“Climate emergency! Climate emergency!” chanted one of Toronto’s more tireless climate justice activists as security escorted her out of the bright public gallery of Ontario’s provincial legislature and into the city’s grey drizzle.

With the activist’s pleas diminishing safely into the distance, Progressive Conservative MPP Parm Gill resumed his statement, arguing (though cautious not to say it in so many words) that the government should squash the opposition’s May 13 motion to declare a climate emergency.

Why not give those facilities a role in, say, converting Canada’s postal service fleet to electric, part of a larger plan to make Canada Post a central player in creating a greener and fairer country?

Nobody — not those of us watching from the public galleries, not even Ian Arthur, the NDP member who, in tears, had spoken for it as movingly as anyone could — suffered any illusions about the motion’s prospects. The few members of the province’s majority PC government who had bothered to show up for the pre-vote debate session were all making statements just like Gill’s.

And so, when they triggered the speaker to call the vote, my section of the gallery rose. Some, holding the young children who will inherit a climate in advanced breakdown, cried “Shame!” Others sang in unison about how as the waters rise, so will the people.

As security corralled and removed us, a bell sounded through the building. This was how members of Ontario’s official government knew to return to chambers, where they would vote the motion down — after having skipped the debate over it — 68 to 39.

Health of our democracy

We absolutely need to recognize that we are in a climate emergency.

But in Doug Ford’s Ontario, I just watched in real time as a government refused to do that. And in Justin Trudeau’s Canada, doing so comes with a big caveat.

Declaring a climate emergency is supposed to send a signal that we’re dealing with something different and urgent, that the normal rules no longer apply. Except, when the federal government passes its climate emergency motion, it does so after teaming up with the Conservatives to crush, 227 to 42, a competing motion by NDP leader Jagmeet Singh on May 16, which called for an immediate end to fossil fuel subsidies, a cancellation of the Trans Mountain expansion project (intended to bring tar sands oil to the B.C. coast), and a commitment to much more ambitious emission reduction targets in line with avoiding greater than 1.5C of warming.

That the House call on the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change to declare an environment and climate emergency following the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and urge the government to bring forward a climate action strategy that: (a) prioritizes reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; (b) invests in a transition that leaves no workers or communities behind; (c) increases the ambition of its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets to avoid a more than 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in global warming, as recommended by the IPCC report; (d) includes robust rules for implementing the Paris Agreement; (e) prescribes transparency and accountability mechanisms to address climate change; (f) does not proceed with the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project; (g) immediately eliminates all federal fossil fuel subsidies, including through Export Development Canada funding; and (h) integrates human health into Canada’s climate commitments.

In contrast, the Liberals’ motion sounds an emergency and simultaneously ignores it. The motion comes with no indication that the government remains anything other than committed to approving the Trans Mountain pipeline (which it paid billions to keep afloat), or that it will address serious problems with the way it handles fossil fuel subsidies. The motion also reiterates a commitment to meeting is (highly insufficient) Paris Agreement targets and mentions making deeper emission reductions in line with keeping warming below 2C, but that’s just what the Liberals were supposed to have been doing, and have been failing to do, since they took office.

That the House recognize that: (a) climate change is a real and urgent crisis, driven by human activity, that impacts the environment, biodiversity, Canadians’ health, and the Canadian economy; (b) Canadians are feeling the impacts of climate change today, from flooding, wildfires, heat waves and other extreme weather events which are projected to intensify in the future; (c) climate change impacts communities across Canada, with coastal, northern and Indigenous communities particularly vulnerable to its effects; and (d) action to support clean growth and meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all parts of the economy are necessary to ensure a safer, healthier, cleaner and more prosperous future for our children and grandchildren; and, therefore, that the House declare that Canada is in a national climate emergency which requires, as a response, that Canada commit to meeting its national emissions target under the Paris Agreement and to making deeper reductions in line with the Agreement’s objective of holding global warming below two degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
And so declaring a climate emergency doesn’t look to have changed much at all. If anything, it’s like pulling a fire alarm while continuing to pour accelerants into the blaze.

Things get worse with Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, who might be leading this country come fall. “Can’t get upset about our climate policy if we don’t have one” now appears to be part of their election strategy. A Maclean’s headline called this Scheer’s “cold, hard climate change calculus,” though it’s a deeply craven stratagem. In a time when no easy solutions are left, the ploy is to reap the benefits of campaigning as though the most urgent environmental issue of today can be ignored while letting the competition soak up the flak that comes with charging into the difficult, divisive, but necessary political questions it raises.

What are we to think of the health of a democracy that produces governments who dedicate themselves to deepening an emergency they only half recognize if they recognize it at all?

Hope from below

The good news is that there is a vibrant democratic politics in Canada and elsewhere fighting from below for the kinds of climate solutions suited for an emergency.

Take, for instance, the following question: What should we do when a major corporation shutters yet another factory?

Nationalize the factory.

That’s the answer put forward by union leaders in the wake of General Motors’ decision to close its Oshawa plant. It’s a sensible idea: if GM can no longer find a use for the plant’s productive capacity and would rather dump the employees and let it rust away in idleness — all of which could otherwise be used in producing the badly needed infrastructure and vehicles of a post-carbon economy — why give the company any further say in what happens with it? Why not give those facilities a role in, say, converting Canada’s postal service fleet to electric, part of a larger plan to make Canada Post a central player in creating a greener and fairer country?

That movement’s name evokes a truth.

In fact, since we’re now facing a climate emergency, why not expand and use the public sector in every way we can? “Most public sector jobs are climate jobs,” wrote Dru Oja Jay in The Tyee. “When we build green infrastructure, clinics, schools, rail lines and long-term care facilities, we improve quality of life while shrinking our environmental footprint.”

For inspiration, we might look to the UK’s Labour Party. Spurred on by its base, it has added to its election platform plans to fit solar panels on nearly 2 million socially housed and low-income households and, more radically, to renationalize the country’s energy gridin order to speed up the transition to renewably sourced electricity.

Indeed, it is out of a sense that governments are failing to respond to the current emergency and that ideas from below are what will save us that the Green New Deal appeared and has quickly taken off. This month, a coalition of groups in Canada launched the Pact for a Green New Deal with town halls scheduled across the country over the next few weeks.

Climate rebellion

The problem, of course, is that we have inherited an old and unquickened political system. By design, liberal democracies sharply limit democratic participation, especially over economic decisions. The political potential of a populace — all of the ideas, plans, and programs people collectively conceive to take on our biggest problems — tends to get culled, compressed, and simplified to the narrow range managed by the mainstream parties. Anything outside of that atrophies and wastes away or is forced to be realized through alternative means.

In other words, getting states to adopt measures like those mentioned above is going to require hard, innovative, and resolute work. After all, it took a mass campaign of civil disobedience by the UK’s Extinction Rebellion movement just to convince a national government to declare the state of emergency that science has for too long been telling us we’re facing.

That movement’s name evokes a truth. If an electoral system fails to produce governing parties capable of adopting solutions to a crisis, then the democratic politics of survival must take other forms. As last week’s mass wave of school climate strikes and the global climate strike planned for September 20 remind us, people have no duty to stay quiet, passive, undisruptive, or obliging in the face of power systems unable to secure a future for them and the generations to come.

While Canada’s leading parties remain deeply committed to fossil fuel expansion, we will need to remember that in this election year and afterwards.