What can islanders do to cope with climate change

This article was written by Dave Steen, following GIA’s public gathering on Salt Spring Island on October 24, 2009, both as a personal summary/ retrospective on the gathering and for possible inclusion in a book proposed by Trustee Jen Gobby. Her aim is “to profile and celebrate the climate action work happening on these islands; to bring together and promote the wealth of local knowledge and creative solutions to this global climate crisis.”

The Gulf Islands Alliance (GIA) was founded in 2006 on the idea that people across the southern Gulf Islands have a better chance to achieve community and environmental goals by getting together to identify and help solve common problems.

That challenge in recent months has become a lot more daunting because of the growing threat of climate change.

If you’ve ventured to ask what you can do about climate change you may have concluded – especially in these downcast post-Copenhagen days – that it’s all futile and overwhelming. Maybe you see contradictions in government policies that, on one hand, encourage you to add insulation to your home and ride your bicycle and, on the other, encourage industry to increase sales of lumber and coal to China. Maybe the image of the massive tar sand scars on Alberta’s landscape appear to you when you’re urged to buy locally-grown food or attend meetings to help rewrite your local land use bylaws to make fractional reductions to your personal and community’s carbon footprint.

Such concerns are within GIA’s purpose which supports the visionary Islands Trust Act that aims to preserve the islands as a special beautiful and fragile environment. Concerned about the widespread misconception that the Gulf Islands must accept a proportionate share of overflow population growth like other local government areas near Vancouver and Victoria, GIA commissioned a legal opinion that shows the Act places island environmental preservation and protection ahead of development and other land use initiatives. This environment-first sentiment, shared by many islanders, largely explains why attempts to install municipalities on Salt Spring and Gabriola islands have failed.

Until climate change loomed as an external threat, islanders and their Local Trust Committees were seen to possess the capacity and courage to fulfill the promise of the Trust Act. In this positive process, GIA has been playing a watchdog role as a volunteer, grass roots group with members on all the islands. GIA also coordinates and strengthens the influence of islanders through its website, newsletters, brochures, press releases, deputations to Trust Council, and organizing public gatherings. Like the Trust Act, GIA’s prime goal is protecting the islands ecology.

The complexity of social and environmental management is apparent when it comes to interpreting and enforcing the Act. While it and its companion Policy Statement set out bold and necessary goals and directives, governance sometimes falls short because it tries to serve various environmental interests and opposing and better-financed development interests. And the province weakens the Trust’s authority by its failure to provide sufficient funding and other support, such as granting more local control over forestry.

The Trust’s soft underbelly, though, is its weak bylaw enforcement program. It stirs public disrespect for laws and lawmakers. By late 2009 the Trust employed only two bylaw officers, handling a whopping 150 cases. It refuses to take some violators to court because of the high cost and/or the fear that judges might accept bylaw language as it’s interpreted by defendants’ lawyers over how it would be understood by the average person. Many un-prosecuted violations, such as the illegal rental of guest cottages, mock community-approved and environment-driven population density allocations and limits. GIA is lobbying for full bylaw enforcement.

Now, added to this mix of manageable problems is out-of-control climate change. If its predicted impacts come true, rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and population dislocations will dwarf other threats to the islands environment. All our necessary local work will be like building sand castles on the beach as the tsunami approaches. So far, according to the United Nations, current international commitments to restrict carbon emissions will result in a 3 degree rise in average global temperatures, enough to shrink thousands of waterfront properties on the Gulf Islands, along with causing other kinds of mass chaos here and across the world.

But there’s a distance, even a disconnect, between this horrific threat and the world’s response, particularly Canada’s. In 2006 we stood alone among signatories to the Kyoto Protocol by officially abandoning our targets to cut greenhouse gases. We had promised to cut emissions by 6 percent between 1990 and 2012. Instead, we raised them 26 percent. Author George Monbiot says, “Canadians have almost the highest per capita emissions on earth, and the stripping of Alberta has scarcely begun.” In a small and telling move, the CBC bumped Copenhagen and climate change, but not Michael Jackson or Tiger Woods or Balloon Boy, off its list of the top nine news stories of 2009.

Despite compelling scientific evidence and ubiquitous images of the shrinking polar ice caps, some flat-earth people continue to deny climate change. Stories may have two sides, facts don’t. Some deniers are invested in carbon-pollution. Some don’t care or find it too inconvenient. Some argue it’s too disturbing, surreal, or just the wild imaginings of the 21st century brand of quirky doomsayers.

Fortunately, reality is marginalizing deniers, just as it did on a smaller scale in the tobacco smoking versus health battle a few years ago. Now, many believe the measures we’re taking to combat climate change aren’t enough. The magnitude of Islanders’ anxiety over climate change was evident in a one-day public ‘gathering’ on Salt Spring Island staged by GIA in the fall of 2009. The 137 attendees took part in small groups to discuss on-island proposals and programs to keep us sustainable and reduce our carbon footprint, and then heard different approaches from featured speakers – a rather sobering outlook by Neil Dawe of the Qualicum Institute and a more upbeat one from Guy Dauncey, author of The Climate Challenge, 101 Solutions to Global Warming.

