November was a watershed month in the war on climate change. Canadian environmentalist legend David Suzuki spent the month crossing the country on his Blue Dot tour, named after the iconic 1990 photo of earth taken by the Voyager spacecraft from 4 billion miles away.
The ultimate goal of the tour: to have the right to a healthy environment recognized in the Constitution. It wound up in Vancouver on November 9th with a lineup of such Canadian celebrities as Neil Young, the Barenaked Ladies and Margaret Atwood. Suzuki visited 24 communities along the way, sharing the message that Canadians have the right to live in a healthy environment. Declarations to that effect have been passed in Richmond and Vancouver, B.C., The Pas, Manitoba, the city of Montreal and the Montreal borough of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie.
I was honoured to be invited to speak in Victoria on November 7, along with several talented entertainers and speakers. After my talk I stayed backstage to watch and listen to a tall, young First Nations man in a tie and dress pants with a shaven head and warrior's topknot. Caleb Behn talked simply but powerfully about his heritage. Behn, a graduate of the University of Victoria law school, is the grandson of a long line of chiefs and the son of a residential school survivor. He spoke about his sacred ties to his people's land, the Eh Cho Dene territory around Fort Nelson in the northeastern corner of B.C. The area has been savaged by the most aggressive fracking in the country. Behn shared a Dene Waterheart legend about a medicine man fishing on the Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, the eighth largest freshwater lake in the world. After a trout steals the medicine man's hook he takes on the spirit of a loche, the largest fish of the lake, and dives deep into the lake to retrieve his hook. At the bottom, he finds a heart that gives life to the physical world of trees, fish, water and human beings. Behn said the waterheart was a metaphor for the environment at large.
On a far larger scale, more than 400,000 people turned out for the People's Climate March in New York City on September 21. Similar marches were held all over the world. Celebrities like actor Leonardo DiCaprio joined ordinary citizens from around the world, environmentalists like Bill McKibben, Jane Goodall and Vandana Shiva to world leaders like U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former Vice President Al Gore. The rally happened three days before 120 world leaders, including President Barack Obama, met at the UN to discuss ways to tackle the growing threat of carbon pollution.
The session was opened by 26-year old Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner a remarkable spoken word poet from the tiny Marshall Islands, ranked by the UN as the most endangered from climate change. Jetnil-Kijiner performed a poem written for her 7-month old daughter that brought many delegates to tears. In "Dear Matafele Peinem," she promises to protect her daughter from the threat of climate change, which she says world leaders are ignoring. Her powerful words attacked psychopathic corporations; "no greedy whale of a company sharking through political seas, no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals," and immoral governments; "no blindfolded bureaucracies gonna push this mother ocean over the edge."
The climate march communicated an unprecedented message to world leaders; continued inaction on climate change was unacceptable. Pundits fretted that it was falling on deaf ears. But the most powerful man in the world was listening. On November 12, President Barack Obama shocked the world by announcing a pact with China that pledged deeper U.S. cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions [GHGs]. And for the first time, China will set a target for capping carbon emissions. Knowing that a new treaty would need ratification from a hostile Senate, negotiators created a hybrid agreement which blended elements from an existing 1992 treaty with new voluntary pledges. The updating of a treaty doesn't need approval by a Congress dominated by climate change-ignorant Republicans.
As a communist country, China will have no problem initiating the necessary reforms needed to cap carbon emissions; the threat of a jail sentence or worse is a most effective motivator. But Obama is hamstrung by the checks and balances of the American Constitution and Congress pulls the pursestrings. Republican lawmakers could attach "riders" to Obama's bill that would prevent agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency from actually spending any money to implement provisions to cut GHGs. And the XL Keystone pipeline, for which Obama has shown no enthusiasm and has languished in limbo since 2005, will almost certainly be used as a bargaining chip. But when the Republicans attack the agreement with China, Obama can helplessly shrug his shoulders to the Chinese in a gesture that says "that's democracy, I tried" and honour the spirit of the agreement.