Reflections on a burning summer and the precarious terrain between hope and despair

Seth Klein
Protesters, joined by faith leaders and members of Extinction Rebellion Toronto, take over an intersection in downtown Toronto as part of a demonstration declaring a climate crisis, June 10, 2019. Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn / Canada's National Observer

Sept. 8, 2023

Sometimes, in the eye of a storm, it can be hard to tell when the winds have shifted. Victories often don’t occur in a clear-cut timeline, nor can they always be pinpointed to a specific event. Darkest before the dawn, as they say. When we look back at this time, maybe — just maybe — the spring and summer of 2023 will be remembered as a pivot period.

Maybe I’m grasping here as we come to the end of this summer of devastating events. But despite all the heat, the fires, the drought, the floods; despite all the delay, the policy foot-dragging and disappointments, might it be that we’re winning? Is it just possible we are witnessing a turning point in the climate struggle?

Sure, much of the news ain’t great. The spring saw the UCP re-elected in Alberta (in the context of brutal fires and a provincial state of emergency, no less), and now the Danielle Smith government is turning its back on renewables as the premier wars with the federal government’s belated and modest climate initiatives. In March, the B.C. and federal governments approved Cedar LNG, yet another fossil fuel project whose exported liquefied fracked gas will produce more carbon emissions each year than the entire city of Vancouver. And throughout the summer, a parade of fossil fuel giants from Shell and BP to Suncor decided to flip us all the bird and declared they were reconsidering their short-lived flirtations with renewable energy and instead doubling down on oil and gas (in Suncor’s case, even as they announced layoffs of 1,500 workers). These profit-hoovering firms are telling us who they are, and we should believe them.

And yet, this spring also saw Norway’s Equinor announce a three-year delay of the Bay du Nord project off Newfoundland, possibly putting the climate-defying project on ice for good. Orders for electric buses are starting to take off. The federal government has tabled new regulations to achieve a zero-emission electricity grid by 2035 (although the draft regulations need much strengthening). Nanaimo just joined a growing list of B.C. municipalities in announcing that new buildings won’t be permitted to heat with gas or other fossil fuels. Last month, the people of Ecuador defied their president’s recommendation and voted in a binding referendum to end oil drilling in a protected area of the Amazon. And legislators in California (long an oil-producing state with a population equivalent to Canada’s) just voted to endorse the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

These are incomplete lists of both the good and bad news. Big picture, finally, after two decades of merely flatlining our carbon pollution, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are now slowly starting to trend downward. Still, our reduction trajectory remains incongruent with what science and justice demand of us.

Everything, everywhere, all at once

But something else happened this summer, harder to pin down but possibly of greater long-term significance. It has long been the curse of the climate crisis that it tends to move in slow motion, and the extreme weather events it spawns do not occur everywhere at once. Consequently, these devastating events have failed to collectively galvanize us to action.

But this summer was different. The global trail of climate-induced disasters has been unmistakable. And this summer was also the first in which almost all Canadians experienced the emergency firsthand. Perhaps this collective experience — in which we all stared the crisis in the face and tasted the disruption to come — will signal a shift in the zeitgeist we’ve long awaited.

This summer also saw an active debate within the climate movement about how we should be communicating all these developments, with some accusing others of too much “doomerism.” While it is true that only bad news can cause too much despair and defeatism — an all-too-common response — it is also the case that, for a majority of Canadians, the polls clearly show they are not yet scared enough.

In the battle for our lives, columnist @SethDKlein asks: Is it possible we're winning?

As for me, I see these debates between hope and fear as a false dichotomy. Most of us are motivated by a complicated and highly personal mix of hope and fear, anger and love. Different strokes for different folks. The greatest communicators in a time of emergency masterfully manage to articulate the severity of the threat while still imparting hope that the peril can be overcome. That’s the magic we seek.

I’m often asked how I stay optimistic in the face of the climate crisis, and I usually feel an impulse to oblige such requests for hope. But the truth is, most days I’m not optimistic. All of us who follow the latest climate science and the daily global climate news walk a razor’s edge between hope and despair. When I am onboarding a new person to our team at the Climate Emergency Unit, I say: “Thank you for signing up. This project is a bit of a Hail Mary. The path to victory is very narrow. And we’re probably gonna lose. But what else can we do but give it our best shot, in the company of other good people.” As the climate scientist Kate Marvel has said, this battle for our lives doesn’t need optimists, it needs heroes — people of courage, which she defines as “the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.” (And yes, that really is her name.) Or as the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci famously wrote (while imprisoned by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini), we need a “pessimism of the intellect, but an optimism of the will.”

I cut my teeth politically as a teenager in the nuclear disarmament movement of the mid-1980s. That, too, was a time of existential threat. But the threat operated differently. A nuclear war either would or would not happen. Climate doesn’t work like that. This existential threat is already underway. As the events of this summer have driven home, the emergency is not somewhere else, sometime in the future; it is here and now. And crueller still, even if we were to do everything right as of tomorrow, quickly driving down our carbon emissions as the scientists say we must, things will still get worse before they get better. Some additional heating is already baked in.

That’s a hard message, and it doesn’t easily lend itself to mobilizing. And yet, rally we must. Because, as the saying goes, climate is a matter of degrees, with each fraction of a degree increase in average global temperature worse than the last, but a little better than the next. Each fractional increase is marked by gut-wrenching loss, measured in thousands or millions of lives. And yet, to not do whatever one can to prevent the next fractional progression is a First World conceit and obscene.

Some define optimism as the confidence that things will work out — surely not a well-supported sentiment — while hope means holding on to belief that a good outcome remains possible. By that fine distinction, it’s worth holding on to hope, if for no other reason than because history is full of surprises. As the great American historian Howard Zinn wrote just before his death, “I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played… There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible. What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability.”

If this summer doesn't galvanize us and force a rethink of climate policy, what will? How can real climate action still be considered too politically risky? Surely, any leader fit for these times, presented with the devastating events of this summer, can rally the public around a genuine climate emergency plan.

We need our elected leaders to speak forthrightly a basic truth — the era of fossil fuels is coming to a close. This summer provides an opening for leaders of courage to say to the public: We need to rethink fracking and LNG and offshore oil and other new fossil fuel infrastructure. As Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee stated this summer, “The climate change bomb has gone off… What the scientific community is telling us now, is that the Earth is screaming at us… We have to dramatically increase our efforts. There's good news here. We can do this. Look, we're electrifying our transportation fleet. We're electrifying our homes. This is a solvable problem, but we need to stop using fossil fuels. That is the only solution to this massive assault on humanity.” More of that, please.

In the meantime, all out for the Sept. 15 to 17 Global Days of Action to End Fossil Fuels! (You can find your nearest action here.) As we bid adieu to this summer of fires, storms and heat, and as the United Nations secretary-general convenes a special Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, this is the time to give political expression to the summer we’ve all experienced and demand that our leaders meet this moment.

[Top photo: Protesters, joined by faith leaders and members of Extinction Rebellion Toronto, take over an intersection in downtown Toronto as part of a demonstration declaring a climate crisis, June 10, 2019. Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn / Canada's National Observer]