Tackling Misperceptions: Changing the Conversation on Climate in Canada

Tackling Misperceptions: Changing the Conversation on Climate in Canada

By Brenna Owen

Last month I returned to my alma mater, Queen’s University, on Homecoming weekend. One night I inevitably found myself at Queen’s Pub chatting with fellow alumni. I answered a few questions about what I do from someone I’ll refer to as Mr. Alum, who graduated from Queen’s Law in 1990. We got talking about Canada’s role in combating global climate change. The conversation unfolded in a familiar pattern, as I found myself defending the need for ambitious climate action from both moral and economic perspectives. I want to take this opportunity to tackle a couple of Mr. Alum’s misperceptions head on.


“Canada’s emissions reductions are a drop in the bucket. It’s India and China that need to cut drastically.” The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro established the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR+RC). In non-UN speak, this means that because of drastic differences in development since the Industrial Revolution, some countries (including Canada) are both more responsible for global emissions historically and more capable of financing costly mitigation and adaptation initiatives. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been likened to the classic free-rider problem; not only do locally produced GHG emissions disperse and affect the entire world, but their effects are also felt particularly strongly in the Global South.

The issues of equity and CBDR+RC have inhibited progress at successive conferences since the 1992 Earth Summit as the Global South (rightly) demands that the Western world make good on its original commitment to take responsibility for its emissions. In the twenty-three years since climate negotiations began, India has not changed its fundamental position: “developed countries must reduce their emissions and, in the name of equity, developing nations should be allowed to use fossil fuels” to develop further economically.

At COP19 in Warsaw, the United States, European Union, Australia and Canada rejected a Brazilian call for the adoption of a climate equity metric. Supported by 130 countries, including India and China, the proposal called for cumulative emissions from the Industrial Revolution onwards to be taken into account when setting targets. Historical emissions from the West amount to far more than a drop in the global bucket; and for the last 10 years we have also actively blocked progress towards equitable emissions reduction strategies.

Hopes were high at last year’s climate conference in Lima, on the heels the announcement of a climate change agreement between China and the United States. While China is now the largest emitter in absolute terms, the United States’ emissions remain higher both cumulatively and per capita. Together, the two countries account for more than 40% of global GHG emissions. Last year, I had hoped that joint climate action between the U.S. and China was a step towards more meaningful practice of CBDR+RC, but talks in Lima were quickly bogged down as country representatives haggled over bureaucratic minutiae and language.

After explaining climate equity to Mr. Alum, I also reminded him that Canada’s tar sands are one of the largest and most destructive industrial projects on earth. They singularly represent the violence and oppression inherent in capitalism today, and their expansion must be stopped on the basis of justice, healthy communities and human dignity. He was yet to be convinced.

“Canada is a benevolent international force.” The perception that Canada is a peacekeeping nation and a leader in international diplomacy stretches back to Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s involvement in the 1956 Suez Crisis. Under Stephen Harper, these national narratives deteriorated. Canada lost its bid to remain part of the UN Security Council, contributed far fewer troops to UN peacekeeping efforts, cut foreign financial aid budgets, and saw our international development agency folded into the department for international trade.

But many Canadians cling to the myth that Canada is a leader in international diplomacy. Canada remains an attractive destination for people around the world, and we certainly consider ourselves more peaceful than our powerful neighbour to the south. We brush aside violent events in our social and military history, including the forced internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War and the treatment of Indigenous peoples in residential schools and our prison system.

In the context of international climate negotiations, Mr. Alum’s stance minimized Canada’s contributions to global climate change and the violence faced by systemically marginalized communities in the Global South; in the Canadian Arctic; in First Nations, Metis, and Inuit communities; and along pipeline routes. It’s time to actively focus our attention on the paradox of one of our most commonly held self-perceptions: that we are a peaceful and diplomatic nation, while our record at international climate negotiations in the last decade has been anything but. Canada’s compliance with the principles of CBDR+RC is integral if we hope to claw our way out of a violent, colonial past and work towards a just and sustainable future.

“A fossil-free economy is just never going to happen.” For Mr. Alum, the nail in the proverbial coffin for climate action in Canada was the fact that it’s probably just not going to happen. “What about eliminating massive subsidies to fossil fuel companies?” I asked him. Nope. “What about the fact that we could shift our economy away from the volatility of fossil fuels and towards more stable renewables?” Nope. “What about the fact that our mental health and the cultures of drug-abuse and sexism around extractive industries would begin to improve?” Nope.

My fellow Queen’s alumnus was quick to assure me that I was “preaching to the choir.” He believed climate change is a problem, but the shift just isn’t going to happen. The powers that be are simply too ingrained. We lack the collective and political will.

To that, Mr. Alum, I say, the climate is changing but the tides are also turning. An article published in the Guardian last month detailed Shell and BP’s falling profits and raised questions about their ability to pay dividends. In September, Shell abandoned its hunt for oil off Alaskan waters, a project that cost the company $7 billion. Just a couple of weeks ago we learned that TransCanada has scrapped its plans for a Quebec terminal of the proposed Energy East pipeline. And, in an historic victory for land defenders and climate activists, U.S. President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline.

Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance division released a report for the second half of this year that shows the cost of generating electricity at a large wind farm is now on par with coal and natural gas. The markets themselves are pointing to the fact that the profitability of oil cannot be relied upon.

Marches for climate justice have united frontline communities with academics, veterans, migrants, faith groups, families, and so many more. The movement for climate justice has never been so strong or visible. We are the collective, we are the political will, and the tides are turning.

After my plea that climate justice is the only course of action, Mr. Alum bought me a drink and I slipped away from the bar to reflect on why it is we are still having these conversations. Next Homecoming, I look forward to talking with alumni about the best ways renewable energy is being brought to the mainstream in Canada.


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