The MSE Annual Environment Public Lecture: David Owen on the Myths of Efficiency and Hope for the Future
Thursday April 03rd 2014, 03:12 AM
Filed under: Conference,Conference review,Interview

David Owen is the author of several books and articles on the relationship between human consumption and the environment such as Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability, and more recently, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. His work as a journalist has lead him to undercover work as a high school student for an exposé on standardized testing, to several works on golf.

The MSE sat down with Owen before he gave his talk on the myths of efficiency as this year’s MSE Annual Environment Public Lecturer. What followed was a cynical, humorous, and yet hopeful discussion about what lead to his recent interest in environmental issues, the relationship between energy and wealth, and the ultimate question: will we change our environmentally destructive behavior before it’s too late?

David Owen

You’ve written on a variety of topics. How did you get interested in the topic of sustainability?

My wife and I lived in New York City until 1995, and then we moved to a 200-year-old house in the country. Suddenly, instead of this tiny apartment, we had 14 rooms and a yard. But, one of the things I noticed was how, even though it felt as though we had moved into “nature”, our environmental impact had increased rather than shrunk when we moved out of the big dirty city. We went from no cars, to one, and then two, and for a while we had three. Our power consumption soared by a huge amount.

There’s a number of things that I learned, and one of them was that, in the United States, the only successful public transit system, really, is New York City’s; it has half of all the subway stops in the country. The reason is that, transit doesn’t work if you move people and their destinations too far apart, because once they’re too far apart, you don’t have enough people per unit of area to support something like a bus system or a subway system. The ideal transportation, from an environmental point of view, is walking, but to achieve that, you need pretty high levels of density.

If you graph globally per capita gross domestic product, and per capita energy consumption, you basically have a 90-degree slope; in other words, as we get richer we use more energy, or as we use more energy, we get richer. And really, energy consumption is human wealth, and we have made our lives infinitely more comfortable than they were a thousand years ago. Unfortunately, the downside is that, by doing all that, which mostly involves setting things on fire, we’ve also had impacts on our world and the environment that we now have to cope with.

How does that energy slope compare between high-consumption countries?

It’s pretty much the same. Climate change is a global problem; you have to look at the global meter. What we’re really doing when we make our machines more efficient is we’re making them less expensive to use, and not just for us, but for everybody else. I think anyplace in the world where people are becoming more affluent, their energy consumption is rising. You see that, too, with renewables or with supposedly green energy ideas. So-called green energy tends to be additive; energy consumption tends to beget energy consumption. As usual, with our solutions to things, we’re more likely to be making things worse than we are making them better if we think about these problems in the way we usually think about them.

In the opening pages of The Conundrum, you introduce the idea of ‘heirloom technologies’ – technologies that are less energy intensive and more efficient in the long run. This seems to be in contrast with the technologies we use today – more energy intensive and less efficient in the long run because it has a shorter life span. Can we continue to support the kind of economy that thrives on the high consumption rates due these kinds of technologies?

It’s very hard to imagine an alternative. Someone said, “It’s easier for people to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” which I think is probably true.

Even if you decide not to change your wardrobe this year, you’re still going to spend that money on something, and what you’re really spending is energy; you’re expending environmental impact. If you save a $1000, now you’ll take a trip to Europe; so I’ve turned that into jet fuel. So, it doesn’t really matter how I shift it around, because everything that I do has those impacts.

People in the past have always predicted that, as we become more efficient, we’ll have this huge amount of leisure because we can satisfy our needs by working for a very brief period of time. But people tend to want more. There’s no reason for people to have huge amounts of credit card debt or live in houses that are too enormous; there’s no human need that drove that, it’s just the perversity of the way we are.

Would you move back to Manhattan?

