As a pragmatic environmentalist who has been working to advance environmental causes for the last 30+ years I would like to take a moment to provide some advice to the youth of today on your 2019 Climate Strike.
First let me start with congratulations. You have taken the first step by starting a movement, hopefully one that will go on to do great things. But movements can easily get sidetracked. This is a particular concern in a movement like yours. You have deeply held and sincere beliefs, but little experience. You need to understand that knowing a problem needs to be solved is very different from knowing how the problem should be solved.
How energy is generated and used is not a topic you can learn quickly or easily. It has complexities that experts who have spent their lifetimes studying the topic still struggle with. One of my big concerns with the climate strike is that it is being driven by people who really aren’t aware of the complexity of the energy debate and instead talk about simple answers to complex problems. This is not a field that lends itself to simple answers.
As an example, I keep listening to the demands of the Climate Strikers and it is all about stopping all fossil fuel use now and blaming the previous generations for the conditions of the present. Well that approach ignores the realities of our era. I read that:
What Thunberg and her fellow protesters want from their governments is to “keep fossil fuels in the ground, phase out subsidies for dirty energy production, seriously invest in renewables and start asking difficult questions about how we structure our economies and who is set to win and who is set to lose,”
What I don’t hear from your speakers is a recognition that we currently have a transportation (and thus food supply) system that is utterly dependent on fossil fuels and will be for the next 20+ years. We simply don’t have widely available fossil fuel-free options for transport trucks, container ships, cube vans or airplanes. Were we to “keep fossil fuels in the ground” our food supplies would quickly dry up and people would starve. This means to fight climate change we need to figure out how to address non-transportation uses while we innovate in the transportation field.
Part of this fight means getting electricity from fossil fuel-free sources and getting off fossil fuels for household uses. The City of Vancouver model is a great start on that front moving away from using natural gas for residential uses and using less electricity in those residence. In addition, we need carbon taxes to provide funds to pay for the research that will fuel innovation. This will also get more people into electric vehicles.
As activists we need to understand that it is a bad idea to undercut governments that are actively trying to enhance our fossil fuel-free energy alternatives (like Site C and run- of-river) and not knee-capping sympathetic governments (like Rachel Notley’s government in Alberta) when they try to get incremental change implemented. While many complained that Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan didn’t get everything you wanted it did involve spending hundreds of millions getting Alberta off coal while investing in renewables. Those activists who fought the program are helping elect a government that will be massively antithetical to the cause. This will ensure Alberta ceases being a climate leader and instead has to be dragged into the fight.
I know you believe that you need to inhabit the moral high ground, but holding the moral high ground as the planet burns around you will get you nowhere. You need allies and fellow travelers to achieve your goals. This brings me to my most important piece of advice: don’t let outsiders with political motivations corrupt your movement. If you want it to grow and thrive it has to be non-partisan. You have to avoid being drawn into historic political battles because the only way we can get global change is to build a big tent. Excluding fellow travelers because they have different political views will ensure that your movement fails.
Historically, environmental movements have allied themselves with socially progressive groups. As someone who has studied environmental history I can assure you that this approach has failed every time it was tried. In the cases when the progressives finally won political power, with the aid of environmentalists, the environmental goals of the resulting government were mostly ignored while the progressives concentrated on their social goals. Your big tent movement has to include free-enterprise conservatives and political moderates to succeed.
You have to detach yourselves from the political activists who have latched onto your movement. Especially the watermelons who insist that the only way forward is to destroy the current system and start again. We don’t have the time, and the public does not have the appetite, to follow that road. Look at the environmental performance of every strictly socialist country to date. The results have been abject failures because as described in the “Tragedy of the Commons” when individuals don’t have a stake in the protection of a resource they don’t protect that resource. Look around the world, the countries that have done the best on the environment are ones that combine the best of all systems, like Canada and the Scandinavians.
Now I am going to say something you won’t want to hear. It is time to stop demanding impossible changes and to start looking at what is possible. If you insist on virtually impossible goals, like the purveyors of 100% wind, water and sunlight, then you are going to fail. You need to consider a pragmatic approach to energy which includes regionally appropriate renewables combined with low-carbon, high-density supporting power like nuclear.
The movement also has to eject the anti-scientific core of people who refuse to accept that real alternatives (like nuclear) are a necessary part of the solution. We also have to take a global look at emissions. Ask yourself: what can we do regionally to help reduce global emissions? If that means developing the BC LNG industry so we can reduce the amount of carbon emitted by China well that is something we should do because we live in a global environment and we can’t ignore what is happening in Asia and Africa.
Put another way. If you are in a sinking ship with a massive hole in the side you don’t wait until you can fully fix the hole before you start trying. You first try and stem the flow of water into your ship to give you more time for a permanent fix. BC LNG is a tool to reduce the amount of water flowing into the ship so we have more time to fix it permanently.
We live in a world where 1.1 billion people live in energy poverty and each year 4.3 million people a year die from preventable indoor air pollution directly resulting from that energy poverty. Their governments are going to prioritize the health of today’s people over those of tomorrow. It is easy for climate strikers and activists who will go to bed well-fed and warm in Canada and Europe to tell the world we should use less energy but the governments of China and India still have deep poverty and hardship to fight and will ignore your cries.
So we need to do what we can at home. We need to reduce our personal emissions, while working to reduce our community emissions and working to get policy change so we can develop the technologies that we can share around the globe to ultimately reduce global emissions. It is time to take the power of this movement and use it to implement real, incremental change because your current demand that we burn it all down and start again is surely doomed to fail because it leaves out the 5 billion who are just trying to survive. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what we do in Europe and North America if we can’t bring Asia and Africa along with us because there are over 5 billion Africans and Asians who will ultimately decide whether we have a chance to beat climate change.