Put public interest first in climate change war

After two years of campaigning by the Gulf Islands Alliance, Islands Trust Council has agreed to take a serious look at acknowledging the Public Trust Doctrine in its Policy Statement. The doctrine “describes the ideal relationship between citizens and leaders, a refreshing way for the Trust to understand its work. It is the legal foundation of public governance.”

Following is GIA’s presentation to Council at its quarterly meeting on Gabriola Island, March 11, 2015:

The Gulf Islands Alliance (GIA) joins Islands Trust in declaring that, long term, the greatest threat to the Trust mandate is climate change. We’re asking that the Public Trust Doctrine be acknowledged in your Policy Statement to provide the framework and motivation to apply the best solutions to climate change.

Your strategic plan once said climate change threats include an increased strain on social and economic systems, rising sea levels and storm surges causing saltwater intrusion of aquifers, infrastructure damage, and loss of biodiversity, habitat and cultural and historic sites. These are just first symptoms of what US Secretary of State John Kerry says is “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” Climate change can only be subdued when we all join in on a world-wide response of equal or greater strength.

Carbon emissions have risen 60 per cent since 1990 and continue to increase 2.2 percent annually instead of decelerating by a needed 6 percent. Fourteen of the 15 warmest years have occurred this century.

An increase above 2 degrees in average world temperatures is considered dangerous; we’re on pace for 4 degrees. Greenland’s ice is melting five times faster than 20 years ago. Along with melt, thermal expansion contributes to rising seas. Other climate outcomes are more extreme weather events, drought, food and water shortages, species extinctions, and damage to social and economic structures, causing mass migrations and territorial wars.

These consequences are nature’s response to our abuses, reminding us that human and environmental health march in lockstep, that nature doesn’t always like being “balanced” against contrary human interests, and that the truth about climate change rests in science, not public opinion.

Because we see hints, not the worst of our future, many of us look away. ‘Not my business.’ ‘Heard these warnings for years and nothing’s happened.’ ‘I won’t be around if and when it happens.’ These attitudes don’t vanquish climate change. When do we jump off the track of an oncoming train? The world’s in denial, mired by cheap power and consumption. Zoom. Zoom. Will our grandchildren forgive us?

We treasure good relationships, with other people, our community, our world. Relationships thrive on trust and die for lack of it. The word ‘trust’ is everywhere, Trust Act, trustee, trust council, local trust committee, trust area.

The Public Trust Doctrine describes the ideal relationship between citizens and leaders, a refreshing way for you to understand your work. It is the legal foundation of public governance. The trust idea is widely considered the most innovative contribution of the English legal system. The public trust guarantees that every person has unrestricted access to gifts of nature such as clean air and water needed to sustain a healthy life. It says governments, as trustees, have a moral and legal duty to safeguard these gifts. The doctrine is the basis of current lawsuits that allege U.S. state and federal governments have failed to make honest attempts to help restore atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million, the threshold to climate catastrophe. It’s now at 396. U’Vic’s Environmental Law Clinic says, “Courts are increasingly imposing liability on trustees for environmental degradation of trust property… The general public may also be considered the beneficiary, where the government is deemed to occupy the role of trustee.”

Testing the public trust in court is not GIA’s goal. Adopting it won’t restrict Island Trust actions; but it will add symbolic and moral weight to your vital advocacy work. The Trust Act invites you to advocate ways to better preserve and protect the trust area.

GIA shares the David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot national campaign goal of acknowledging people’s right to a healthy environment. You don’t have to choose between us, we reinforce each other. Choose both.

But if there were no distinctions in our approaches, we wouldn’t be here, except to support Blue Dot. Or they might be here just for us. A quick look at these distinctions:

First, we note that Port Moody Council quickly endorsed Blue Dot over objections by its mayor who wanted first to study its costs and diversion of staff time. GIA’s request doesn’t involve new responsibilities or deadlines for you. Among local governments, we regard the Trust already as Canada’s most environmentally progressive … in your own words, “the only government in Canada and, perhaps, the world, with a legislated mandate to preserve and protect a special area”.

Second, Blue Dot is petitioning governments for recognition of a right that the Public Trust Doctrine says already exists, a human and natural right not contingent upon laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable. And more, it insists on the highest standard of that right, a healthy environment that sustains life now and for future generations. (In fairness, this summary is overly-simplified because of time restrictions.)

Third. Blue Dot is rather soft on climate change, possibly a deliberate decision not to turn off potential supporters who are persuaded that engaging climate change threatens their jobs and our economy. The Public Trust Doctrine’s resurgence is owed to climate change. It’s a legal impetus to design and enforce solutions to climate change, to restore the atmosphere to its rightful owners, the public. Patience is no virtue here. Our greatest opponent is time itself. Next are the absurd arguments that climate change can be defeated while we grow our fossil fuel industries and that the end-use of the energy we export somehow doesn’t make us more complicit. Aggressive containment of climate change will also help a myriad of related environmental issues.

Both GIA and Blue Dot welcome anyone, in the courts and legislatures, who delivers on recognition of our right to a healthy environment. Amending our constitution won’t be a cakewalk especially in this election year. We note that the NDP’s pending private member’s bill to establish an environmental bill of rights borrows language from the Public Trust Doctrine. It asks that the Government “as trustee of Canada’s environment … preserve it in accordance with the public trust for the benefit of present and future generations.”

Climate change forces us to re-examine ideas of survival and justice on this shared planet. The Doctrine answers the essential question — whose job is it to preserve Earth as a liveable planet, for us, for vulnerable folks in poor countries, and for our children and future generations that have no ability to intervene right now?

Founded in 2006, GIA is a non-profit group of islanders dedicated to the letter and spirit of the preserve and protect mandate of the Islands Trust Act.