No, not as long as I can afford my wasteful lifestyle. My wife and I have remodeled our house to make it smaller, so we’re heating less, but to have a global impact, everybody has to move at the same time. For example: I believe that in the United States, the top marginal income tax rates to should be higher, but I would not be willing to just contribute more money to the United States Treasury. I would support it if everybody had to do that, but I’m not going to do it myself because it’s just going to lighten the burden on somebody else – it won’t have any impact on the whole. Actually, if people believe that something good will come of it, they’re often willing to support sacrifices that they think are fair and that apply to everybody, but it’s when they feel that they’re losing their relative position that they squawk.

What would it take for the “whole” to move together?

I think it takes disaster, really. Look at a simple problem like health care – there’s nobody who thinks that the US healthcare system works well, and yet, there’s no political method for making it work. So if you move to a bigger problem that’s not just a US problem – it’s a global problem, there’s no agreement on how to fix it, there’s no agreement on exactly what the consequences are – I mean, it’s off the scale of anything that people have any ability to do.

I was the head of the zoning commission in my little town for a long time and you couldn’t tell there were ideological differences at the local level. At the local level, even the furthest person to the right is an environmentalist if he’s talking about his immediate environment; he wants it to be nice. I never knew what anybody’s party affiliation was based on what they thought about local issues. It’s when it becomes more abstract that this sort of division takes place. Once you get beyond the size of a high school, people get hard to govern.

Do you think we’re going to deal with our environmental issues on time?

I don’t know. I was trying to think: “If I was an environmental activist, what would I do?” and I think that I would try to achieve economic collapse in large affluent industrial countries, which might mean you might need to behave like the Tea Party. I think actually you could make the case that the Tea Party is the Green Party because if they were successful in their whole program, it would wind it [the American economy] back. It sounds sort of whacky, but the greenest things that have happened in the United States have been recession-related – putting people out of jobs makes them consume less.

What would be your prescription for the “Conundrum” of sustainable development where there are countries today that still need to increase their consumption to meet their basic needs?

[For] countries that are basically starting with a blank slate where there’s no middle class and there’s no grid for huge parts of the population, it’s a chance to build in a way that is sustainable. India now is building this extraordinary interstate highway, and China too. It’s too bad that they were starting without one [and] they didn’t think about it in a different way. That kind of growth has happened in China the way it’s happened everywhere; it’s this incredibly dirty, disgusting, crazy process the way it was done in this country.

Is it possible to reverse car-centric and low-density infrastructure in North America towards something that’s more conducive to public transit?

The problem isn’t the mode; it’s mobility itself. For example: my flight was cancelled yesterday and I couldn’t fly, so I drove. It was very pleasant; the roads were in beautiful condition, everything’s well marked, beautiful multi-lane highway – all the way here from Connecticut. I would’ve been happy to drive for another couple of hours – that’s the problem!

The ideal approach is to make it impossible for people to do anything but [take public transit], even if they have enough money, which is the advantage of a dense city; with 4 people going to dinner, you can’t take 4 cars, you can’t take any cars. It’s not a political decision by anybody. The ideal environmental solutions – where we take a blank slate world and we rebuild the way we want it – are the ones that are completely unconscious; it just becomes a part of what you have to do.

What do you hope people take away from your book?

Skepticism. All you smart young people, just be a little skeptical of conventional wisdom. I think it’s interesting to read back through some of the history of the environmental movement on this continent. It’s sort of discouraging to read. It’s still very much a “back to nature” kind of [philosophy], but being at one with nature is really a big problem. This idea that I’m entitled to experience a pristine nature means you have to spread out pretty far. We don’t tend to think of that as selfish consumption, we think of it as an enlightened thing.  But if you multiply it by 7 billion people, it doesn’t work. Sprawl is created by people escaping sprawl.

Do you have any hope for the future?

I do. I don’t necessarily believe that we’re going to make all of these terrible difficulties go away; I think we’re going to find ways to cope with them. But I’m glad I’m alive; I wouldn’t chose to have been unborn to reduce the global impact by one. I think that people would rather deal with a problem than not be around.

