British Columbia currently faces a perfect storm of fossil fuel extraction and export projects colliding with the realities of a changing climate and rising inequality.
Recent years have also been a time that has seen the emergence of mass social movements that are re-defining societies and challenging some of the most entrenched powers on our planet. From the Arab Spring to Idle No More, we are witnessing the rebirth of people power. Here in B.C., whispers of change have grown into a steady hum of organizing and mobilization as communities have come together to stop the Northern Gateway pipeline, but now we are in need of growing this movement like never before. Here's why.
Right now, B.C. might be one of the most important stretches of coastline on the planet in terms of deciding the direction of Canada and the planet's energy future. In late July, Christy Clark announced that she would be working with Alberta Premier Allison Redford to streamline the process for opening up the coast for oil and gas exports. Two major tar sands pipelines are planned that would move bitumen from the source in Northern Alberta to the coast at Kitimat and Vancouver.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway project has faced its fair share of hurdles and roadblocks, and become a flashpoint for a new movement around energy in B.C. While it has been rejected by communities and people across B.C., as well as given a number of conditions from the provincial government, the company is continuing to try and press forwards most recently being granted permits by the B.C. government to begin cutting trees in the pipeline right of way.
With the Gateway being stalled, tar sands proponents may be looking to the Kinder Morgan Trans-Mountain project as their quicker route to the coast. This 890,000 barrel per day "twinning" of an existing pipeline would bring bitumen through the interior to the Burrard Inlet, and with it hundreds of additional tankers through Vancouver each year.
As a bonus, plans were recently announced plans to build a 40,000 barrel per day oil by rail facility in Edmonton that could move bitumen west. Together these plans would transform the Pacific Northwest into one of the largest oil export regions on the planet.
Historically, B.C. has been lauded in Canada and around the globe as a leader on climate change. It was one of the first provinces to adopt a price on carbon, to establish and legally mandate climate targets. Cities in B.C. have taken similar leading stances, developing plans for their own climate actions like Vancouver's Greenest City plan. But all of this progress would be undone by the approval of the Kinder Morgan and Northern Gateway projects. These two pipelines would be the same as adding 25 million cars to B.C. roads, and would make B.C. emissions triple the government's own 2020 targets.
Currently, there are 10 proposals to create Liquified Natural Gas terminals along the Pacific Coast. These facilities would be served by another retinue of pipelines, like the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline being fought by the Unis'tot'en clan, and be part of an unlocking of shale gas reserves that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers claims could provide 22% of North American Natural Gas production by 2020.
Fracking poses a range of threatsU to land and water, the result of pumping litres of chemical slurry deep into the ground. But on top of this it could also be the biggest emerging threat to the climate in B.C. Studies on the methane content of shale gas have suggested that over the long term it could have a more devastating climate impact than coal. Add to this the fact that B.C. shale gas holds more carbon than conventional natural gas, up to 12 per cent. Much like tar sands pipelines, fracking would undermine progress towards real climate action in B.C.
In 2003 a fire in the Okanagan stormed over 250 square kilometers. One of the largest fires in recent history, it drove 27,000 people to be evacuated and destroyed dozens of homes. With climate change worsening, fires like this could become more regular and more destructive.
Over the past decade, B.C. has experienced an average of 2000 wildfires each summer, a number that is set to spike as a result of rising temperatures. According to a 2012 study by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, B.C. wildfire rates could increase upwards of 50 per cent in the coming decades.
British Columbia has budgeted $60 million for fire suppression through 2014, but some estimates put the real costs closer to $140 million and higher. This on top of the strain caused by mass evacuations, the destruction of homes and loss of lives and livelihoods.
Wildfire by other means - Mountain Pine Beetle
Over the past decade, forests across B.C. have turned from lush green to the oranges, reds and yellows of flame without the assistance of wildfire due to the spread of the Mountain Pine Beetle. This has already destroyed a swath of forest the size of five Vancouver Islands and is expected to kill up to 80 per cent of B.C.'s mature pine forest.
In addition to loading the dice on B.C. forests for fires, these tiny beetles have devastated communities. A 2012 confidential government report stated that the pine beetle could bring "economic and social" havoc to small B.C. communities. The same report warns that the impact on the timber industry could lead to nearly 50 per cent losses in jobs in the province, primarily in small communities. In 2010 it was estimated that these losses would put roughly 11,000 people out of work.
Youth Unemployment & Debt
British Columbia currently has the highest unemployment rate in the western provinces, with youth aged 15-24 having a rate nearly double that of the provincial average. Reflective of a national trend, young people are facing increasing barriers to finding meaningful employment while student debt climbs. The average student in B.C. will graduate with $35,000 in debt, one of the highest levels in the country, and a full $8000 above the national average.
