Transformational change is needed to address the climate crisis

Neither cynical nor optimistic, but a sober look at advancing the environmental movement

We’ve failed. The last 40 years the Global North and countries with the power to do so have not stopped using fossil fuels, or ended carbon emissions. For all the talk of climate action since James Hansen’s testimony before the United States Congress, we are now committed to a certain amount of climate devastation no matter what we do now. In 2015, the United Nations (UN) agreed to limit warming to “well below” two degrees Celsius. The two degree target was already a political compromise, implicit with the knowledge that vulnerable parts of the world were already being devastated by warming. Since then, the fossil fuel industry and leading governments, including Canada, have not stopped extracting fossil fuels, cutting down forests, or building fossil-fueled infrastructure. Climate change is set to displace more than 200 million people by 2050 but Canada only accepted 184,000  immigrants in total last year. Our leaders are unwilling to mitigate or respond to expected climate impacts at the scale commensurate with the challenges we face globally.

But it’s worth examining exactly who brought us here and who “we” are, especially in terms of climate justice. The Global North, as well as the global wealthy are responsible for the climate emergency. An Oxfam report released in December 2015 noted the top 10 percent of wealthy people create as much climate heating pollution as the bottom 50 percent. Meanwhile, the people who are most vulnerable have already been living with a world dramatically changed by the fossil fuel and other industries. For these people, there is no ‘we.’ They’ve already been abandoned. There is no unifying responsibility for the climate emergency and while we are all facing degrees of damage, we don’t all have the same resources to deal with it. 

We must take up the values of climate justice or we will fail. We must build the new world out of the shell of the old. 

Much of Waterloo Region is in that top 10 percent and while our community is small relative to the rest of the world, what are we to do now that it’s become clear no one is coming to save us, especially when we seem uninterested in saving ourselves? Within our own community, Waterloo Region wants to evict camps of unsheltered people who have gathered to keep themselves—and each other—safe. We continue to build roads when what we need is public transit. Despite having committed to reducing our own emissions, we are faced with another Conservative provincial government that will actively work against our efforts and a Federal government that keeps building for a fossil-fueled future.

Yet it remains our responsibility to help build a better world. We are so far behind in creating the kind of world our children need and in some climate spaces, our failure has been used as an excuse for increased fatalism. If we’re doomed, let’s turn inward and prepare ourselves for the future devastation, as though the last decades are firm proof that nothing can and will ever be done to create a better future. Such fatalism, as planetary systems thinker Beth Sawin notes, is less about the end of the world and more about the “end of a worldview.”

But it’s our responsibility to demand the opposite of fatalism and we will imagine a different world if we are still dedicated to the systems we live with now. We cannot hoard resources and prepare for climate change, waiting for the worst when so much of the world is already suffering. And if you’re descended from settlers, the people who came to North America with the explicit mission to extract resources from the land to further the wealth of the British kingdom, you have benefited from ecocide and genocide. Those resources you have stashed away in the event of an apocalypse are largely stolen or garnered through the global colonial exchange within the economic system we live under.

Settlers and white people in the climate movement are no less culpable with the failure to mitigate climate change. By and large, settler-led climate movements have attempted climate mitigation efforts themselves rather than lend our numbers to land protectors and other Indigenous communities resisting extraction as a matter of their daily life. Climate activists will also tell each other that what we need is to push together towards the same goals, eschewing holding each other accountable as “infighting.” Non-violent direct action groups like the United Kingdom’s Extinction Rebellion promote themselves as “beyond politics,” and eschew “identity” politics. Questions in climate discussion groups arise around whether or not Conservatives, or even racists, should be pushed from the climate movement. Some activists say that we cannot grow a movement if we put limits on who we accept. Our enemies can see past their differences to become a cohesive whole so those of us organizing for climate action must also do the same.

But attempts at unity that centre the safety of settlers and well-off, if well-meaning, privileged people will only push Black, Indigenous, and racialized people suffering from the climate crisis even further to the margins.  Environmentalists and climate activists must resist inscribing white supremacy onto the future we’re trying to build.In July 2022, Greenpeace UK published a report naming the root causes of climate change as colonialism and that the best way toward a sustainable future is “through its relationships with impacted communities, other allies and the wider environmental and climate justice movements.”  Our climate crisis comes out of colonialism and extraction but also the insistence on a homogeneous vision, which is an aspect of colonialism. We want diversity in nature and diversity in people. And I don’t mean the corporate white-speak of diversity and inclusivity—I mean actual diversity. Diversity means nothing if the systems of power that created the climate crisis are allowed to persist.

The transformational change required to face the climate crisis means that this civilization—the institutions evoked when we gesture towards civilization—cannot be saved if we are to take the climate crisis on in earnest and the civilization we need may not be recognizable to anyone who has benefited from it. Climate change is a symptom of centuries of extraction and genocidal colonialism and a simple technological shift will not save us. We must take up the values of climate justice or we will fail. We must build the new world out of the shell of the old. 

And so here we are after 40 years of rhetoric about climate action and our emissions keep rising as our leaders tell us we are tasked with an urgent drop in emissions—a 50 percent reduction by 2030—if ‘we’ are to save the climate that fostered the civilization we live in. We are urged to act before it’s too late. We share the meme that insists we have less than 10 years to solve the climate crisis but the truth is that we have no time—we must transform our civilization now, right down to the roots and right here in Waterloo Region.

It’s a tall order, trying to save the planet, and the narrative that only top-down action by large governments and corporations will help only anesthetizes us to the work needed for our collective survival. But these are the institutions that have caused the crisis. We cannot depend on old ways of thinking, steeped in the monolith of extraction and white supremacy, to bring us radical transformation.

Radical transformation begins in our communities—ones just like Waterloo Region—with radical solidarity with the people who have been deemed acceptable sacrifices: Black, Indigenous, and Racialized people, the unsheltered, the imprisoned, the soil and the animals. We will have to rewrite the mythologies we tell ourselves about what it means to live on the Haldimand tract as we actively work against our colonial institutions as climate change rapidly alters the landscape around us. World altering change is coming for us and we will need to find ourselves grounded in our communities.

But climate change is a global problem emerging from the mistaken notion that there’s an “over there,”as though the Global North can pollute and extract from the earth free of all consequences. Here we can take lessons from the planet itself. If communities act as planetary systems do, as networked, interconnected, and equally important parts of a complex machinery, then there will be no need to wait for a saviour or rescue that is not coming.

We can undermine white supremacy, colonialism, and fascism where we are. The climate crisis will be won or lost in our communities and through our willingness to seek justice and reconcile with the people around us on the land we live on.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.