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Inequality and climate injustice: A Durban post-mortem

| December 14, 2011

The United Nations climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, ended 2011 with a whimper. After a year in which climate disasters rolled across the globe, major polluting nations like Canada chose to ignore them, seeking instead to disrupt the Durban negotiations, then blew the world a raspberry, by officially pulling out of the Kyoto Accord.

I've been trying to make sense of Canada's utter intransigence on climate. After all, our prime minister has children, too, so what could possibly be going through his head when the science is so clear about our need to act. Perhaps Stephen Harper and the Conservative party are simply climate deniers, who frown on any evidence, no matter what the scientific consensus, that contradicts their worldview of small government and unbridled capitalism. One can also point to the 2011 crime bill as another case-in-point of ideology trumping evidence.

Another factor is that the politics of opposing climate action is just too compelling for a conservative to resist: the oil and gas industry is a fundamental part of Harper's base, and therefore a key source of political power; plus it is easy to demonize people who want to challenge the status quo in tough economic times, no matter how unsustainable the present course may be.

It is not just about the tar sands of Alberta, either. In B.C., the provincial government is narrowly focused on new coalmines and shale gas fracking as the centrepiece of a provincial economic strategy. Since coming to power earlier this year, Premier Christy Clark, also a mother, has shown little interest in pursuing further climate action, leaving B.C. set to follow in the unfortunate Canadian tradition of reneging on climate commitments. B.C. cannot meet its legislated targets for GHG reductions by 2020 while pursuing a fossil fuel export strategy.

Coming back to the kids, I think Harper and Clark know very well that climate change is upon us. Reports from the federal government itself, via Environment Canada, pin the blame for freak weather on climate change. The mountain pine beetle infestation has devastated B.C.'s interior forests, and extreme weather incidents have been widespread. We know climate impacts will continue to get worse, leaving a terrible legacy for our children.

But rather than act, perhaps the Conservatives are making a leap of faith that wealth and technology will spare Canada from the ravages of extreme weather and altered climate patterns. Or at more personal level, wealth and technology will enable their children to maintain a high standard of living.

This is, of course, nonsense. It is like being unconcerned about a plane crash because you are sitting at the back of the plane. And this callous disregard guarantees a massive injustice perpetrated across generations. Failure to act is already condemning millions of people around the world to suffering and death.

But we are rich, so why should we care? Such is the fundamental injustice of climate change: those who have done the most to cause the problem -- rich people in rich countries -- are not the ones to pay the price. Executives in the oil industry who have gotten rich by externalizing their costs of production are thus in terrific position to seek shelter in fortified compounds, while the poor and innocent, who have not benefited from fossil fuels, who must live with the consequences.

Climate change embodies injustice: the rich screwing the poor; the old dumping on the young; humans robbing other species. To make it right we need climate justice, and our work at the CCPA has been to develop a vision of what a post-carbon society could look like, and how we get there. But we have to collectively choose that future.

Two other big stories of 2011 may show a glimmer of hope that we have hit bottom, and change is coming. The Occupy movement came out of nowhere to oppose the inequality of savage capitalism. And Big Oil's push for pipelines to get tar sands crude to market has run into massive opposition in the U.S., led by red meat states like Nebraska, and in B.C., led by a unified wall of First Nations.

We will need new governments, federally and provincially, to spearhead the collective action required for a climate just world, and that will address our ecological deficits with the zeal we have for budget deficits. The wall of denial will come tumbling down in short order, and our Climate Justice Project is preparing us for a rapid transition that is smooth and fair. In the meantime, as our governments have been occupied by fossil fuel industries, take heart in the fact that people can still say no, leaving the carbon bombs held by Alberta and B.C. trapped underground.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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