From the mountain to the sea: A year in climate change

A look at some of the major climate stories of the past year to prepare us for 2019
Alberta`s NDP government celebrates the announcement that Canada will purchase the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Photo by Premier of Alberta.
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We are now three years on from the signing of the Paris Agreement, the last major international climate agreement, and the one that was supposed to right a ship that is desperately off course.

As 2018 likely sets a new record for global greenhouse gas emissions and becomes the year when the world’s oil demand exceeded 100 million barrels per day, it seems less probable than ever that the world will meet the Paris Agreement goals of keeping temperature rise to either 1.5C or well below 2C.

As we approach the end of the year, let’s look back on some of the major climate stories of 2018 in hopes of being ready for 2019.

1. Trans Mountain: A parable for how to not address climate change

It was supposed to be a simple balancing act.

Under its 2016 climate action framework, the Liberal government would make each province set a minimum and rising price on carbon emissions; in exchange, it would approve two new tar sands pipelines, the Trans Mountain Expansion (running from Alberta to B.C.) and Line 3 (running from Alberta to Wisconsin). If neither environmentalists nor the fossil fuel industry got everything they wanted, each side would at least be given something, and the Liberals could proclaim themselves the party of responsible resource development. Alberta, the country’s oil heartland, even signed on under its NDP government, a sign of how finely the balance had apparently been struck.

In 2018 came the unbalancing, thanks to Trans Mountain.

The pipeline’s downsides were always too clear. It would expose First Nations communities along its route to spills. The increased tanker traffic would create a host of environmental risks along the B.C. coast. And all of it to promote increased fossil fuel extraction in the last years left to prevent climate breakdown. It was like the Liberals couldn’t fit the severity of the climate crisis with their ideology.

By February, Trans Mountain opponents were shouting down Justin Trudeau during his town hall meetings in B.C. By March, a second battle of Burnaby Mountain (the first was back in 2014) was in full swing as Indigenous groups fighting for land rights led a coalition also comprised of climate activists and environmentalists concerned about increased oil tanker traffic might on the west coast. Hundreds were arrested.

But like racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, tax phobia is one of those latent forces in the body politic that aspiring rulers stir up at our collective peril.

The campaigns served to remind B.C. Premier John Horgan that his political fortunes relied on remaining opposed to the pipeline, even when it led to his Alberta counterpart and fellow NDP member Rachel Notley threatening a provincial trade war.

In the ensuing deadlock, Texas-based Kinder Morgan, Trans Mountain’s owner, issued an ultimatum to the Liberal government: clear the way for the pipeline or it was walking away. This was how, right when the world needed massive and rapid investment in clean energy infrastructure, the Trudeau government came to buy out Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion.

However, the government had failed to properly consult with Indigenous communities about Trans Mountain, according to a Federal Court of Appeal ruling in August. The project now sits in limbo, with the Trudeau government scrambling to revive it through new consultation efforts, and Alberta having abandoned the climate framework altogether.

And so we go into the new year with a federal government wasting political capital to resurrect a hated pipeline that will undermine global efforts to address climate change in order to make a too-weak-anyways national climate plan more palatable.

2. ‘Après nous, le déluge’: Canada’s reactionary party resists a habitable climate

It will be interesting to see whether future historians hold up the December 2018 issue of Maclean’s magazine as an example of how media were complicit in wrecking their world.

On that cover are five conservative leaders united in reactionary solidarity by their open unwillingness to see Canada take even marginal steps to contribute to the preservation of a habitable climate. “A carbon tax?” the article’s emetic title reads. “Just try them.”

The frightening possibility (and one the Maclean’s editors seem perfectly comfortable advancing) is that opposition to carbon pricing will actually work. But like racism, nationalism, and xenophobia, tax phobia is one of those latent forces in the body politic that aspiring rulers stir up at our collective peril. In this case, it would entrench in power a new wave of politicians who have no intention of doing anything realistic about the defining challenge of their time in office.

