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“Real effective conversation,” my sister said, voice coated with derision.  “What good was that stupid symbolic gesture?  Why can’t you just talk?”

The context of this interchange was my participation in Climate101, the “largest act of youth-led climate civil disobedience in Canada’s history." On October 24, 99 youth were arrested peacefully crossing a police barrier on Parliament Hill to protest the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline, which would vastly increase the productive capability of the Alberta tar sands and cut through Indigenous territory.This action was a response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s lack of decisive climate leadership: given that the carbon accessible by current infrastructure would take us past our budget for holding global warming under 2°C, any new infrastructure under serious consideration presents a danger to future human civilization, and would render it impossible to fulfil our commitments under the 2015 UN Convention on Climate Change.

The Paris climate talks bring us back to that comment about “effective conversation.”  One might think that the adoption of the first universal climate agreement confirms the ability of so-called “conversation,” by elected representatives with no upheaval required, to offer a way out of the present crisis. 103 countries have agreed to take measures to hold global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But with what bold action will the governments of the world accomplish this?  By publishing emissions targets on an individual-country basis, with mandatory review every five years beginning in 2023. These publications and reviews—the realm of “polite conversation” in the world of climate change prevention—are the only legally-binding aspects of the Convention. There are no mandatory targets. In the words of activist Naomi Klein, countries are only “legally bound to keep negotiating forever”. Continuing, she says,“if this was 1992…in Rio, maybe we could mess around with this kind of incremental nonsense. But it is 2016... and we are up against the wall. We cannot kick this can down the road anymore —there is no more road.”

When government measures reflect so dimly the crisis-level problems they purport to address, the promise of “effective conversation” begins to wear thin. We could keep “discussing,” weighing the “necessities” of the economy against the very laws of nature, until the first target review in 2023—but by then, not only will we have run out of road, the road left will have become a highway and we will have no time left to avoid oncoming traffic. If we want to be alive for conversations in the future, we have to not get run over today.

We had a conversation with Trudeau—last fall, when he promised action on climate change. This fall, in the same fateful September in which, for the first time in recorded history, atmospheric carbon did not drop below 400ppm, Trudeau’s government approved a new liquefied natural gas project in BC. This decision demonstrated that polite requests and appeals to common sense are no longer effective. If citizens allow governments drag out the discussion, its bounds grow narrower and narrower. Our power is overshadowed by that of corporations with the resources to steer the “conversation” away from what is actually at stake; meanwhile, we race towards climate chaos.  

Direct intervention, therefore, is becoming increasingly necessary. There are times to continue the conversation, and there are times when, if our end is going to carry any weight, we have to demonstrate a willingness to say “no” and stand by that statement. These moments inject meaning into the discourse after them: in breaking free of the boundaries limiting discussion, we can set up new frameworks capable of dealing with looming catastrophe.

“Do I agree that in the future we’re going to have to get off fossil fuels?  Absolutely,” said Trudeau, responding to a Conference Board of Canada report on Canada’s dismal environmental record.  “Is that future tomorrow?  No, it’s not.”

But the “future” where have irreparably damaged the planet is already here.  There is no more room for ambivalence, for tentative steps, for timidity—in short, for the polite conversation that characterizes Canada’s environmental discourse. If we want “Real Change,” we have to have to demand it, we have to act, and we have to fight.

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