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A leading Canadian environmentalist says Canada must leave the vast majority of the tar sands in the ground if it hopes to fight climate change

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DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Montreal, Canada.

On June 17, Canada’s Parliament adopted a motion declaring a climate emergency. The motion was brought by Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Here is some of what she had to say in Parliament in support of her motion.

CATHERINE MCKENNA: Mr. Speaker, my point was that people around the world, including the Pope, understand that climate change is having an impact and that we need to act. In fact, that meeting was between the Pope and major energy companies. I know that the member opposite cares greatly about jobs, she cares greatly about getting our resources to market. Those companies were there meeting with the Pope to say, “We need to put a price on pollution.”

DIMITRI LASCARIS: The motion, approved by Parliament, describes climate change as a “real and urgent crisis, driven by human activity, that impacts the environment, biodiversity, Canadians’ health, and the Canadian economy.” It declares that “Canada is in a national climate emergency which requires, as a response, that Canada commit to meeting its national emission target under the Paris Agreement and to making deeper reductions in line with the agreement’s objective of holding global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.” The motion was adopted by a vote of 186 to 63, an overwhelming majority. It was supported by the governing Liberals and three of the four opposition parties, the NDP, the Green Party of Canada, and the Bloc Quebecois. It was opposed by the Conservative Caucus, led by Andrew Scheer.

The motion, however, was non-binding. And strictly speaking, it does not have the force of law. That may explain why on the following day, after supporting this motion, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau considered himself at liberty to approve the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which the government bought for 4.5 billion dollars last year after regulatory and political uncertainty led Kinder Morgan to abandon the project. In announcing the approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, the Prime Minister stated that every dollar earned from the pipeline, as well as the future sale of it, will be invested in clean energy projects.

Now here to discuss the developments with us is Dr. David Suzuki. For years, Dr. Suzuki has been a leading advocate in Canada and internationally for strong action to resolve the climate crisis and for other environmentally related causes. He has authored over 55 books. He’s a scientist, he’s a broadcaster, and he is a recipient of the United Nations Environmental Program medal. Thank you for joining us again on The Real News, Dr. Suzuki.

DAVID SUZUKI: Good to be here.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’d like to start by getting your reaction, Dr. Suzuki, to the Liberal government’s approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. In your view, can that approval be reconciled with the motion that the Liberal government supported only 24 hours earlier?

DAVID SUZUKI: No, absolutely not. I mean, it just shows what a joke the whole declaration of a climate emergency is. I mean, if it’s a climate emergency, first of all, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, I don’t think the Republicans said, “Oh, that damn Democratic president wants to take us to war and is going to destroy the economy.” Everybody joins together in that emergency. It’s got one purpose, which is to win the battle. The battle here is in terms of the amount of carbon that’s accumulating in the atmosphere. We’re way beyond and heading to a total by the end of this century that really puts into question whether human beings, as a species, will be able to survive. It is a climate crisis, but we’ve been saying that for over 30 years. And all of the posturing that’s going on, from Mr. Trudeau being elected, and Mr. Harper, who was prime minister for 9 and a half years, who never once said climate is an issue that we’ve got to take seriously. He said reducing greenhouse gas emissions is “crazy economics.”

And when Mr. Trudeau was elected, he said “Canada’s back,” went to Paris, and not only signed the Paris agreement, but said we should aspire to keeping temperature rising above 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. That’s a tough ask. I emailed Mr. Trudeau after that and said, “That’s a hard target, are you serious?” And he emailed back and said, “Yes, I’m serious.” Well, if it’s a kind of [inaudible] to attack it by reducing our emissions, then everything changes. For example, he approved of a 40 billion dollar liquefied natural gas plant in British Columbia, it’s actually liquefied fracked gas. 40 billion dollars for a technology, for an energy that’s got to be phased out. That area that is being flooded by the Site C Dam is the fertile area that could feed the north. We’ve got a food system where food is grown four to six thousand miles from where it’s consumed. That can’t continue when we have a climate emergency. The area that will be flooded by the dam at Site C in the Peace River should be the breadbasket of the north so we shorten the food chain. But Mr. Trudeau supported the building of that pipeline, which by the way, we stopped 30 years ago.

