Canada’s climate change crossroads

Hope in the summer of fire

by Bruce Mason

• What are we to make of the sickening smoke that still lingers over much of Canada? And the toxic soup of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxides, suspended ash, water vapour and other particulate matter visible as far south as Tennessee? And the sheer size, intensity and enormity of its cause: the much too-early, too-scary, fire season captured ghost-like on NASA photographs across vast areas of North America and all over the world? It is a teachable moment, a feedback loop, a death spiral of carbon sequesterers becoming carbon emitters contributing to the melting of ice in the Arctic and Greenland.

Terry Fox comes to my mind. Especially after Jonathan Franzen – one of the world’s best writers and most articulate activists – recently argued in New Yorker magazine, “Earth now resembles a patient whose terminal cancer we can choose to treat either with disfiguring aggression or with palliation and sympathy.”

Back in 1980 – when the world started ignoring the early signs and warnings of cancerous climate change – this one-legged kid appeared in the green room of the TV station where I worked. He said he was going to run across the country to raise awareness and collect $1 from each of his 24 million fellow Canadians to fight the disease. We got daily updates from his Marathon of Hope noting the cysts on his stump, shin splints, bone bruises, an inflamed knee, dizzy spells and concern about his enlarged heart that beat through gale force winds, heavy rain, snowstorms and blistering heat, 26 miles (42 km) every day. Oh, and the crowds, of course, growing in size along the long, long Trans-Canada highway.

“Everybody seems to have given up hope of trying. I haven’t. It isn’t easy and it isn’t supposed to be, but I’m accomplishing something,” he told us from the steps of our federal government.

Terry Fox had beaten the 50/50 odds of surviving the osteosarcoma that took one of his legs. A few years earlier, his chances would have been 15%. He also endured 16 months of chemo, watching fellow cancer patients suffer and die. Terry Fox wrote, “There were faces with the brave smiles and the ones who had given up smiling. There were feelings of hopeful denial and the feelings of despair.” Sound familiar? Depression and post-traumatic stress are rampant among climate scientists, environmentalists and laymen alike.

The loneliness of his venture, his audacious vision and his determination to overcome challenges united this nation; his memory still inspires pride and embodies the cherished Canadian values of compassion, commitment and perseverance.

The osteosarcoma cure rate is now almost 80% due, in some measure, to the $650 million raised since Terry Fox started his Marathon of Hope. He was no saint, although he – like those acting on climate change – had a Pope praying for his health and his mission. And he frequently vented his frustration at media and those impeding the “run,” while placing his achievements – which are celebrated worldwide and sustainable across time – within everyone’s reach.

Where is Canada now? What have we become? Having poisoned or squandered the primary elements of life – earth, air and water – our feet are being held to the fourth, fire. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has categorized us as “free riders… laggards on climate change… withdrawn from the community of nations seeking to tackle dangerous climate change.

“By hedging their bets and waiting for others to move first, some governments are playing poker with the planet and future generations’ lives,” he said recently, pointing out that we have fallen behind impoverished Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda in the effort to combat global warming. “This is not a moment for prevarication, short-term self-interest and constrained ambition, but for bold global leadership and decisive action,” he added.

Twenty-seven years ago, Bill McKibben wrote the first book for a general audience about global warming: The End of Nature. He now says, “People in the world are used to thinking of Canada as a force for good in the world. It takes a strange new calibration of peoples’ mental geography to understand for the moment Canada is an obstructive and dangerous force upon the planet.”

McKibben was also a founder of 350.org, the first global grassroots climate change movement. Its name is derived from the upper limit for safe levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — 350 parts per million. We blew past that in 2007 and now sit precariously at over 400. He spearheaded the Keystone pipeline resistance, brought hundreds of thousands together in a climate march in New York in 2014 and launched the fastest growing fossil fuel divestment movement.

“From a distance, watching the trashing of environmental regulations, watching the efforts to intimidate environmental groups, First Nations – watching all that’s been pretty sad,” he told 10,000 people at a rally in Toronto, all but ignored by corporate media.

What are we afraid of? The Pew Research Center asked that question in 40 countries. In Canada, 58% said they were “most concerned” by ISIS – far ahead of climate change, which tops lists globally. Little wonder we’re deluded. Our Prime Minister Stephen Harper met with US VP Joe Biden to “discuss global security issues and ongoing instability in the global economy, including the threat posed by ISIS.” At a FIFA soccer game in Vancouver, under an orange haze rivalling Beijing and prompting air quality alerts, Harper, apparently, couldn’t see past his nose or the sniffer dogs or open his mouth, which must have been full of it.

He arrived from the Stampede on his home turf, now economically scorched by his oil-soaked obsession and nightmarish dreams of becoming a fossil fuel superpower in a post-carbon age; not far from his cherished tar sands (“oil sands”), the single, greatest ecological threat to the planet. He flew over forests denuded by pine beetles, an area now the size of Sweden, still thriving thanks to climate change. He peered out a window at mountains bereft of life-sustaining snow packs – sources of water – quickly becoming more valuable than the fossil fuel which must now be left in the soil, if Earth as we know it is to survive.

Is climate change contributing to wildfires? “I think it’s possible,” Harper said, answering the one question he allowed during a photo op in Kelowna alongside his extreme-energy sidekick Christy Clark; in its “summer of fire” in 2003, a wildfire in Okanagan Mountain Park necessitated one of the largest evacuations in Canadian history.

“It’s possible” – the only response from folks who haven’t a clue about real possibilities and who, on a policy level, are tossing butts around in a drought. “Insanity” is what Vancouver Sun’s Pete McMartin calls Clark’s policy, in the corporate media, which is starting to read the smoke signals and calling out so-called “sceptics” as “deniers.”

What is causing the spike in wildfires? “In a short answer, climate change,” says Toddi Steelman, director of the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, a province at the epicentre of the new now. The scientists – and the foresters – agree. If anything, they have underestimated the impacts. Our only option is action; delay will inevitably lead to exponentially higher costs, more smoke and unimagined suffering.

This is more than a wake-up call. We slept through that. A smoke alarm is sounding; our home is on fire. Where are Stephen and Christy? Who knows? Leave them behind, with their pipe dreams and tainted money stuffed in their oily, gassy mattresses. Find the route out of the fire, even if you’re turned off and ‘not good’ at science. Use your common sense and an awakened vision. If you learned something in the “teachable moment,” look inside for the guts and vision of a Terry Fox, for your own Marathon of Hope. Take back the country and the world, which are still ours if we want them enough.

Get rid of the smokescreens, the smoke and the mirrors.

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