Do We Really Care About Climate Change in Newfoundland and Labrador?

November 19, 2017 ·

Climate change is a global issue whose major actors — and factors — seem impersonal and impenetrable. Corporations, government bodies and industry influencers make our personal attempts to reduce our own individual daily burning of fossil fuels — e.g. taking Metrobus, walking to school or work when possible, etc. — seem insignificant. Our individual efforts (or equally, our personal ignorance) thus look to be inconsequential in the face of the problem of climate change, which in turn drives many into a state of apathy.

But presumably not everyone has met the issue of climate change with complete resignation. Not everyone has covered their eyes and ears to mute the mumble jumble of convoluted, self-interested political-speak, overly technical scientific data and proliferation of semi-truths and FAKE NEWS! in the media. If that was the case, I doubt you would be reading these words.

But how much of the question “Do we care about climate change?” is entangled with the questions, “Are we going to do anything about it?” and “Are we optimistic that we even CAN do anything about it?”

I think most of us would answer this set of challenges with “Yes, but…”: “Yes, but I feel my actions are inconsequential.” “Yes, but not many others seem to care so large-scale collective action isn’t possible.” “Yes, but I don’t have faith in our government or multinational corporations to do anything about it.”

I personally do think that many of us care about our future generations, each other, and our common home, and as an extension of this, we are also concerned about climate change. When it comes down to the wire, in our hearts, tangibly, practically, personally, and emotionally, the our close relations with others and the well-being of our families are what matters to us — particularly in our most trying and existentially threatening moments. And this concern extends to our children, their children, and so on.

But if the common feeling is that individual efforts — the philosophy of “everyone-does-their-part,” — does not produce an effective force against climate change, then to what extent can we — those who concede that we care about the future of the planet and our children as a connected issue, we, who also admit that the poor suffer the most from climate change and weather related disasters, — to what extent can we collectively act and do something about climate change?

The fantasy of a global community seems to have little to no relevance on how we live our lives. The clothes we wear, the products we consume, the technology we use daily, are typically produced in conditions most of us would find deplorable and downright indigestible if we had to witness them. The disparity between the rich and poor on a world scale (for example, the fact that about 800 million people are living on less than $2 per day) should detonate any of our illusions about interpersonal care between the citizens of the world. Consequently, although we know climate change is a global issue, it often seems we depend on large governmental organizations and state representatives (rather than our common sense of care) to do something about it

Yet these actors are failing miserably. The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, and Trump’s clarification that the U.S. will not pay the 3 billion dollars Obama promised to the Global Climate Fund, are exemplary of that fact. Instead of committing to strategies of mitigation or even adaptation to climate change, Trump has publicly expressed his skepticism concerning the reality of climate change over one hundred times, and routinely professes his commitment to a coal, oil and gas economy, along with exercising a mythological appeal to blue collar workers to further his agenda. And frankly, Canada is not much better in its vehement commitment to expanding oil production. Furthermore, despite pressure from the UN, we in Canada currently have no plans for how to meet the 2030 target for cutting emissions. This is largely due to a complete lack of will to stop or curb the future development of fossil fuels in Canada.

So who is the “we” who could collectively act here?

For a New Earth has increasingly emphasized over the past two years that we are a Newfoundland and Labrador based initiative. One of our goals is to think globally, but to act locally. The way that people relate to each other in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has always been tied to the land, and this for better or for worse. The narrative of our political and economic history, as Dr. Jerry Bannister among others has shown, is tied up with a Newfoundland nationalism that has been both productively motivating and stubbornly impeding.

I thus want to propose that, in reference to the question posed here — do we really care about climate change? — that we consider the “we” as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians and people who call Newfoundland and Labrador their home.

I think that the same sense of connectedness to one another and our shared identity can both, on the one hand, prompt us to come together in the face of disaster (for example, our responses to the Fort MacMurray and the Froude Avenue fires), and on the other, be misused to reinforce a bias in our choice of democratic representatives, to scathingly distinguish authentic Newfoundlanders and Labradorians from CFA’s, and arguably, can to induce us to go ahead with large scale energy products that are doomed to be economic failures. But could this collective identity and love, along our unique ecological disposition in this province, propel us into action concerning climate change?