So it’s the same old battle. It’s all about politics. It’s not a serious commitment to meet the climate challenge. And approving the pipeline is only–you know, what do we expect? When objections came to the pipeline, Mr. Trudeau said, “Yes, we’re going to rearrange the National Energy Board that approved this. We’ve got to change it, we’ve got to go to the Indigenous people who are objecting, and we’ll have to deal with their issues, then we’ll build a pipeline.” He told us right from the beginning that he was going to build the pipeline. So you can’t do that and then say, “Oh, we’ve got a climate emergency, we’ve got to deal with this” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October of last year said that we–if we’re going to meet this crisis and try to keep temperature rising above 1.5 degrees since pre-industrial times by the by the year 2100–in order to do that, we have to reduce our emissions, that is our use of fossil fuels, by 45 percent 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

In order to meet that target, Bill Reese, who is the scientist that coined the expression “the ecological footprint,” Bill Reese says we have to reduce energy use by 6 percent a year starting last year. Well, I don’t see any sign of reducing our emissions. And the idea that we’re going to allow expansion of the Alberta tar sands but then use the profit that we’re going to make on that venture to invest in clean technology strikes me as absolutely stupid. That would be like, “Look, we can’t do anything about preventing the spread of AIDS, but we’ll try to get money to commit to finding a cure for AIDS down in the future. That doesn’t make any sense. You’re not dealing with the crisis in a serious way. And that’s what Mr. Trudeau has done. It is all about politics.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So on that same theme, politics in Canada; in the 2015 election, Dr. Suzuki, as I’m sure you know, star NDP candidate Linda McQuaig stirred up something of a hornet’s nest by stating on national television that “A lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground if we’re going to meet our climate change targets.” At times, it seems as though in Canadian mainstream politics, discussion about ending the tar sands industry altogether is virtually taboo.

DAVID SUZUKI: That’s true.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And as we approach the federal election, as you know, party leaders are talking more and more about their respective plans for addressing the climate crisis. In your view, is any party that is currently represented in Canada’s parliament squarely and sufficiently addressing the need to leave as much of the tar sands in the ground as possible, or do you think that they are all, to varying degrees, skirting this critically important issue?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, the Greens are the only party that have really embraced this and come up with very strong statements about it. The NDP is flirting with the idea of the Green New Deal and the job creation part of turning away from fossil fuels, which we have to talk about. But actually embracing the notion that because we know there’s potential oil and revenue there we can’t just leave it in the ground is certainly anathema to not only the conservatives but the Liberal Party as well. And again, Mr. Trudeau said this before or after he approved the pipeline–I can’t remember when–but he said, “No country would leave that amount of oil in the ground.” And yet, if we take the science seriously and we say that we have to reduce energy use by 6 percent a year, we have to be off fossil fuels by 2050, it doesn’t make sense then that we’re still looking for more, that we’re still saying, “Oh, the Arctic ice is going away, we can look for oil up there.” We’ve got to shut it down. 80 to 85 percent of our known reserves have to be left in the ground. And I would think the first thing you do is leave the most carbon intensive source of oil in the ground first. That’s where we’ve got to start.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And finally, Dr. Suzuki, you travel around the country, you talk to Canadians all the time about environmental issues and the climate crisis in particular. Do you sense, in your personal conversations with people at the grassroots level, that there is a dramatic change in Canadians’ level of concern about this issue, and how do you think concerned Canadians should try to make a difference in the upcoming electoral campaign in terms of dealing effectively with climate change?

DAVID SUZUKI: Well, I’m asked this all the time, “What can I do?” There’s certainly no question Canadians, unlike their American neighbors, Canadians have been aware of climate and taken it very seriously. In British Columbia, we lost–I don’t know–tens of billions of dollars of pine trees because of the mountain pine beetle that is no longer controlled by cold temperatures in the winter. And they have exploded and destroyed a vast area, and now those beetles have been blown across the Rocky Mountains and are into the boreal forest in Alberta, and that will spread right across the country. We know in Canada, especially from the Inuit, who for over 30 years have been telling us that something is happening up in the Arctic. We’ve known, and Canadians know, that whether or not Canadians are ready to embrace the really hard decisions is the question, because it’s going to cost money. And indications are yes, people understand we’re going to have to make big cuts, and yes, we’re going to have to pay for that. But if it’s going to come to more than 100 bucks, no, not really willing to do that.

