B.C. authors Am Johal, Matt Hern, Elizabeth Woodworth, and Peter Carter pioneer new responses to climate crisis
British Columbia is famous around the world for many things, including its spectacular beaches, high housing prices, Stanley Park, thriving cannabis industry, Swedish hockey players, and giving birth to The X-Files.
But few Vancouver residents realize that authors in this province have also distinguished themselves by producing more thoughtful and original books on climate change than anywhere else in North America.
They’re not just being written by David Suzuki. Many others have helped B.C. become a veritable hothouse of unique perspectives on the most pressing challenge facing humanity.
They include David Boyd (The Optimistic Environmentalist), Jon O’Riordan (The Hard Work of Hope and The Climate Nexus), Joel Solomon (The Clean Money Revolution), Geoff Dembicki (Are We Screwed?), Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything), Mark Jaccard (Hot Air), Alejandro Frid (A World for My Daughter), James Hoggan (Climate Cover-Up), Peter Ladner (The Urban Food Revolution), Chris Wood (Dry Spring), Andrew Weaver (Keeping Our Cool), Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon (The 100-Mile Diet), and William Rees (Our Ecological Footprint).
This spring, two more pioneering climate-change titles by B.C. authors have been released: Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale and Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival.
The first book is an unusual hybrid of travelogue and philosophical dissertation by Vancouver intellectuals Matt Hern and Am Johal.
Included in Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life are illustrations and a lengthy cartoon, “Bitumen or Bust”, by celebrated Portland artist Joe Sacco, who accompanied Hern and Johal on a journey to Fort McMurray.
“For us, doing it as a road-trip book was a literary device so we could speak about these things in a much more accessible way,” Johal told the Georgia Straight by phone from New Orleans.
Hern, a university lecturer and cofounder of Car Free Day Vancouver, and Johal, whose PhD thesis revolved around climate change, are well aware of the existential crisis presented by rising greenhouse-gas emissions.
But they also evince far more empathy for residents of the capital of Canada’s bitumen industry, Fort Mac, than you might expect from vocal opponents of the Kinder Morgan pipeline project.
“All too often liberal and leftist types find their way up to the tar sands in search of enviro-porn, looking for photo-ops of ugly messes and background shots of their video-moralizing,” Hern and Johal write. “If you’re interested in an eco-apocalypse tour, Fort Mac is high on your bucket list and in the rush to document the tar sands, analytical nuance is not often part of the story.
“Especially galling is that all too often the people working the tar sands are condescended to, patronized, and/or straight up vilified as dimwitted monster-truck-driving mouth-breathers who are wantonly destroying the planet so they can afford one more lap-dance in Vegas,” they declare.
In fact, they discovered that Fort McMurray is a thriving multicultural melting pot with a vibrant community spirit.
Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life draws on a wide range of thinkers—including leftist French philosopher Alain Badiou and Indigenous scholars Glen Coulthard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.
In synthesizing their ideas, Hern and Johal make a compelling case that “individualizing responsibility for eco-collapses is one of contemporary capitalism’s prime defensive strategies.”
According to the authors, this is accomplished by reducing “ecological imperatives to one more consumer decision, one more atomized set of purchasing choices, thereby isolating governments and capital from culpability”.
“Blaming the choices individual people make in the context of highly limited options and grinding employment pressures is a fool’s errand,” they assert.
Johal grew up in the forest-dependent community of Williams Lake, where his father was a lumber grader. In his interview, he recalled how difficult it was to see people arriving “from the south” and criticizing what was taking place in his hometown. And he noted that the empathetic approach in the book hasn’t gone unnoticed in the oilpatch.
“We’re actually getting emails from people in Alberta who are really strongly supportive of the arguments in the book,” Johal said. “That’s something we weren’t necessarily expecting.”
In Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life, rampant exploitation of the Earth’s resources is presented as one of several forms of domination taking place in the world.
In the authors’ view, merely addressing one aspect of this problem—rising greenhouse-gas emissions—masks the importance of grappling with the root cause of the crisis.
Hern and Johal put human beings’ relationship with the land at the centre of any solution to climate change, paying particular attention to Indigenous traditions.
They also raise serious questions about the growing use of the term Anthropocene as a means of diffusing blame. The Anthropocene has become a shorthand way of describing a new geological epoch in which the human species is irrevocably scorching the planet, leading to widespread extinctions of flora and fauna.
