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The Leap Manifesto’s call for decisive climate change action received as much attention as Tom Mulcair’s defeat at the NDP convention in Edmonton. The statement “[t]here is no longer an excuse for building new infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future” — often condensed to “no new pipelines” — threatens to divide the left.

Does this mean that the left is united in tackling Indigenous rights, economic inequality, trade deals, high-speed rail, ecologically based agriculture, and all the other issues addressed in the Leap Manifesto? 

Probably not. Hopefully they won’t be ignored.

But clearly a major reason for Stephen Harper’s resounding defeat in the last federal election was his singular focus on non-renewable resource extraction as the basis for the Canadian economy.

So why is talk of not building pipelines and leaving fossil fuels in the ground now so divisive?

It’s not as if the science of climate change isn’t crystal clear. The only uncertainty is: “How bad it will be?” and “How fast it will happen?” On these questions, the news keeps getting worse. A study recently published in Nature reports that the continued production of greenhouse gas emissions could trigger Antarctic collapse. As the oceans warm up, the Antarctic ice sheet will erode from beneath as well as at the surface. Ice shelves will collapse under their own weight. Sea level will rise by tens of metres, completely reshaping continents — unless greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, as pledged in Paris.

The modest global diplomatic success at the Paris climate talks merely kicked the ball back to national governments. We’ve made our commitment; now let’s honour it.

This means change. Alberta’s energy sector, Ontario’s auto manufacturing sector, and poorly designed housing developments and associated transportation infrastructure being built around the country are all part of the problem. On the bright side, the large dependence of Canada’s economy on these environmentally harmful sectors brings opportunities for rapid, transformative change and creation of green jobs. That’s part of the Leap Manifesto message as well.

There is plenty of innovation at the grassroots level. Individuals build carbon-neutral houses, grow organic vegetables, change their diets, and restore habitat for bees and other pollinators. Municipal officials install bike lanes, build public transit systems, and incorporate green infrastructure components of the landscape (wetlands, vegetated filter strips, urban forests, etc.) into their planning activities.

Bottom-up solutions are essential, but the pace of change is agonizingly slow. National political leaders must stand up to corporate lobbyists and the financial elite and put appropriate economic incentives in place. We absolutely do need a national (or better still, global) carbon price.  

And much more needs to be done. Our current extraction-based economy that turns resources into waste must be redesigned as a “circular economy” in which renewable resources (such as organic food wastes) are returned to the biosphere, and non-renewable mineral resources are cycled in closed industrial loops. Our relentless pursuit of perpetual economic growth must be replaced with a steady-state economic model.

The Leap Manifesto doesn’t go into detail on all these matters. But it does a good job of linking our current environmental crises to the excesses of the free-market political and financial elites — excesses that are becoming too evident for even the most apathetic among us to ignore. 

Sleep is not an option. Nor is political bickering over pipelines. If the left fragments on the pipeline issue, attention-grabbing right-wing populists will be glad to stoke public anger and seize the reins of power.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

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Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson

Ole Hendrickson is an ecologist, a former federal research scientist, and chair of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation's national conservation committee.