Even among environmentalists, many people seem to think, well, if you get an electric car, if you substitute the LED lights, we’re going to be able to live pretty well the same way. No, we will not. The economy is already the driving force of our destructiveness. It is way too big. We’re going to have to live much more lightly on the planet. And that means every year we’re not going to be able to find new editions of our iPhones or our iPads or our laptop computers. It means that we’re not going to be able to buy clothing that’s in fashion every month. The clothing industry and fashion is one of the most destructive activities. We’re simply–we’ve got too heavy a footprint on the planet, and that’s got to be met. When I say we can’t go on living the way we’re living now, people immediately say, “Oh, are we going to have to go back to living in caves? Are we going to have to grow all our own food and make our own clothes? And I say, “No, but how about 1945? When the war was over and we were going into a period of prosperity, I was a child in 1945 or 1950, how about that? We had telephones, we had cars, television was coming in.”

I mean, the idea that in order to reduce our impact we’re going to have to go back to living in caves is absurd. We’re way beyond the ability of the planet to sustain us. And you have to say if you go to a big box store like Wal-Mart–I was raised by parents who were married during the Great Depression. They always said “Live within your means. You have to work hard for money to buy the necessities in life, but you don’t run after money to buy more stuff.” Go to a big box store and ask yourself, “Wow, all the stuff we can choose,” how much is what you’d consider a necessity? Not just a necessity to keep you alive, but a necessity to give us a good quality of life. And my bet is the vast bulk of all that stuff, which is a product of an economy that is based on consumption, the vast majority of stuff would never be called a necessity. But we’ve got into this idea that “I just want to look good,” or “I want the latest thing.”

You know, I like to tell people, my family was impoverished after the Second World War. We lost everything because we were Canadians of Japanese origin. We lost all our stuff, shipped to a camp, and kicked out of British Columbia at the end of the war. And all my life, I’ve worn blue jeans. Why? Because denim wears like iron. And now I look at kids buying blue jeans costing hundreds of dollars that are already ripped. I don’t think it looks good, but I guess they think it’s fashionable and looks good. But what is the message in that purchase? It’s saying, “I don’t really care about the planet. I just want to look a certain way. I’m buying this stuff, but it doesn’t matter to me that it wears like iron, that it’s durable, because I’m going to toss it out when I’m done with it or when the fashions change.” That’s the kind of species we have become. And we’ve got to think very hard about that now as we look at the trinkets that are occupying us.

When the IPCC target came out in October last year, the next day in Canada, marijuana became legal and pushed everything out of the news. Like, that was it, where the IPCC report was one day wonder. Then in May of this year, the United Nations released a massive study by scientists that showed humans are causing a massive extinction crisis, that a million species of plants and animals are now in danger. The next day after it came out, Harry and Meghan had a baby. And guess what? It pushed everything out of the news, out of the media. What the heck kind of a species are we? We boast that we’re intelligent, but we’re totally preoccupied by these–I don’t know what it is–diversions. You know, sports, celebrity. If we could rally Canadians the way Canadians rallied around the Raptors when they won the NBA championship, to have a rally like that for a climate, think of the enormous potential of that. But no, we’re too distracted and we’re really not focused in the right way.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And certainly, if we defined intelligence as sustainability, our species would certainly rank very low in intelligence. But I thank you very much today for joining us, Dr. Suzuki. We’ve been talking with Dr. David Suzuki about the Canadian Parliament’s recent declaration of climate emergency and the subsequent approval of a Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by the Trudeau government. And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News.

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Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. He is Companion to the Order of Canada and a recipient of UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for science, the United Nations Environment Program medal, the 2009 Right Livelihood Award, and Global 500. Dr. Suzuki is Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and holds 27 honorary degrees from universities around the world. He is familiar to television audiences as host of the long-running CBC television program The Nature of Things, and to radio audiences as the original host of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks, as well as the acclaimed series It's a Matter of Survival and From Naked Ape to Superspecies. His written work includes more than 52 books, 19 of them for children. Dr. Suzuki lives with his wife, Dr. Tara Cullis, and family in Vancouver, B.C.