Hern and Johal suggest a more accurate term might be Corporatocene. To support this, they cite research by geographer Richard Heede showing that between 1854 and 2010, only 90 entities “are responsible for 63 percent of all climate-changing emissions”.
Unprecedented Crime challenges complacency
The second new book, Unprecedented Crime: Climate Science Denial and Game Changers for Survival, turns its attention to governments, corporations, religious bodies, and the media’s failure to respond to a climate emergency that is claiming millions of lives around the world.
It’s cowritten by former B.C. government medical librarian Elizabeth Woodworth and Peter Carter, director of the Pender Island–based Climate Emergency Institute, and includes a foreword by world-renowned climate scientist James Hansen.
“Peter Carter and Elizabeth Woodworth make an overwhelming case that the public, especially young people, are victims of ‘Unprecedented Crime’,” Hansen writes. “And the fossil fuel industry, they explain, are not the only perpetrators. There has been extensive collusion and denial.”
The book opens by highlighting last year’s unprecedented extreme weather events, including horrific hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, and massive wildfires in the western United States, British Columbia, Portugal, and Chile.
Unprecedented Crime also reminds readers of record high temperatures last year in countries ranging from Australia to China to the United Kingdom to Russia, which the authors link to rising greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
“Scientists were amazed that even in Greenland a large wild grass-fire burned for two weeks in late July only 40 miles from the ice sheet,” Woodworth and Carter write.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been warning about the implications of global warming since 1990. At the time, it predicted that business-as-usual emissions would result in a global mean temperature about 4 ° C above pre-industrial times by the end of the 21st century.
Weekly carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere reached 410.8 parts per million in May 2017 at an observation station in Hawaii. Woodworth and Carter report that this trend “is on course with the worst case IPCC 2014 scenario”, which is a 4.3 ° C rise above pre-industrial times by the end of the century.
What’s especially scary is that large feedback loops will most certainly kick in at a 3 ° C rise—including the release of massive amounts of carbon stored in the oceans. According to the authors, this risks pushing the temperature 7.8 ° C above pre-industrial times by 2100.
“These are not tolerable degrees of climate change for our species, nor most others,” they write.
Unprecedented Crime documents how large greenhouse-gas emitters have known about the relationship between their products and global warming for nearly 40 years. And for two decades, oil companies pumped tens of millions of dollars into think tanks and other organizations to sow doubt with the general public, abetted by a mainstream media and governments that willingly conceal the danger.
“We have established that the decades-long blocking and lying about scientific evidence on the dangers of human-caused global warming has been deliberate,” Woodworth and Carter state. “So the question arises, how many people have been, or will be, hurt or killed by climate change?”
In answering this, they cite a DARA International study, which was commissioned in 2012 by 20 countries. It linked 400,000 deaths per year to climate change.
It also forecast that this number would rise to 600,000 deaths per year by 2030 as a result of more intense heat waves, less food security, and poorer water quality, which facilitates the spread of malaria and dengue fever.
“When disinformation known to be false is systemically used to deny dangerous realities that harm public health and kill millions of people, the deception clearly crosses the line to become a crime against humanity,” Woodworth and Carter write.
It’s serious stuff. The book also delves into what constitutes legal liability and intergenerational justice in the face of the reckless and ongoing release of planet-warming gases.
Of course, Woodworth and Carter are not the only ones raising the alarm. This month, the Australia-based Reneweconomy.com website published an article noting that global warming of 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial times is likely within a decade.
“The voluntary national emission reduction commitments since Paris now put the world on a path of 3.4 ° C of warming by 2100, and more than 5 ° C if high-end risks including carbon-cycle feedbacks are taken into account,” wrote David Spratt, who cited five relatively recent scientific studies.
Having the average global temperature rise no more than 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial times is the ultimate objective of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which was signed by 195 countries. Spratt’s article has cast serious doubts on that being achievable.
It’s clear from those who are paying attention—including Hern, Johal, Woodworth, and Carter—that much more public education needs to take place. And in the case of Unprecedented Crime, there’s also a detailed and realistically achievable road map for solving the problem.
As Woodworth and Carter point out, the Stanford Solutions Project headed by Mark Jacobson shows how to become 100 percent reliant on carbon-free renewable energy. And the authors argue that the time has come for a Second World War–style mobilization to prevent the decimation of our species.
“In summary, if we are to keep the Earth’s climate within the range humans are able to tolerate, we must leave the remaining fossil fuels in the ground,” they write. “If we do not act now we will push the climate beyond tipping points, where the situation spirals out of our control.”