigh in on climate goals for that very reason, Galvez says, but with “their presence in the boards, that's what they're doing.”
Success through listening
Natasha Edmunds leads teams that have already persuaded 13 regional municipalities in B.C. to set climate pollution reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement, most recently the smelter town of Trail. Teams of volunteers use “deep canvassing” to engage local citizens and spur action. As Patricia Lane reports, she’s “changing policy by listening with her heart.”
Mi’gmaq communities going to court against Bay du Nord
Eight Mi’gmaq communities in New Brunswick are joining a lawsuit against the federal government for its approval of the Bay du Nord deepwater drilling project.
The umbrella organization Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Inc. (MTI) says there wasn’t meaningful consultation and the project threatens several species, including endangered Atlantic salmon.
“Our relationship with salmon is deep and historic, as it is essential for cultural expression. The continuation of the salmon fishing practice through traditional means creates opportunities for knowledge sharing and the expression of Indigenous values to provide for the community,” says MTI co-chair Chief Rebecca Knockwood.
Cloe Logan brings you the story: Eight Mi’gmaq communities in N.B. join court case against Bay du Nord approval
Manchin torpedoes U.S. climate bill
Joe Manchin, Democratic senator for fossil fuels, appears poised to scuttle President Joe Biden’s climate legislation ahead of the midterm elections this fall. It’s not really a big surprise to anyone following the senators who could fry the world but devastating nonetheless.
Heat waves across the globe
Over 80 cities in China issued the highest level of heat-wave alerts this week as temperatures topped 40 C. People are taking refuge in air raid shelters to escape the heat.
On Friday, the U.K. issued its first-ever “Red Extreme heat warning” as Europe and North Africa broil: temperatures topped 47 C in Portugal and thousands across western Europe have been evacuated or forced to flee wildfires.
You barely know what to say anymore: Every continent in the Northern Hemisphere has seen heat records in the last month, and the hottest part of summer is still to come.
Canada’s biggest solar farm flipped the switch to “ON” this week. The Claresholm Solar Project in southern Alberta won’t hold the title for long — the nearby Travers Solar Project is even bigger and plans to come online this fall.
Record low price for offshore wind
U.K. politics might be a circus at the moment but the country isn’t clowning around on renewables. Every two years, the government holds an auction for new clean power and the latest secured record amounts at record-low prices — four times cheaper than gas.
“Most of the new capacity — some 7 gigawatts — will be offshore wind. Notably, for the first time, these projects were cheaper than the 1.5GW of onshore wind or 2.2GW of solar.”
“Once the pre-approved projects are built, they will generate 42 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year, enough to meet around 13 per cent of current U.K. demand,” reports Carbon Brief.
A record in the Amazon rainforest
And it’s not the kind of record we need: this one’s for deforestation. Satellite images of Brazil show 4,000 square kilometres of forest destroyed in the first half of 2022.
That’s 80 per cent more than the same period in the year before Jair Bolsonaro took office. “What makes the statistic more remarkable is that the forest cutting is taking place during the rainy season. Deforestation is historically higher in the drier second half of the year when it is easier to access remote areas on the region's unpaved roads,” reports The Associated Press
Volvo, Maersk quit industry lobby groups
Volvo pulled out of Europe’s car lobby, while Maersk, the world’s largest maritime shipping company, dropped out of its industry association. "We review our membership status once a year to ensure that the trade associations in which we are members lobby in alignment with the goals of the Paris Agreement as well as other key issues," Maersk said on its website.
Normal or with meat?
Pointy heads often stress the importance of “choice architecture” in making decisions. Here’s a whopper:
The Netherlands leads Europe in zero-emission bus sales with a big round number: 100 per cent of new buses running on electricity or hydrogen.
Another battery plant for Ontario
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a deal for the Belgian company Umicore to build a $1.5-billion EV battery factory in Ontario’s Loyalist Township.
Umicore made its decision based on the availability of low-carbon electricity (“CO2 efficiency,” in the company’s words). Perhaps Ontario should rethink its plans to bring more fossil fuels onto its grid and meet the feds’ plan for a Clean Electricity Standard.
I’ll leave you this week with Skywoman Falling by Robin Wall Kimmerer. You probably know Kimmerer for her beautiful book, Braiding Sweetgrass. This is from the new introduction to a hardcover special edition: “As always, I take my guidance from the forests, who teach us something about change.
“A long-lived overstory can dominate the forest for generations, setting the ecological conditions for its own thriving while suppressing others by exploiting all the resources with a self-serving dominance. But, all the while it sets the stage for what happens next… Eventually, the old forest is disrupted and replaced by the understory, by the buried seedbank that has been readying itself for this moment of transformation and renewal. A whole new ecosystem rises to replace that which no longer works in a changed world.
“What would it take for us to follow Skywoman?” she asks. “Do we jump because we look over our shoulders at the implacable suffering marching toward us and jump from fear and portent? Or perhaps we look down, drawn toward the glittering green, hear the birdsong, smell the sweetgrass and yearn to be part of a different story. The story we long for, the story that we are beginning to remember, the story that remembers us.”
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Support for this issue of Zero Carbon came from The McConnell and Trottier foundations and I-SEA.