 

- Interview conducted and edited by Melissa Fundira

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The Arctic Law Colloquium: A Future of $200 per Barrel Oil
Thursday April 03rd 2014, 03:12 AM
Filed under: Conference,Conference review,Podcasts

JSDLP Logo

During their first event of the year, the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy (JSDLP) hosted an Arctic Law Colloquium on Offshore Resources & International Governance. The event featured many speakers from academia, industry, government, and beyond. This clip features Katia Opalka, adjunct professor at the McGill School of Environment,  environmental lawyer, and moderator for this panel, as well as Michael Bryers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law from the University of British Columbia.

Take a listen here and subscribe to the MSE podcast here.

- Melissa Fundira

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The Next Generation of Sustainability from UBC to McGill: John Robinson and The McGill Net Positive Project
Wednesday February 19th 2014, 11:41 PM
Filed under: Conference,Conference review,Interview,Podcasts

John Robinson pic

On January 24th, 2014, students,  faculty, and community members alike, found themselves at the very first McGill Net Positive Project Discussion.  The McGill Net Positive project is the first step in a community process to collaboratively imagine and design this hub for sustainability activities at McGill. As the first step in this direction, the McGill Net Positive Project enlisted the help of John Robinson, Associate Provost of Sustainability at The University of British Columbia (UBC). Mr. Robinson talked  about his experience with UBC’s Center for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), which is at the leading edge of green buildings on university campuses.

 Click here for the interview and subscribe to MSE podcast here!

- Melissa Fundira

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George McCourt on the MSE’s 15th Anniversary and the Future of Interdisciplinary Education
Saturday January 25th 2014, 05:55 PM
Filed under: Interview,Podcasts

George McCourt

The McGill School of Environment sat down with George McCourt, Associate Director of Student Affairs and Faculty Lecturer, to talk about the MSE’s 15th anniversary and the future of interdisciplinary education. Catch part 1 and part 2 of the interview and don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast!

- Interview conducted by Melissa Fundira

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Aaron Vansintjan and Hugo Martorell on Food Justice in Montreal
Thursday January 02nd 2014, 03:03 PM
Filed under: Interview,Podcasts

JAM

While the concept of food security is no stranger to agricultural discourse , food justice – the ability for everyone to grow, sell, and eat healthy affordable food – isincreasingly beginning to enter the conversation. Aaron Vansintjan and Hugo Martorell, two recent McGill graduates, co-founded JAMJustice Alimentaire pour Montreal or Food Justice Montreal. As their website outlines, this initiative aims to “connect people and organizations in Montreal who want to change from our current agro-industrial food system.” Barely a year old, JAM has already gown to encompass students and professors from universities across Montreal, activists, organizations, and a wide array of stakeholders pushing, not only for food security, but also food justice for all. Catch the interview right here.

Vansintjan and Martorell join the MSE in-studio as part of the very first in a series of a monthly collaboration with the McGill School of Environment and the Ecolibrium radio show on CKUT 90.3 FM. Catch the MSE segment on Ecolibrium every third Thursday of the month on-air or online at CKUT 90.3 FM, or as a podcast right here on the MSE blog. You can also subscribe to MSE podcast on iTunes for regular updates.

- Melissa Fundira

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Holly Dressel on the Sustainability of Eating Meat
Saturday December 21st 2013, 11:16 PM
Filed under: Interview,Podcasts

 Holly Dressel pic

At a time when vegetarianism and veganism extol the virtues of a meatless diet for a healthier environment, Holly Dressel – adjunct professor at the McGill School of Environment, author, researcher, and environmental activist – defends the sustainability of eating meat and advocates for a change towards smaller-scale mixed farming.

Catch the interview here.

Happy Holidays!

- Melissa Fundira

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The Thoreau Retreat: Recreating Walden in Mont Saint-Hilaire
Thursday December 12th 2013, 08:19 PM
Filed under: Comment

Thoreau

In 2008, the late McGill professor, Joan Marshall, submitted a proposal for a weekend course that was “designed […] to encourage students to explore their ecological identities.” Today, The Thoreau Retreat has grown from a group of 14 first-year students to a group twice that size, encompassing students from all years and all corners of the globe.