Dawe said that life as we live it now is unsustainable. He cited economic and population growth as the root causes of ecological damage and climate change. Mankind’s excessive material demands outstrip the earth’s supplies, he said. “Any organism that disregards nature’s limits ultimately threatens its own existence,” he said. Explaining his pessimism, Dawe said that we’ve never had more environmentalists, more public interest in the environment, and more regulations than we do now. And we’ve never had more environmental degradation. “What we’re doing isn’t working.” Dawe says it’s an old and common mistake to balance, as equal players, environmental, economic and social needs. Without the environment, economic and social survival isn’t possible, he says. It’s also a mistake to believe that the economic and social systems that got us in this mess can get us out. It’s time for new and daring ideas. But Dawe’s solution, a ‘steady state’ economy, will be a hard sell, at least, until the deadly impact of climate change shows up in our own neighbourhoods.

Dauncey said the solution rests with reducing emissions and building a zero carbon world that is attractive and sustainable. He says the prospect of climate catastrophe can spark a peaceful, ecologically sustainable solar age and a world ‘powered and transported by 100 percent renewable energy, with green cities, zero waste, carbon-storing forestry, farming and ranching.’ “When we look at the world from this perspective, there are signs of hope and new life all over the place – and many come from small communities where people have a higher level of community trust and a greater willingness to embark on a new great adventure – places just like the Gulf Islands,” he said.

So, GIA is adding climate change to its list of more traditional environmental challenges for the islands. While we applaud the province and Islands Trust for demanding changes to local bylaws to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, no islander should be satisfied that these will be sufficient contributions to the solutions of climate change.

Much more is needed. Whether you’re more optimist or pessimist, localist or globalist or somewhere in between, GIA encourages you to be part of the solution. In this, GIA’s role is only as effective as the number and enthusiasm of its members and supporters and the wisdom and reach of its initiatives. We invite you to join us. The first step is to educate ourselves so we can independently assess the problem and consider the best solutions/actions. For instance, we must learn to be wary of over-hyped solutions, such as ‘cap and trade’ programs. This scheme, successful in reducing acid rain a few decades ago, involves placing a cap on each company’s carbon dioxide emissions. A company can either reduce its emissions or buy credits from another company that has gone below its cap. Critics suggest that we can’t buy our way out of this jam and that establishing ‘a giant international market in pollution’ is a delusional strategy, a corporate sleight of hand.

It’s also vital that we understand how little time we have. Nature isn’t waiting while mankind dithers over if and how to mitigate and cope with climate change. We’re on a track to calamity. How close do we have to get to it before we try to jump off? Some scientists say it’s already too late, our fate is sealed.

Climate change is a warning, a lecture, and a plea to treat nature better; it’s an end point of an abusive relationship. Nature made us what we are and we’re corrupting the very things it uses to nurture us. Do we value nature too much for how we can change her and too little for what she is unchanged? We justify the abuse in the name of progress, comfort and convenience. We freely use up nature’s resources to make more things than we need. We pay ourselves to produce and transfer goods. Now we’re learning that we’ve accumulated an environmental debt, one we ignore at our peril. It’s a hugely complicated issue, pointedly unsettling for our western democratic values, because it raises moral and political questions about private property privileges versus the common good, between individuals and between nations. The right to create wealth must be coupled with the responsibility not to impede any person’s best opportunity for legitimate fulfillment?

We must also appreciate the fact that each of us can and must act to make a positive difference. We may not be sure of the outcome; we can be sure of our resolve. The alternative – to leave it to others, who may do nothing, too – is unthinkable. Neil Dawe quotes Martin Luther King Jr: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.” Dawe says our best hope to contain climate change is to first assemble enough people of conscience to form the critical mass required to move a community, a nation, a world. From that movement, enlightened, effective leaders will emerge. It hasn’t happened yet. The U.S. borrows heavily from its future generations to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, but won’t finance a war against greenhouse gas emissions to save its future. On climate change, Canada’s policy is to hitch its star to the U.S.’ Paul Hawkin, in his book Blessed Unrest, writes: “If we try to calibrate American superiority by its treatment of the environment, the United States is one of the least intelligent civilizations in the history of the planet… Living within the biological constraints of the earth may be the most civilized activity a person can pursue, because it enables our successors to do the same.”

Copenhagen was a grandiose triumph of selfish national interest over the common world good. Ironically, its importance was lost in the bustle of Christmas shopping. This failure, though, can be seen as a perverse invitation to accelerate citizen action worldwide.

If you’re concerned about your island’s environmental sustainability, we would like to hear from you. GIA was formed after a recognition that we could achieve more by acting together than working independently on each of our islands.