By Tara Olivetree (Ehrcke) (they/them), Environmental Justice Action Group, Committee for Action on Social Justice
In 2021, climate change became very real for many of us. From fires to floods, we were affected on an unprecedented scale. Teachers experienced the personal loss of homes and belongings, the anxiety and stress of evacuation or living under evacuation alert, the tragedy of communities literally burnt to the ground or under water, and the personal and professional toll associated with emergency measures.
As this year of climate disasters and political failures demonstrates, without significant action, we are set to see an increase in climate catastrophes. Already the pandemic has put enormous stresses on the public education system and the students we teach. The climate crisis is now layering onto it and is set to supersede the pandemic in terms of the disruption to our work and lives.
As years of broken promises and failed climate action demonstrate, we simply cannot rely on our leaders to “do the right thing” and correct course. It is, rather, long past time that we start to leverage our power as workers to force change.
COP26: A tragic performance
After a one-year delay because of the pandemic, world leaders convened in the fall of 2021 to address the ongoing failure of governments to meet the challenge of the climate emergency. Billed by some as our “last best chance,” the conference fell far short of what is needed.
It was the whitest and wealthiest UN climate conference to date. And the final agreement did little to close the growing gap between what countries need to do and what their current commitments are.
The latest scientific consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that we are on track to reach 1.5¡ÆC of warming by or before 2030. Meanwhile, governments around the world continue to delay, by setting far-off targets with little immediate action.
CleanBC: Too little, too late
Also in the fall, the provincial government updated its CleanBC plan. This provincial government climate action plan has been in place for three years and replaced climate legislation introduced by the BC Liberals in 2007. Despite a goal to reduce emissions from the 2007 baseline, emissions have instead increased.1
We shouldn’t be surprised, although it is frightening that the projected risks are happening so fast. In 2019, the BC government produced a report estimating our climate risks by the year 2050. They found “…the greatest risks to BC are severe wildfire season, seasonal water shortage, heat wave, ocean acidification, glacier loss, and long-term water shortage. Other risks that have the potential to result in significant consequences include severe river flooding and severe coastal storm surge.”2 The “greatest risk” groups will happen with a “high likelihood,” meaning “almost certain” or “likely,” with the others having a likelihood of “possible” or “unlikely.” Interestingly, severe river flooding is in the “unlikely” category, but has happened 29 years early, in 2021, along with the more “likely” heat wave and severe wildfire season.
Tragically, the current plans in CleanBC will do very little to prevent this projected reality. The targets are far too distant, they rely primarily on incentives rather than regulations, they do nothing to address our ongoing destruction of old growth forests, and they continue the subsidization of our rapidly expanding natural gas industry. Just one project, LNG Canada, will add between four and six million additional tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions when operational in 2025.3 And this is only Phase One of the project.
It is not that hard to figure out what needs to be done: Immediately stop subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Nationalize and phase out all fossil fuel production. Invest heavily in a public renewable energy system. Ban the production and purchase of products reliant on fossil fuels—gas appliances, heating systems, and cars. Massively expand public transit. Stop logging old growth. Retrofit all buildings. Decarbonize industry. Yet there is almost none of this in the CleanBC plan.
Indigenous land defenders and forest protectors: A bright light
In the midst of government inaction, some folks on the ground are simply taking matters into their own hands. They represent a growing climate justice movement that simply will not accept a future of climate catastrophe.
A bright light in the 2021 landscape was the renewal of Indigenous land back movements—critical to a just transition that both respects Indigenous land title as well as acknowledges that Indigenous communities have historically been the best stewards of the planet’s ecosystems.
In 2021, the Wet’suwet’en people continued to courageously defend their traditional territories in an effort to prevent the construction of Coastal GasLink’s (CGL) natural gas pipeline. Facing repeated arrests and intense police violence, they nevertheless continued to build blockades and do everything in their power to stave off CGL. In the height of irony, the RCMP chose to launch an all-out assault on the Wet’suwet’en people in the very days when they should have been putting all resources into emergency operations due to the floods and landslides. They arrested over a dozen land defenders during the raid. Despite the police repression, the Wet’suwet’en people continue their land defense and they, along with allies, are showing unprecedented resistance to the construction of this natural gas pipeline.
Similarly, last summer Fairy Creek saw the largest mass direct action to protect old growth forests since the protests at Clayoquot Sound, with over 1,000 arrests. Youth and elders, Indigenous and settler, these forest protectors braved the onslaught of an aggressive RCMP presence seeking to enforce an injunction and placed themselves directly on the trees they hoped to protect.
Old growth trees are a critical piece of our low-carbon future. They represent one of the most significant carbon sinks and are incomparably more valuable than newly planted trees for this purpose.
The task ahead
The BCTF has signed on to the principles of the Just Recovery and a Green New Deal. We understand the need for an immediate, sustainable, and socially just transformation to renewable energy and a sustainable economy. What we haven’t yet committed to is leveraging the power needed to make it a reality.
Yet as workers, we are an indispensable part of the climate justice movement. As 2021 has shown us, the climate crisis is here. The question we need to ask ourselves is, in the face of government inaction, what are we going to do about it?
We can look to some fantastic examples from workers around the world. UNISON, the union representing public sector workers in the UK, recently published a program for decarbonization of the public sector. It includes detailed analysis of what is needed for a just, carbon-free school and health care system. It is a tool to start the political work of forcing the UK government to make the investment necessary to do this work.
In New York State4 and Texas,5 groups of trade unions have pooled their resources to develop comprehensive just transition plans. Critically, they have also pooled their bargaining and political power, understanding that plans are all well and good, but don’t mean anything if no one is actually going to implement them. These are models for the kind of action we need to be taking here in BC.