The Thoreau Retreat, built around Henry David Thoreau’s seminal work Walden, is filled with activities: hiking, song-sharing, movie nights, and lakeside meditations. But most importantly, the Retreat—now in its 4th year—offers students the rare opportunity to reflect in the stillness of the woods, just as Thoreau once did. As they would in a regular class, students ponder over workbooks and discuss topics from environmental deficit disorder to what it means to “live deliberately”, as outlined in Thoreau’s environmental virtue ethics. The invaluable difference, however, is the chance to learn from a rapidly decreasing natural environment, and to experience life as the human race has for the vast majority of its existence.

Lake Mt St. Hilaire

While many courses deal with theories regarding the natural environment, few venture beyond the “armchair philosophy” format. For the average McGill student, seldom does a course exist where students are on a first-name basis with their professors, interact with the subject of their studies, and are encouraged to embark on a journey of self-discovery. As aptly described by professor David Goodin, who co-taught this year’s retreat with Dr. Julia Freeman, the Thoreau Retreat is quite simply “the opposite of the standard, over-crowded amphitheater classroom of power-point lectures.”

As students return to their usual schedules, the lessons learned from the Thoreau Retreat leave their mark. “I was used to discussing the themes of Walden within the walls of a classroom” recounts Retreat participant Irene Dambriunas, “I always doubted that that was the way Thoreau intended his work to be taken in. Being with such a great group of students and professors in such a beautiful place as Mont Saint Hilaire gave me a fresh perspective on Walden, as well as my experiences as a student in the School of Environment.”

For those who hesitate to believe in the value of experiential learning, Professor Goodin’s conviction may help to dispel any doubts: “I believe if you have not been at the Retreat once during your MSE Program, you are not getting the most [out] of your time here at McGill.”

- Melissa Fundira

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SCIENCE VS. IDEOLOGY: MARK LYNAS ON WHAT THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT GOT WRONG
Wednesday November 13th 2013, 10:57 AM
Filed under: Interview

Mark Lynas is an author and public speaker on topics ranging from climate change to biotechnology. He was the climate change advisor to President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives before the latter was deposed in 2012 military coup d’état. Previously an environmental activist, Lynas made highly publicized changes to his stances on GMOs, nuclear power, and other polarizing topics within the environmental community. A panelist at this year’s A. Jean de Grandpré Distinguished Speaker Seminar Series held at McGill University, Lynas tackled questions on how to feed the world’s growing population amidst a looming food crisis. The MSE had the chance to interview him on issues regarding the difference between ideology and science, biotechnology, nuclear power, and the future of the Maldives.

Mark Lynas

What is the critical change in opinion you’ve had regarding certain environmental issues? 
I have had a change of mind about certain things, which are areas of difficulty for the environmental movement, but I haven’t ceased to be an environmentalist. What I’m trying to do is to have an evidence-based environmentalism. In some fairly critical areas, environmentalism doesn’t have the evidence base. The problem is, too much environmentalism is frozen in the 1970s or even earlier. Ideologies don’t like to shift, and that’s the problem with creating them.

What brought about this change in perspective from ideology to science-based environmentalism?
My environmental activism predated my interest in science. The worldview that I had then was a worldview which was formulated, not around science, but around activist notions of corporations being bad. It was an ideological worldview. Even me saying that science is the most important thing is in itself an ideological statement, and I accept that, but, I think it [science] is a more valid way of understanding the world than any other. If we didn’t have science, we wouldn’t even know the world was warming up, let alone be able to do something about it.