If the answer would entail renouncing oil profits in the name of ideology, I would answer no.

In Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador alike, if it is profitable to drill and extract oil, we are going to do it. Oil companies may adopt varying strategies in the direction of either greenwashing or slowing down their production rates, but must remain skeptical as to why these companies would do this. Green washing by corporations is typically not an indicator of sort of paradigm shift. Rather, in cases like Norway, slowing down oil production seems to have been in view of increasing profit over time, and furthering the goal to be the so called “last man standing” or sole player in a given oil market or area.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that small lifestyle changes by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians towards reducing personal carbon emissions will not stop huge corporations and factories in our own backyard from producing fossil fuels. Worse again is the reality that Canada “exports most of the fossil fuels we produce,” and thus a decrease in our local carbon footprints will not have a significant impact on Canada’s decision to expand and pursue oil production.

In our province, after the devastating decrease of oil prices in recent years and the effect on the our local economy, it is obvious that, whether we care about climate change or not, we should be diversifying our sources of income. But if we are to choose solutions in the future that specifically make a step away from the oil and gas industry, there are two major factors to consider: (1) the current political situation, (2) the relation between our lifestyles and the relation to our geography and infrastructure.

Muskrat Falls has shown itself to be an economic failure which has significantly negatively impacted the future of large scale green energy in the province. When initiatives in small countries like Denmark and Norway towards a green diversification of their economy are presented as an analogy for the possibilities of Newfoundland and Labrador, most of us locals laugh. What politician would touch that issue with a ten foot pole? The fact that Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador is emphasizing the bleak reality that almost no one wants to be a politician in this province is not irrelevant here.

I think, realistically, alternative large scale green energy projects will not to be the answer to our future. Rather, the impending question for our provincial politicians in the coming years seems much more related to whether we are going to see the failure of Muskrat Falls reflected directly on our energy bills. Interestingly, as discussed by local economist Dr. Jim Feehan, if we force Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to pay for Muskrat Falls through a direct increase in our energy bills, the result could be that individuals search for alternative heating options for their homes, which would bring us right back to the same carbon emissions problem have now.

The second point to consider in whether we will decide in the near future in Newfoundland and Labrador to take a step away from the development of fossil fuels is the particularity of this physical place itself, and the relation of geographical considerations to our lifestyle. To live on the island of Newfoundland in particular is to be committed to Newfoundland, whether you’re a Newfoundlander born and bred or a Come-From-Away (CFA). This is another factor that contributes to our shared sense of identity: that is, the fact that we are stuck here. Our geography poses a challenge when conceiving of alternatives to air travel for getting off of the island. It also makes envisioning mass-scale cycling and the implementation of effective street cars difficult.

But we have to think about what things we can change about our lifestyles in reference to living on this rock, or in regions of Labrador which also suffer from harsh winters, are marked by rugged landscapes and have poor connection possibilities for travel to the rest of Canada (such as the still largely unpaved Trans-Labrador Highway). The St. John’s sprawl has increased dramatically over the past twenty years, yet alternatives to vehicle-travel in the city (and in the rest of the province) have not seemed to increase. Further to this, we have since offered no deterrents to people who live a carbon-heavy lifestyle day to day, and there are no incentives in place for people who work, on the other hand, to live more sustainably.

In general, we must deal with a philosophico-sociological question which I think remains largely unanswered in this province: what type of province do Newfoundlanders and Labradorians want to live in? A province that provides effective healthcare, a thriving university and that invests in grassroots initiatives to care for our common home? Or an individualist province with the lowest possible taxes subsidized by the exploitation of natural resources?

It is my hope that by engaging in local events and active, trans-disciplinary discussions surrounding ecology and the future of our province, we can change the framework of considerations which inform our disposition in key decision making processes. Hopefully in the crucial, futural moment of caesura in which we will have to decide “what next?” for Newfoundland and Labrador, this disposition will be enough to carry us away from the gospel of fossil fuel development as we quite literally try to keep this rock afloat.

Kyla Bruff

This post is also featured on Kyla Bruff’s personal blog, www.gotmedrove.com.