Taking Action on ClimateThe climate is changing, and we play a role in how extreme it will get. So, what do we do?
By David Gray-Donald
Note: This article draws heavily on the bestselling book The End of This World: Climate Justice in So-called Canada, which the author co-wrote with Angele Alook, Emily Eaton, Joël Laforest, Crystal Lameman, and Bronwen Tucker.We already knew the climate was changing, but this summer of widespread wildfires, droughts and storms have really confirmed it on a gut level.
Whether you’re doomscrolling or avoiding the news altogether, many of us feel stuck, and find ourselves uncertain about what to do.
Unpacking that dilemma is something my co-authors and I tried to do in the book The End of This World: Climate Justice in So-called Canada.
This article summarizes some of the key lessons we drew from long-time climate activists and from personal experience.
The book starts, though, by looking at how the story of Indigenous dispossession and climate inaction are deeply entwined in this place called Canada. After all, much of the oil and gas produced and consumed here is taken from Indigenous lands that were neither surrendered nor ceded by Indigenous peoples during the treaty-making process or in non-treaty lands.
The suppression of Indigenous sovereignty and rights has long been a strategy of the fossil fuel industry, enforced by their allies in government, to keep making money while polluting the lands, waters, and air.
Attempts to address the climate crisis in Canada need to centre this reality, as we build a better future. As we write in the book:
Attempting an energy transition without asserting Indigenous rights is simply greening theft, and it is doomed to fail. Indigenous knowledges and culture have invaluable lessons for how to live on these lands, knowledges that we need to move from economies of destruction to economies that repair lands and life. We can diminish the power of the fossil fuel industry and move to renewable energies, while reducing inefficient and wasteful uses of energy.
Delay and Deny: The Fossil Fuel Industry’s PlaybookThe single biggest impediment to climate action both here and abroad is the fossil fuel industry.
It is no secret that the industry has known for decades about the devastating impacts of a rapidly warming climate, spending endless cash and using every trick in the book to direct attention away from their culpability and from the simple truth that we need to rapidly reduce fossil fuels production and consumption.The industry has adapted its strategy over the years, first outright denying climate change and funding climate denial groups, then admitting it is real and putting forward bullshit proposals that will change hardly anything.
The Pathways Alliance, a new branding of the same old tar sands companies, plastered ads promising net-zero emissions all over TTC vehicles and sporting events, and is now under investigation for greenwashing by the Competition Bureau.More recently, companies like Suncor and Shell have been walking back their earlier climate pledges, saying they are primarily in to produce more oil and gas and maximize profits.
Through it all, the industry tells us that it is our fault that we consume fossil fuels, despite the fact that with every decision we make, we are just about forced to consume them.Politicians, by-and-large, take initiative to do the industry’s bidding.
I remember attending a lecture Chrystia Freeland (then a Member of Parliament, now the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance) gave at the University of Toronto in 2015 before that year’s federal election. She argued she would do a better job at getting the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline built than Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had styled himself as a champion of the oil industry.Soon-to-be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was saying the same thing around then, telling Calgary’s Petroleum Club in 2013 that his government would get pipelines such as Keystone XL built by introducing environmental policies, like a price on carbon, to secure social acceptance.
Since then, we have seen this strategy play out, with the federal and provincial governments (including the NDP in Alberta and B.C.) giving the industry billions of dollars in subsidies, hardly introducing any tough regulations, and trampling Indigenous sovereignty and rights. That includes police forces overseeing pipeline construction and crushing dissent through intimidation, arrests, and by repeatedly aiming guns at land defenders, as is the case with the Trans Mountain expansion and the Coastal GasLink pipelines to the west coast.In Ontario, Doug Ford’s Conservative government is expanding fossil gas consumption for electricity (see next page). He has also made it a lot harder to build renewable energy infrastructure like wind and solar.
The automotive industry and suburban real estate developers are also major forces pushing emissions up in Ontario. Expanding highways, building sprawling municipalities, and underfunding transit options are all ways they keep us car-dependent (even when we really don’t want to be) and burning lots of fossil fuels.And municipalities keep approving new fossil gas hookups to new buildings, when we should be moving towards electrification, both for respiratory health (fossil gas burned indoors is bad for you) and to reduce emissions.
At the same time that many of us are trying to reduce our emissions, those in power are keeping us stuck in highly-polluting ways of life that increase profits for oil and gas investors and drive up our cost of living.Taking on the Climate Crisis
The point, however, is not to wallow in how bad things are, but rather to say that we can’t wait on politicians, even those making nice-sounding promises, to deliver meaningful action. We need to apply pressure to make it impossible for politicians not to act, and to stop the industry from always getting what it wants.How do we do that? Thankfully, there are many people with years of experience trying to do exactly this, and a network of groups that we might call the “climate justice movement” chipping away at it. And that’s where the potential lies.