Is scientific knowledge the only valuable form of knowledge?
I think if the traditional forms of knowledge have evidence, then they qualify as scientific. There’s nothing about science that makes it inherently Western. It’s simply about having a testable hypothesis and an objective way of assessing evidence and then reaching a conclusion based on that. Traditional systems of knowledge have an important role, but they’re cultural rather than scientific. That doesn’t mean to say they’ve got no value and that doesn’t mean to say they should be forgotten about. We learn a lot about our cultural history and about the kinds of narratives and myths that people have come up with in the past to try and explain what was, then, inexplicable.

Despite a very public backlash from the environmental community, you assert that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crucial if we want to feed the world’s rapidly growing population. What are the common misconceptions of GMOs?
The most important misconception is that there’s any single category of GMO. There’s nothing which makes virus-resisting cassava, which I’ve seen in Uganda, the same category as insect-resistant corn in the Northern Plains of the United States. Similar techniques have been used to create the biology of those seeds, but they don’t have any relationship with each other when it comes to any potential environmental or socioeconomic impacts. The evidence is very clear that the way that GMOs are being used so far has been environmentally beneficial across the board, and the environmental movement has refused to accept that evidence.

A lot of the concern among the anti-GMO activists is that their patent-holders don’t have the intention to use it for society’s benefit. Is this a valid concern?
There are GMOs which have been developed by public-sector universities, by tax-payer funded scientists, without patents, and which will be offered free of charge for farmers – and they [the environmentalists] are still against that. So there’s no open source alternative as far as they’re concern. They’re against the technology across the board, and that’s not logical and it’s not productive. There’s a category error going on there. You’ve got to come up with real case studies for why this [GMO technology] has negative implications – and there are some. For herbicide-tolerant crops, there’s been many cases now where there [are] resistant weeds that have been coming up; we call them “superweeds”. But that predated GMOs; you get an evolution of resistance—as anyone who understands evolution can tell you—as soon as you put selective pressure in any direction. It’s like saying: “you shouldn’t ever use antibiotics because of resistance in bacteria, so therefore we should let people die of gangrene”; that’s basically the argument that has been made against GMOs.

What about the environmental degradation that comes with using round-up and other GMO-related chemicals?
They [farmers] were using worse herbicides in larger quantities before roundup-ready came into being. There’s this assumption that everyone was organic before. This has been exhaustibly studied by dozens of scientific experts and teams and published in hundreds of papers. They all come to a very similar conclusion: GMOs on aggregate have been environmentally beneficial. As an environmentalist, I can’t just deny that, otherwise I’m no better than the average climate change denier.

You have a new book called “Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power”. What are some of the misconceptions about nuclear power you outline?
We can’t decarbonize the world economy without it, and that’s the be all and end all. To have environmentalists campaigning against a very large-scale source of low carbon power, at the same as they say they’re concerned about climate change, strikes me as being kind of absurd. The misconception is that there’s something dangerous and scary about nuclear power. It has risks and benefits when you look at it, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Some forms of nuclear power are less safe than others – you have to be concerned about proliferation. The decarbonization challenge is one which the environmental community has made a huge contribution to. But, you don’t foreclose one of the major low-carbon options, just from an ideological hang-up from the 1970s, if you’re serious about climate change.

The case I made in the book was, even if we take Greenpeace’s figures for wind and solar deployed by 2030, if you take nuclear out of the mix, then we end up with higher emissions and much higher global warming. If you put nuclear in the mix at an increased level together with Greenpeace’s wind and solar, then we can really get somewhere in terms of mitigating climate change.

With increasing standards of living in the developing world, and the energy consumption that comes with it, should we be concerned about the existing high levels of energy consumption in the developed world?
Actually, energy consumption hasn’t been increasing in industrialized countries for several years now. There comes a point where demand for the marginal utility of having an extra thing flattens out or becomes negative, which I think is a line we’ve crossed in a variety of areas already in Western countries. But the picture in developing countries is very different because obviously the average standard of living is much lower in terms of consumption. My book had this concept of ‘planetary boundaries’, which I think is a useful conceptual notion. There are limits to growth in terms of overall consumption, there’s no doubt about that. Luckily, human demands are not infinite; the early environmentalists were wrong about that. But, there is an enormous amount of growth still latent in the systems because of development. So, that’s the critical challenge.

