The Solutions to Climate Change are Solutions for the 99 Percent

An interview with environmental activist Tzeporah Berman.
By: /
April 4, 2014
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Global Journalism Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto

Canadian climate activist Tzeporah Berman rose to prominence in the Canadian environmental movement just over two decades ago, when she helped organize one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Concerned about the logging of the temperate rainforest in Clayquot Sound, British Columbia, which houses giant trees hundreds of years old, Berman worked with Greenpeace to organize logging blockades that drew international attention, led to the arrest of more than 800 people in 1993, and pushed the provincial government to change its policies. After spending years working to protect forests, she turned to climate change, eventually becoming the co-director of Greenpeace International’s Global Climate and Energy Program in 2010. In 2012, she left Greenpeace and returned to Canada so that she could focus on environmental issues at home, including the oil sands and the Northern Gateway pipeline. OpenCanada reporter Alia Dharssi sat down with her in Vancouver to discuss solutions to climate change.

You’ve been an activist for more than two decades, but you didn’t always work on climate change. How did you became a climate activist?

For me, the entry point into recognizing how important the climate challenge was was around 2003 or 2004, when I started seeing the maps of how much climate change is affecting our forests. Thousands and thousands of hectares of forests were being destroyed due to pine beetle infestations in British Columbia. That got me interested in what was happening to forests around the world. In the process of doing research on the impact of climate change on forests, I was asked to speak in Bali at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. That conference changed my life.

I’ll never forget sitting there listening to the Secretary General of the United Nations. In his opening statement, he said, “we either reach an agreement to dramatically reduce fossil fuels here or we’re dooming humanity to oblivion.” You know, I’ve been accused of a lot in my career, including being a radical extremist for many of the things that I’ve said, but I’ve never said anything that outrageous. And here’s the Secretary General saying we’re dooming humanity to oblivion. It struck me in that moment that I needed to better understand what was going on. That was my climate-reckoning point. I may have started working on environmental issues because of a love of forests, but that moment in history was the moment that I recognized these are no longer environmental issues. This is the moral challenge of our generation.

But doesn’t it often feel like such summits are filled with empty rhetoric? We still don’t have an international agreement on climate change.  

There’s no question that the international negotiations and the summits are not achieving what we hoped. At the same time, bringing people from around the world together with scientific experts to better understand the problem and start to wrangle these conversations is absolutely critical. Whether or not we’ll see one international agreement in the coming years or whether the results of those summits will be more bilateral agreements remains to be seen. But the continued focus and learning, the side agreements and the conversations are absolutely essential because these are issues that don’t know political boundaries. They affect every person on earth.  We have to have these international conversations.

So where do you think the solution is going? Will we ever end up with a big international agreement or is the solution something else?

I think it’s going to be both. There is no question that we will eventually get an international agreement to address climate change. At the same time, we’re seeing a lot of movement at the municipal or state or provincial level, far more than we see at the international level. And that’s great. We need to have mayors, like Gregor Robertson here in Vancouver, committed to addressing climate change. Under his leadership, Vancouver is working systematically to reduce emissions. More people are out of their cars and are taking transit or bicycling to work because of new bike lanes. We also need to have provincial initiatives, like Ontario’s Green Energy Act, which is increasing renewable energy. In British Columbia—the first jurisdiction in North America to create an economy-wide carbon tax—we’ve already seen emissions go down. All of those different initiatives help to create the preconditions for a national position that can lead to an international agreement. National leaders need support in their home countries for the hard changes that need to be made.

On that note, how would you like to see the Canadian government balance economic demands with its response to climate change?

If our government is going to take climate change seriously, that means restricting and slowing down the development of the oil sands because they are the single biggest reason that we will not meet our carbon emission targets in Canada. The federal government needs to start regulating and stop subsidizing the oil and gas industry. Shell made a billion dollars last month. Yet, we subsidized the oil and gas industry last year with close to 1.2 billion taxpayer dollars. As long as we’re subsidizing fossil fuel development, there’s no way for the renewable industry to be competitive, even though we have the technology to dramatically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

I also think it’s important that we empower individuals to engage in these issues. That means all of us recognizing that we need to prioritize climate change when we vote, that we need to engage in calling on our MLAs and our MPs to show leadership on these issues. Unfortunately, when we talk about empowering individuals around climate change, the predominant view is about changing our lifestyle. But the majority of climate pollution comes from heavy industry in Canada. We could all stop using our cars in Canada and climate pollution would continue to rise because the majority of pollution comes from the oil sands. We need better laws to address the climate problem.