Between the contemporary Liberals and Conservatives, as 2018 showed us, Canada has no pathway to addressing climate change.

3. Breakdown: ‘The Earth we have turned against us’


That’s how few years of current emissions it will take to finish off any remaining chance of preventing global temperatures from rising more than 1.5C, according to a special report this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In a rational world, that would have been enough to spur every ruling politician to announce their plan to rapidly phase out fossil fuels. In this world, it didn’t have any discernible political impact at all.

The report shortly followed one of the rare climate studies to make headlines. The “Hothouse Earth” study conducted by several leading earth scientists served as an important reminder that our planetary system may not be one we can fine-tune or customize to some politically convenient temperature. There are self-reinforcing feedbacks that might be triggered even under the Paris Agreement goal of keeping a temperature increase within 2C — feedbacks that take over and usher our world into a new, less habitable, and stubbornly steady state.

By the end of the year, the climate politics of the streets also took a more unexpected form.

In Defiant Earth, his important book on the arrival of the Anthropocene, Clive Hamilton observed, ominously, that “the world we will have to live with is the Earth we have turned against us.” One of the more unsettling aspects of living with an Earth turning against us is how it’s getting hard to keep all the recurring disasters and extremes straight. B.C. went through its worst-ever recorded fire season. California went up in smoke. Countries all over the world set alarming new temperature records. Strangely powerful hurricanes terrorized the Atlantic. But didn’t that just happen last year, too?

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard it predicted (hoped?) that as the effects of climate change grow more severe, people will wake up and demand action. But what if something else goes on at the same time? What if the assaults are so constant and regular and normalized that they become almost numbing and increasingly indistinguishable? Whatever the case, the psychology of climate change is getting more complex. This year even opened a discussion on “climate anxiety”.

As I wrote in the summer, there is something potentially massive at stake here. The universal rights and duties we believe we owe each other might have been the result of having a world benefiting from the stability and abundance of a holocene climate. As that climate begins to break down, will humanist projects be far behind?

4. Fighting back with fire: From the courts to the streets

Among famed lawyer David Buckel’s last words were these: “Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard.”

Likewise, here is a hope that Buckel, who self-immolated in the spring of this year, will be the last person to feel the need to douse his body with gasoline and light himself on fire to get the world to act on climate change.

As grim as some of the climate news has been in 2018, people haven’t taken it sitting down. I’ve already mentioned the campaign against Trans Mountain. By year’s end, the Unist’ot’en camp was blockading the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline in B.C. And following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report, climate activists in the UK launched the Extinction Rebellion, a renewed campaign intended to wage more direct and sustained forms of civil disobedience than seen there in the past; in April 2019 it hopes to see a week-long action of civil disobedience across the world.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel divestment reached a new milestone — a thousand institutions committed to divestment — and saw two massive wins, as both New York City and Ireland announced plans to divest from fossil fuels within five years. And 2018 continued a trend of plaintiffs bringing new climate cases to court, even if the judiciary doesn’t yet recognize the special urgency of climate change.

By the end of the year, the climate politics of the streets also took a more unexpected form. In France, the mass actions of the gilets jaunes originated as a protest against the country’s new tax on carbon fuel. But the larger lesson (apparently lost on the Canadian far right, who appropriated the yellow jackets into their iconography) was that carbon taxes alone, especially in a context of neoliberal austerity and tax cuts for the rich, will never be an answer to climate change. If there is some hope for the future, some way to avoid what has happened in France, it might be in the renewed discussion about a Green New Deal happening in the United States thanks to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

A similar discussion is desperately needed here in Canada, though that starts with speaking currently unutterable political truths. Truths like how the time of fossil fuels is done. Or how political parties who cannot admit that truth are unfit to govern. Or how more just and democratic politics are now a matter of survival.

Let’s make 2019 the year truths like those go mainstream.

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