Can we bring the world’s population up to a Western level of consumption without reaching the ‘planetary boundary’?
I think it will be difficult but I don’t think it’s conceptually impossible. You could do it with nuclear power. You can do quite a lot of solar, particularly as a lot of growth will be in tropical areas, and there are large built up areas where solar can make a major contribution without having an environmental impact. But, there are challenges technologically in terms of storing intermittent renewable energy. It would be a bit presumptuous to map out a picture of what the world’s going to look like in 2050, but the important thing is to follow a path that seems to makes the most sense now.

You were the climate advisor to President Mohamed Nasheed who had the goal of turning the Maldives into the first carbon-neutral nation by 2020. Had it not been for his ousting in the coup d’état of 2012, do you think he could have achieved this goal?
It was always ambitious, not least the technical challenges, because the Maldives is hundreds of very small islands. All the islands currently run on diesel generators, which are pretty carbon intensive, and the plan is to try and get rid of them. The technical challenge is one thing, the political challenge was another, and the economic challenge was another still. None of those pieces in the jigsaw were in place. There’s no obvious, easy renewable solution to power whole islands permanently, there was no obvious source of hundreds of millions of dollars in investment you would need, and the politics [were] all over the place, where, the major challenge is still to get a properly running democratic system. It was a real plan, the policy was clear, and the president was forcefully behind it, but it was also meant to send a signal to the world, so it was symbolic as much as it was real.

Do you think any country will be able to achieve carbon-neutrality in the future?
Not in the immediate future, no. These processes of technological change take decades to play out, and in fact, it’s happening much slower than would need to be the case were we to move, properly, towards carbon neutrality.

- Interview conducted and edited by Melissa Fundira

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Defending the right to be cold: Sheila Watt-Cloutier on climate change, human rights, and Inuit culture
Sunday April 07th 2013, 04:39 PM
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who presented this year’s public lecture at the MSE, is an internationally acclaimed environmental and indigenous rights activist. She was born in Nunavik and grew up in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, before returning to the Arctic, where she currently lives in Iqaluit. She served as Canadian president of the Inter Circumpolar Council, an international body representing Inuit communities in Canada, Russia, Alaska and Greenland, from 1995 to 2002 and as the organization’s international chair from 2002 to 2006. During that time, she served as the representative for northern Indigenous people’s in the negotiation of the Stockholm Convention, which banned the production and use of persistent organic pollutants. In 2005 she and 62 Inuit elders launched the first ever petition linking climate change and human rights with the Inter American Council on Human Rights, against the United States’ government. I spoke with her before her lecture.

MSE: Could you start off by talking a bit about the severity of climate change for Inuit and other northern communities?

SWC: The changes are great and they have been happening now for a number of years and they’ve got worse in the last ten years. Cold and snow and ice are the foundations of our culture, they represent mobility and transportation and as soon as that starts to become precarious, its an issue of safety and security. Those issues are at the most stark changes that affect the daily lives. We are still hunting and fishing and gathering; we may have nine to five jobs, but in most areas, even those who work nine to five are still hunting on weekends and on holidays and there are a lot of people who are just out hunting all the time if they can afford too.

Country food remains extremely important to us, but its not just about the food itself, it’s the process of the hunt as well. So the changes are great. This year may be different because it was very cold. But we have to embrace the cold now, when it comes, because it’s not going to be every year and for ever. The trends are just too big to ignore. The ice usually forms much later . Even this year, which was very cold, the ice didn’t form until very late. Growing up it used to be September or October that the ice would form and now we’re lucky to have it form by Christmas. The effects of that are really drastic – the waters become too cold for the boats to go out but then there’s no ice for the snow machines to go on. So there’s a longer transition period where the hunter is just waiting.