Do you think the environmental movement could do a better job of engaging businesses, whether the oil sector or other industries?

Yes. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job in the environmental community in painting a picture of how to get from here to there. We’re very good at saying no to things we don’t like. We’re not as good about saying yes. Solutions are messy. Moving from a society that is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels to a society where we have the electrification of transport and more efficient buildings and better public transportation and renewable energy—these are massive changes in the way that society is structured. It’s such a huge leap that people almost don’t see that it’s possible.

I think the environmental community is afraid of the conversation about so-called greening the oil sands because there is an ideological disconnect. Can you green a fossil fuel in the climate era? Not really. But there is no question that you can’t shut down the oil sands overnight. I think we need to be talking about capping expansion of the oil sands, about cleaning up existing operations, and starting to build the infrastructure that we need to move to a clean energy economy and eventually transition out of oil. That’s a much more complicated conversation and it’s one that I think people are afraid of approaching from the environmental side.

From the industry side, behind closed doors many of the executives I talk to say, “Phew, we’re not going to get to 9 million barrels a day”—which is what the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the federal government say their goal is—“We’re not even going to get to 5 million barrels a day, it’s not realistic.” Well, if the industry was willing to publicly say “Let’s have a more realistic target,” I think that would create a more productive conversation. But, in some ways, business sits between a rock and a hard place. They have overestimated how much oil they will be able to access in the future and that affects their stock price.

You often say that you’re an optimist. How do you stay hopeful in the face of the daunting impact of climate change?

Well, when I look at my children, I know that I have to keep doing this work. They’re growing up in a world that is entirely different from the world that I grew up in. When I started my professional life and started working on environmental issues twenty years ago, we didn’t have cell phones, let alone iPads and everything we have today. The world has entirely changed in my lifetime. And it will entirely change in theirs. I know that they will live in a world that is more sustainable, but I also know that that transition is going to be more painful for them if we don’t all act now to set Canada on the right path.

When I’m speaking about policy in Canada, I get pushback “Oil sands are what keep our hospital open,” and, you know, “the oil and gas sector is essential for our economy.”  It’s important for Canadians to realize that, currently, the oil sands are two percent of our GDP. There is no question that, in 10 or 20 years, we could be in a position where it would be very difficult to reduce our dependence on oil and gas given how quickly the government and industry are proposing that it expand. But today we are at a moment in history where we still have a choice. We are not currently dependent on the oil sands.

One of the most exciting things that I’m seeing right now is that the proposed pipelines across the country have motivated a debate at a local level and diversifying the climate movement. You’ve got people in the fisheries and tourism industries on the West coast who are worried about oil tanker traffic. In Quebec, there are local community groups who are worried about spills from pipelines proposed in their neighbourhoods. You’ve got Canadians concerned about the erosion of democracy as the federal government decreases the ability of the public to participate in pipeline reviews and energy board hearings. In some ways, the Harper Conservatives and the oil industry have created a perfect storm for themselves. They are uniting diverse groups of Canadians, who are waking up to these issues and starting to engage across the country.

Local, distributed, renewable energy systems create more local control rather than less. I think part of why we see the fossil fuel industry so aggressively campaigning against that is because it’s not just about their current profit margins. It’s about creating long-term energy systems where no one owns the input. No one owns the sun and the wind. The solutions to climate change are solutions for the 99 percent.

You know, I often get people saying to me: “We didn’t make progress in Copenhagen and this federal government is refusing to create climate policy.  There isn’t any hope.” I think we have to remember that social change isn’t linear. It happens at tipping point moments. We’ve seen that throughout history, whether that’s women’s rights or civil rights or, even in the last couple of years, on gay marriage. We are living that moment on energy issues right now. Instead of these issues being discussed behind closed doors, they’re being discussed at kitchen tables across the country. They’re front page news every day. That gives me hope.