Given where we are now and the need to build our movements, we were inspired while writing the book by the question posed by educator and organizer Paulo Freire: “What can we do today, so that tomorrow we can do what we were unable to do today?”
1. Join organizations, because you can’t struggle alone
I see so many new faces, bright, powerful, fierce minds at public actions and I know that many of you aren’t in organizations. I am writing today as someone who’s been around barely a minute longer than you, to say that you must.
The struggle is collective. We need others to inspire us, challenge us and change us. Join existing organizations or collectives, change them if you hate them, or start new ones. Organizing [people towards collective action] is a skill set, it’s not just a set of ideals, and those skills must be honed. There are no schools, and few mentors.
In my experience, individuals in organizations, affinity groups, and collectives remain politicized for longer, because we need a counter-balance to the rest of society’s imposition of a very different truth. Part of what neoliberal capitalism and colonialism have done is individuated us. At best, we might have our nuclear family’s support, or have a partner, but we are told we always have to look out for #1. … At the same time, we are told, no one person can change anything, and so we find ourselves in a bind.
Here’s the thing, one person can’t change anything. But a few people, working together, in comradeship certainly can. If there is a hope in hell of us transforming our society, and building the kinds of worlds we want to live in, we need masses of people organized, disciplined and militant.
2. There are thousands of ways to get involved. What roles are you best positioned to play?
With all of the work that is needed, it can be hard to figure out where to focus your efforts. Think about your skills and interests, and what relationships and power structures you already encounter. Finding those intersections will help inform what you can do and where you can best use your power.Maybe you live near major fossil fuel infrastructure and can connect with others in your community who are figuring out how to build alternatives. There are campaigns opposing gas plants, and there is a campaign to stop Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline from being replaced, which would continue bringing oil to Ontario despite objections from Indigenous Peoples on both sides of the border.
Maybe you bike and notice dangers to cyclists, like inadequate bike lanes and reckless drivers. You can join your local cycling association, or get involved in city-wide organizations like Cycle Toronto.Maybe you live in the suburbs and see that you and your neighbours want better transit options and better services nearby so you aren’t so car-dependent. You can join transit advocacy groups like TTCriders or neighbourhood associations and together push back against the sprawl agenda of real estate developers.
Maybe you are a parent whose community is under-serviced but over-policed. You can join efforts to defund the police and fund better services, including transit, with groups like Jane Finch Action Against Poverty and Showing Up for Racial Justice Toronto.Or maybe you live in housing with bad cooling and heating and you know your neighbours are also fed up. You can together demand building improvements while also stopping rent increases, as tenant groups like the York-South Weston Tenant Union are doing, with support from climate group Climate Justice Toronto and anti-poverty organizers at ACORN.
Admittedly, there are some gaps in social movement infrastructure, especially in suburban areas and places where English isn’t the first language. (Though there are some notable exceptions to this – like the Naujawan Support Network, which is organizing the Punjabi community in Peel to stop wage theft, among other issues.) There is a lot of potential for organizing in these areas.
3. This work is prefigurative
Building a healthy movement culture is ultimately also vital prefigurative work: we want the ways we work now to reflect, in miniature, the kind of relations in the world we are trying to create. Building the organizations and networks we need right now will involve sharing power, practicing collective healing, and navigating conflict together. These are all skills we will need on an even larger scale if we are going to live in a good way, in balance with each other and the Earth.
4. Seek out opportunities for training, mentorship, and developing strategy
Social movement work is hard, and it is worth seeking out ways to learn more and improve our skills. We can read articles and books, and attend (and bring people along to) trainings. Part of this puzzle is about building relationships between generations and between movements, including learning from elders who have been doing the work for decades.
5. Solidarity is a verb. Our liberation is tied up togetherWe’re not going to win these changes just by having the right facts and analysis. Knowing the brutal history of colonialism is good, but holding that knowledge doesn’t necessarily change anything. It is in the doing, in showing up and supporting various efforts, and not giving up when there are challenges.
The people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (or Grassy Narrows) First Nation have been demanding justice after a corporation poisoned their river with mercury, blocking logging on their territory in Northern Ontario for years, and now are saying no to mining without their consent in the Ring of Fire. People in Toronto and elsewhere have been supporting them, helping put on events, spread the word, and apply pressure on governments. Doing that work – and supporting it as we are able – is solidarity, and builds a path to our collective liberation.
David Gray-Donald will be hosting discussions around Toronto about the book The End of This World: Climate Justice in So-called Canada, with co-authors occasionally joining. The first will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 21 at Danu Social House, 1237 Queen St. W. Visit the Events page at btlbooks.com for updated info.
This article appears in the Sept/Oct 2023 issue.