And even when the ice freezes over, it forms differently. It’s not as thick and what you see on the surface is not what’s underneath, and its unpredictable. Hunters are now having more accidents, falling through when they normally would not have before. And there have been more search and rescue operations as a result of that [ice breaking off and stranding hunters.

There’s a lot more beach slumping that’s happening. There are other places that are being a lot worse hit than Canada and Alaska is worst of all. We have communities like Shismaref and Kivalina that are literally falling into the sea. So those are pretty dire situations.

MSE: Something climate change educators talk about a lot is how difficult it is to make people care about climate change when its effects don’t seem so tangible in southern Canada or the US. What is the difficulty of communicating climate change to people in, say, Montreal?

SWC: I think that’s starting to change. In the beginning people used to say, “Oh that’s their problem up there, it’s never going to affect me.” and “Why wouldn’t they want it to be warmer and why don’t they just assimilate?” I’ve heard it all. But it’s only going to be a matter of time, because the arctic is the early warning for the rest of the planet and whatever happens in the arctic is going to happen elsewhere. When I was working on the toxins issue I used to say some of these things. I used to say, “It’s going to happen.” And people would say, “I don’t know…” But it’s happening now.

I launched that many Strong Voices program here, which connects the vulnerable people of the arctic to Small Island Developing States, because as the arctic melts, they sink, due to rising sea levels. So we created that program so that the vulnerable people could get together and become a strong voice in the UN system and other venues.

MSE: Climate change and human rights seemed to be two unconnected things until recently, and now it’s very mainstream to link them. What prompted you to make that connection both practically and theoretically?

SWC: When I was working on the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) issue, it was already a very daunting task to get people to understand that it was not just a chemical problem, that it was a human story. People were absolutely negatively affected and that their health was impacted. That Inuit women had to think twice about breastfeeding because of toxins in their breast milk was a start reality that the world needed to wake up to, and it did, once we were able to put a human face on it. So we were quite successful with that particular work that we spent a lot of time and energy on.

That treaty, the Stockholm Convention, became the fastest treaty to be signed, ratified and implemented in the history of the UN. And it’s a great success story, where governments and aboriginal peoples worked together to do the right thing. So it was very good that we had that success behind us when we started to really focus climate change. Not that climate change and POPs are disconnected from each other – nowhere else are they more connected [than in the arctic], because they’re both about health and well-being and cultural survival.

One is always thinking about how to put oneself on the map, and one constantly asks “What recourse do we have?“ There was a real synchronicity happening. At one point one of my advisers came to me and said: „Someone is trying to get hold of you from the US: Earth Justice and the Center for International Environmental Law, who have been working on linking human rights and climate change legally, and they’d really like to talk to you.“

And this was the tool that was missing in all of this. And not just from the head, but also because my grandson was at risk of losing this amazing, resilient culture that I had been born in. I traveled only by dog team for the first ten years of my life, I didn’t know an English until I was six. That’s the foundation I come from and I know that it isn’t just about the hunting, but the principles and value of the culture and how important it is for our young people to be balanced in both areas. Knowing that the suicide rates are very high in our world, we have some of the highest rates of suicide [makes it] very personal. I used to say that it’s not personal against the United States when I target them for their inaction, but it is personal when Inuit women have to think twice about nursing their babies, and it is personal when  so many young people are losing their connection to our culture, which we feel is really part of the solution to what is happening now.

There’s no doubt that it’s a human rights issue. When countries of the world know the cause of what’s happening to the arctic and still say we’ll find other means to survive and we’ll find other jobs by opening up mining and resource extraction. And even though our leaders are still heading that way, in reality many people are starting question whether we’re putting all our eggs into one basket and investing in the one thing that’s really hurting us, which is greenhouse gas emissions.

MSE: Could you talk more specifically about the Human Rights complaint that you filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Even thought it didn’t result in a declaration against the United States, do you still view it as a productive course of action?

