By Martha Hall Findlay

October 2, 2019

French version originally published as part of federal election series in La Presse, October 2, 2019

One has to admire Greta Thunberg – even if at times it’s also easy to be frustrated with her. Her concern is understandable, and her passion is something the world needs more of – not just for the environment and climate change, but for protecting and promoting human rights and freedoms, for reducing poverty and sickness around the world, for ensuring clean water for all, for preventing war and promoting peace. Perhaps some of those world challenges need their own Greta Thunbergs. But it is one thing to complain and to protest against inaction. Doing so is admirable in and of itself. But it is far more difficult to find real, practical solutions.

And for this, I would offer one piece of advice to Ms. Thunberg: Don’t focus on politicians. You yourself have already acknowledged their inability to act as strongly as you would have had them do. Many of the promises being made in the current federal election in Canada are unrealistically aspirational – and the politicians making them, across party lines, already know that they can’t fulfill most of them. Despite all of your exhortations, and all the people marching in protest, politicians won’t, or won’t be able to, do what you are asking of them.

Those who are democratically elected have many competing responsibilities. We all want them to address climate change, but they must also ensure that there are jobs, that people have incomes, food and heated homes; that there is health care, schools – and overall economic prosperity. These, and many more, are all things that we expect. And all of those things take a great deal of energy, of all kinds and all sources. Despite our wishes, it would be impossible for all of those things to be powered only by renewable sources in the medium term, let alone tomorrow.

Imagine if whoever forms the next federal government decreed that, immediately after the election – or even six months, or six years from now – Canada must stop producing or importing any oil. Not only would hundreds of thousands of jobs be lost in the West of Canada, so too would all of the jobs associated with the refineries in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Traffic in most cities would drop to almost nothing, mostly a few Teslas that only the wealthy have been able to afford. Outside of a city with public transit, virtually no one would be able to go anywhere – to a hospital, to work, to school. There would economic chaos, and the people would revolt – those politicians would not be in office long. Like it or not, politicians respond to what people want.

Therefore, the first call to action must be that we, the people, have to change our own energy consumption behaviours dramatically. Climate change is real, and we must act – but (clearly) we cannot wait for politicians to force action on GHG emission reductions, water use, etc. We – as customers, as consumers, as public opinion shapers – have immense power to shape the future. Imagine if the hundreds of thousands of people who recently marched in cities like Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary – all of them – refused to buy a new car unless it achieved far better mileage than today. Car companies would do far more. If each of those people refused to buy a coffee from a restaurant chain unless all of the chain’s buildings had net zero emissions, that restaurant would immediately start on major energy efficiency retrofits to its buildings. If each of those marchers who have roofs – all of them – insisted on installing solar panels, energy distributors would jump through hoops to make them available. Not only would each of those families produce fewer GHG emissions, this would create a virtuous circle of more demand, encouraging more supply, which would lead to greater economies of scale, which would lead to lower costs, which would lead to greater demand.

There are some who marched who already try to make those choices – but say 500,000 in Montreal all at once, in one city? Imagine for all of the people who marched in all of the world’s cities? Those numbers are – can be – powerful. Dear Ms. Thunberg – now is an opportunity to galvanize the support of all of those people. Not just to make a statement, but to take action themselves.

Martha Hall Findlay is President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation