Former UN envoy Stephen Lewis will never forget chairing the first international conference on climate change.
Back in 1988, then prime minister Brian Mulroney, sustainability advocate and then Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, and then NASA climate scientist James Hansen all spoke at the event in Toronto.
“The heartbreaking thing about climate change, of course, is we knew everything that had to be done more than 30 years ago and we never did it,” Lewis told the Georgia Straight by phone.
He called this a “terrifying lapse in judgment” and “overwhelming political negligence” by governments around the world.
No doubt, Hansen would agree.
Now, as the October 21 federal election approaches, Lewis and another early advocate for climate action, David Suzuki, are hoping to mobilize young people to get out and vote.
Vancouver is the second stop on their five-city Climate First Tour, which is billed as a nonpartisan effort to engage Canadians in conversation about climate change.
Two young people, Musqueam member and graduate student Zoe Craig-Sparrow and youth climate-strike organizer Rebecca Hamilton, will moderate the Vancouver event.
It was Suzuki’s idea, according to Lewis, to have “two old silverback gorillas” travelling across the country sharing their experiences, as well as arguments that can generate enthusiasm and energy around fighting climate change.
Their goal is to keep this in the public eye until voting day.
Lewis feels that the time is right with a UN climate conference underway in New York and climate strikes planned across Canada and around the world next Friday (September 27). He also pointed out that for the first time, Canadians are telling pollsters that the climate is more important than the economy or health care.
“I don’t want to be simple-minded about this,” Lewis said, “but, ultimately, it’s the multinational oil, gas, and coal corporations that are the culprit.”
He pointed to an “absolute absence of any corporate social responsibility”, which is exacerbating the dangers for people in countries around the world.
Although he acknowledged the importance of individuals taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, he argued that there also needs to be a “collectivist response”.
That’s because at current levels of emission of carbon-dioxide equivalents, Lewis believes that the world is on track for at least a 3° C increase this century over the average temperature that existed just before the Industrial Revolution.
Many scientists agree that this could trigger climate feedback loops that could send average temperatures soaring much higher, bringing about food shortages, more mass migrations, deadly heat waves, and extreme weather events.
“Somehow, we have to confront the multinational corporations that are doing the greatest damage,” Lewis declared. “You can’t go to Paris and endorse the 1.5 [° target] and then come home and buy a pipeline.”
Even though the Paris Agreement has no proper enforcement mechanisms to ensure countries abide by their emissions targets, Lewis remains optimistic.
“The campaign for nuclear disarmament, the civil-rights struggle, the anti-apartheid struggle, the #MeToo movement: all of these successes came from social movements powerfully mobilized to change the ethos of society.”
He's hoping for a similar mobilization, particularly among young people, to save humanity on Earth.
"What David and I are trying very hard to do is to tell the young people that one of the things they can do is get engaged in this campaign and make sure that they vote—and everybody else votes," Lewis said. "And when it's over, they drive the politicians to continue to take climate seriously. I don't know how else you achieve social change."