It was a humid day in late July. I was inside an echoing recreation room at the Trinity Bellwoods Community Centre in Toronto listening to Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change. He was explaining the facets of the province’s Climate Change Action Plan. His voice was barely audible from even the fourth row of seating, competing both with the sounds of pick-up basketball in the nearby gym and the rustling of approximately 100 anxious Spadina-Fort York constituents waiting to share their ideas about how the federal government can best fight climate change.
This town hall, hosted by the Liberal MP of Spadina-Fort York Adam Vaughan, was just one of over eighty town halls being hosted across the country this past summer. On Earth Day 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau and Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, launched a public engagement campaign to garner input and ideas for the country’s National Climate Plan. They invited all Canadian MPs to host consultations, an invitation making good on the Liberal campaign promises to both act on climate change and increase public input between election cycles. As part of People’s Climate Plan—a coalition of Canadian environmental groups dedicated to mobilizing citizen involvement in the National Climate Plan—I attended several of these town halls and heard the accounts of many others.
In theory, ideas from these town halls will get typed-up into reports and sent off to the working groups that Minister McKenna established to research and write the National Climate Plan. It is unclear, however, how the ideas from each report will be weighed. At the town halls, and on the official online portal, some ideas aligned with climate science while others diminished the impact of climate change to a hoax. The government has to decide where each idea falls on the scale from worthy to useless, and with an issue that is as scientifically and politically complex as climate change, the choices will be contentious. The problem is not that all ideas will not be implemented, but rather the larger statement that the government is making by giving value to ideas that represent certain “positions.”
When I say position, I am describing a stance on climate action—pro- or anti- something. When discussing climate change in Canada, this can often boil down to a position on oil sands development and a place on the political spectrum. At the Toronto town hall hosted at the Evergreen Brickworks, McKenna emphasized that we can have a climate plan that makes everyone happy, and that the economy and environment can work hand in hand. The economy-environment argument is true but not groundbreaking, as experts have been saying this for years. It is only when we equate economy to oil sands development that this statement becomes impossible. We cannot extract all of our fossil fuel reserves and have a climate plan that honors a 1.5ºC or 2ºC target. The math simply does not add up.
To avoid catastrophe, some people with particular positions will be upset. Unlike siblings who divide a dessert evenly, the complexity and the brutal impact of climate change policy cannot be underestimated. In climate change negotiations, we are fighting against earth systems that will continue irrespective of our policies or lack thereof. They are borderless, cannot negotiate reasonably, and could not care less if everyone is pleased with Canada’s National Climate Plan. A climate plan that lets all positions “win” will not work. Progress in some areas, like emissions reductions, will be cancelled by investment others, like fossil fuel subsidies and fossil fuel infrastructure development.
The government should focus less on positions and instead focus on interests. All of us have an interest in having a country free of controllable extreme weather events, and having good jobs for all citizens in the country.
In principled negotiation, negotiators are not focused on meeting in the “middle” between disparate positions. Instead, they look at each group’s interests, recognizing that there is more than one way to meet one’s needs. In the well known book Getting to Yes, authors Robert Fisher and William Ury illustrate the principle “focus on interests, not positions” with an example:
There are two people in a room, one wants the window closed, one wants the window open—those are their positions—and there is no way to meet in the middle and satisfy both sides. However, if we focus on their interests, to have airflow in the room and to stay warm, we can come up with a solution that does satisfy. Perhaps we provide a blanket for the person who is afraid of being cold.
Canada needs to release a National Climate Plan that is in line with science, will prevent warming over 1.5ºC, and respect Indigenous rights. There is also a need for the provinces and especially the people currently relying on a fossil fuel economy not to get left behind, a fear that usually sparks a pro-oil position. The latter problem is not solved by continuing to invest in an industry that is failing by simultaneously losing profits and destroying the planet.
When dealing with climate change, meeting in the middle undermines the interests of both sides. By approving pipeline projects, providing fossil fuel subsidies, and failing to mobilize renewable resources, any climate plan will be in vain. Money, time, and energy will be spent on a climate plan that is in direct competition with other actions being taken by the government. Certain energy producers will be upset with the amount of tax dollars being spent on a climate plan, and climate activists will be upset that the plan is doomed from the start.
At the end of the three Toronto town halls which I attended, the MPs stood at the front of the room after a hearing near unanimous called for strong climate action, and said something to the effect of, “We hear what you are saying Toronto, but remember, there is Alberta.” Such a comment confuses the positions and interests of Canadians.
These public consultations should not be about meeting in the middle. This climate plan need not subscribe to an Ontario versus Alberta dichotomy. What Canada needs to do is establish a plan through which the country can transition together. It needs a plan in which there is justice for re-trained oil sands workers, for which oil worker themselves are advocating, and Indigenous peoples alike.
McKenna advocated for a 1.5ºC target at COP21 in Paris, and for the inclusion of Indigenous rights in the operative text of the agreement—two demands that are not only admirable, but also necessary if we are to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. Sadly, the words and actions of the government are not matching the strong stance McKenna took in Paris. The Liberals have yet to change the Harper-era emission reduction targets. They are approving energy infrastructure projects on Indigenous land without consent, and unlike both the US and China, Canada has not ratified the Paris Agreement. Canada’s first ever National Climate Plan will be our government’s opportunity to match its actions to their rhetoric by initiating a country-wide transition guided by interests, not positions.
By Alexa Waud
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.