SWC: It was a remarkable experience, because we launched this petition and it took a year for them to respond to us, and when they did it was a very short, curt letter saying that they didn’t see any real legal connections [between climate and human rights] and that they couldn’t proceed.  But I’m very persistent and made calls and wrote letters and we did what we could to at least get a hearing on the legal impacts, which they finally agreed to do and we had historic testimony linking climate change and human rights. The commission didn’t want to view our Inuit petition, but [wanted] to get a better picture on other parts of the world that are being negatively affected. And although I don’t represent other parts of the world, I’m always been tk inclusive with my work. What happens in the arctic belongs to everyone because it’s going to impact everyone. So we went to testify and never heard back from them.

I wonder what really happened there. At the time, just before we received the official letter from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights saying they didn’t think they had enough to go ahead with the petition, we had heard about it from someone in the State Department that it wasn’t going to happen. Why would the State Department know about it before we did? There was some politics at play there I suspect.

-Interview conducted and edited by Emilio Comay del Junco

 

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Do you believe in science? An interview with Katia Opalka
Tuesday February 05th 2013, 04:29 PM
Filed under: Uncategorized

Katia Opalka, a Montreal-based environmental lawyer and professor at the School of Environment, gave a talk recently entitled “What a fool believes (in 2012): Journalists, Scientists and End of the World-ists.” I interviewed her shortly afterward to talk about environmental protection, education, faith, and Canadian politics.

 MSE: Your talk opened with a contrast between knowledge and belief, and one of your big themes was the fact that the empirical evidence supporting phenomena like climate change seem powerless in the face of industry and politics. Might we need more faith in science along with pure scientific knowledge?

KO: Anyone in the scientific community will tell you that science is just as political as anything else: who gets funded, what they research, who gets published, what the information gets used for.

I think that in order for there to be a public shift in the direction of [not] just believing stuff because we don’t know whom to believe and believing science, there needs to be a framework, which is honest, and which says to the public: “Look, we understand why you are just as wary of science and scientists as of any other claim that someone has made. It’s reasonable for you to be distrustful, you’re not stupid.”

One of the things is that you need to promise is  that the disagreements that scientists have over the interpretations of findings [will be made public]. A lot is being asked of the public – major shifts in consumption, in transportation, and not only that. The public as a whole is getting worried with the storms that have been going on. People I think are rapidly going to move into a state of serious worry, and once people are afraid for their personal safety and personal livelihood, it’s not going to be hard for them to say, “forget science altogether, I’m going for God.”

MSE: As someone who teaches, what kind of role do you think education might have in getting a way out of the situation we’re in?

KO: Much more attention needs to be focused on the factors that affect how theory gets translated into practice. People need to be able to list off those factors the way kids sing the alphabet song.

In universities, while it may be difficult for students who haven’t been out there in the market or in the world and maybe can’t appreciate these real world factors, it’s amazing to be taught them because it helps you see afterwards when you’re out doing things, what’s going on.

I think that McGill could do a better job in trying to do what the MSE has started to try and do, which is to say: “If you have an environmental objective  – say trying to preserve biodiversity in Canada – there are very clear answers to what’s going to prevent that from happening.”

Maybe in other fields, it’s okay for things to remain at a theory level, but in environmental protection, my measure of success for any environmental document is to ask “is it better for the environment that you wrote this thing?”

MSE: A lot of your talk was about Canada, and one of the things you mentioned is that you’d like to see the next election play out between a renewed Liberal party and moderate Conservatives. Do you think that could be enough to get us out of the quite dark picture you painted?

KO: Really, really far. I believe that to understand Stephen Harper’s agenda for oil and gas and the environment, you need to look at George Bush and Dick Cheney. And it’s exactly the same, except that it’s much harder for an American president to just ditch all environmental laws and get rid of the EPA, as I said in my speech. As we saw in Canada, it’s really easy for a Canadian prime minister to do that.

 -Emilio Comay del Junco