Climate campaigners are misguided

Toronto, Ontario, became ground zero for North American climate campaigners recently. On July 5, over 10,000 people demonstrated in the city as part of the “March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate.” Three days later, the Ontario government hosted the Climate Summit of the Americas (CSOTA) with presentations from luminaries such as former vice-president Al Gore, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, and California governor Jerry Brown.

Very much like last September’s People’s Climate March in New York City, the demonstration attracted an improbable coalition of labor unions, aboriginal groups, students, environmentalists, faith organizations, health care workers, and anti-poverty and other social justice organizations. Both marches were led by climate activists, in Toronto’s case, David Suzuki and Naomi Klein from Canada and Bill McKibben and Jane Fonda from the United States.

Despite the varied, and even conflicting goals of participants, organizers in Toronto and New York City attempted to put a unified face on the events. McKibben’s 350.org called the march “a spectacular demonstration of unity and solidarity” and asserted “we’re all engaged in a common struggle.”

But it is hard to see how rallies focused on the unrealistic goal of ‘stopping climate change’ benefits nurses, anti-poverty activists, and wildlife campaigners. Not only are the linkages between reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – both marches’ major targets – and these other causes weak, but climate mitigation actions often work against health care, social justice and wildlife protection.

Like the New York City event that was held two days before an important climate conference at U.N. headquarters, a major objective of the Toronto march was to bring attention to CSOTA, the government’s global warming summit. CSOTA‘s goal was simple, namely “to work towards commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and highlight opportunities for investing in a global low carbon economy.”

That CSOTA did not include presentations on poverty, health care or social justice suggests that climate activists took advantage of campaigners in those important fields to swell the rally size to heighten media coverage.

Before again marching to the beat of climate activists’ drums, workers concerned with eradicating poverty, improving health care and social justice need to think carefully. It is not just that they are wasting their time at climate marches, but that they are unwittingly supporting a movement that works against their interests.

For example, by promoting the idea that CO2 emissions must be reduced to prevent dangerous climate change, climate mitigation activists support the expanded use of biofuels. This is resulting in 6.5 percent of the world’s grain being diverted to fuel instead of food, causing food price spikes that are a disaster for the world’s poor.

The demand for biofuels also creates serious problems for indigenous landowners in developing countries. In a February 2015 open letter to the European Parliament endorsed by 197 civil society organizations from Asia, Africa and Latin America, it was asserted:

“The destruction of forests and fertile agricultural land to make way for oil palm plantations is jeopardizing the food sovereignty and cultural integrity of entire communities who depend on the land as their source of food and livelihoods.”

Replacing virgin forests with monoculture plantations to provide palm oil for biodiesel also greatly reduces biodiversity over vast regions.

In another attempt to reduce CO2 emissions, hundreds of thousands of industrial wind turbines (IWT) are being constructed worldwide – 6,736 of them in Ontario alone. Only 4 percent of the province’s power came from wind energy in 2013 and 1 percent from solar, yet together they accounted for 20 percent of the commodity cost paid by Ontarians. So, electricity rates have soared, mostly affecting the poor.

IWTs kill millions of birds and bats across the world. Ontario’s situation has drawn the attention of Save the Eagles International which headlined their May 23 news release, “Migrating golden eagles to be slaughtered in Ontario.” They showed that Ontario turbines are being placed directly in the path of migrating golden eagles, already an endangered species.

Besides a significant loss in property value for the homes of people living near IWTs, health concerns abound. A particularly tragic example is occurring in West Lincoln, Ontario.  Despite public objections, wind developers have received approval to install at least 77 3-Megawatt IWTs in the region, each as tall as a 61-story building.

Local resident Shellie Correia is particularly concerned.  Her 12-year-old son Joey has Sensory Processing Disorder and must not be exposed to excessive noise. Correia explained to the government’s Environmental Review Tribunal, “On top of the incessant, cyclical noise, there is light flicker and infrasound. This is not something that my son will be able to tolerate.”

The Ontario government does not care and a 609-foot high IWT is being built only 1,800 feet from their home.

The drive to reduce CO2 emissions makes it difficult for developing countries to finance the construction of vitally needed power plants. For example, in 2010 South Africa secured a $3.9 billion loan to build the Medupi coal-fired power station only because developing country representatives on the World Bank board voted for approval. The United States and four European nation members abstained from approval because of their concerns about climate change. They apparently wanted South Africans to use wind and solar power instead, sources too expensive for widespread use even in wealthy nations.

Finally, because of the belief that humans control climate, only 6 percent of the one billion dollars spent every day across the world on climate finance goes to helping vulnerable people cope with climate change today. The rest is spent trying to stop phenomena that might someday happen.  This is immoral, effectively valuing the lives of people yet to be born more than those in need today.

In all of these cases, climate mitigation takes precedence over the urgent needs of the present. Groups focused on eradicating poverty, improving health care, and social justice must distance themselves from climate activists, not march with them.

Tom Harris is Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.