While this is happening, B.C. is missing out on thousands of new, clean and sustainable jobs in the renewable energy, transportation, green building and other sectors. According to a study by Blue Green Canada, job creation from renewable energy creation outpaces fossil fuels by a rate of 15 to 2 per million dollars invested.
Naomi Klein, a speaker at PowerShift 2012, recently explained the need to connect economic justice with climate change at the founding convention of Unifor, the new union formed through the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and Communications Energy and Paperworkers unions. She told the crowd that "if [unions] don't become the voice for a boldly different economic model, one that provides solutions both to the attacks on working people and the attacks on the earth itself, then you can stop worrying about your continued relevance".
Idle No More/Indigenous Rights
This past year saw the rise of a new movement across Canada that has reverberated around the globe. Idle No More, the Indigenous-led movement challenging Canada's rampant "extractavist" plans, colonial history and disregard for Indigenous rights spread like wildfire and is leading a new wave of organizing to defend the planet.
At the same time, the B.C. and Canadian governments have continued to push forward legislative changes and new fossil fuel projects in absence of meaningful consultation or respect for communities right to say no.
A PowerShift in B.C. doesn't simply mean stopping the carbon corridor, but working together with allies to understand the connection between climate justice and Indigenous rights and collaborating towards building a just and sustainable future.
Imagine Stanley Park existing as an island completely detached from the city of Vancouver. The Downtown Eastside and Gastown completely erased and False Creek extending all the way to Clark Dr. (http://www.straight.com/news/how-global-warming-might-transform-vancouvers-shoreline). With a projected cost for cities like Vancouver of $1 trillion, rising sea levels could have devastating impacts on British Columbia, especially in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. According to a report released by the B.C. Ministry of the Environment in April "the Lower Mainland...is very vulnerable to sea level rise because of a 127 kilometer system of dikes, which were not built with sea-level level rise factored into the design."
Extreme weather, changing precipitation patterns and rising seas in B.C.'s low-lying agricultural zones are posing a real threat to food production and food security in B.C. According to a report from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions released in May, farming in B.C., farmers all across B.C. are facing stress scenarios as a result of climate change.Food security in B.C. is already a major issue and concern, with the majority of produce consumed in the province being brought from California, an issue that means climate change left unchecked could result in a crisis for B.C.
As I write this members of the Tahltan nation are engaged in a standoff with Fortune Minerals, preventing them from building the Arctos Anthracite Project coal mine. The mine threatens the Sacred Headwaters of the the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers, and is part of a major push to build at least 12 new coal mines in B.C.
While most of the coal extracted in B.C. is used for steel production, B.C. is also being targeted for a major expansion of coal exports. This coal, most of it from Wyoming and Montana, is some of the most carbon intensive energy on the planet posing a massive climate threat and threatening communities with the health impacts of coal dust. The fight to get off coal in B.C., and prevent the coast from becoming an export lane offers a unique opportunity to bring together Indigenous communities, labour and environmental groups to work to forge a new plan to create prosperity that doesn't sacrifice communities.
Last October, the eastern seaboard of the United States was rocked by Hurricane Sandy, and this summer the same extreme weather hit Canada when Southern Alberta and Toronto were wracked by massive flooding.
The flooding destroyed homes, cost lives and devastated communities like the Siksika and Morely First Nations. In Calgary, the price tag of the flood recently passed $500 million being topped by Toronto at $850 million, now considered the province's most costly natural disaster. As climate change worsens, extreme weather and disasters like these are set to worsen and expand, threatening not only B.C. communities but people across Canada and around the globe.
In the British Columbia government's strategic plan to deal with sea level rise, they mention the need for a policy of "strategic retreat". In planning terms, this means slowly rebuilding coastal communities to prepare for the loss of coastlines as the seas begin to rise. Looking at provincial politics it seems more like the government has started a strategic retreat from taking on climate change, and instead become the proponent of transforming B.C. into a carbon corridor.
Right now we need a movement that is bigger, bolder and more powerful than ever before. We need not only to be informed, but to start taking action where we live, work and study. This is the time to kick off the next phase of the climate justice movement in B.C., a movement to divest our public institutions from dirty energy, and responds to the Kinder Morgan threat not only by matching our outrage over the Northern Gateway, but by doubling down on the rejection of tar sands from the coast and the climate. We need a movement that brings together the still rising wave of Indigenous mobilization with a humble and supportive climate movement that recognizes the leadership already coming from the frontlines. We need to be a movement that can rise to the threat of fracking, gas and coal exports shoulder to shoulder with workers to write a new chapter in the just transition to a new clean energy economy.
In the words of Naomi Klein, we need to be a movement that can "rise faster than the seas."
Follow Cameron Fenton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CamFenton