Young Vancouver environmentalists view climate change and Kinder Morgan pipeline as a profound moral crisis

Justin Trudeau might have underestimated their resolve to stop a pipeline

    1 of 6 2 of 6

      Even though he only recently celebrated his 20th birthday, Cedar Parker-George has seen a lot in his life.

      During a recent visit to the Georgia Straight office, the Tsleil-Waututh climate-change activist said that he has lived through a school shooting that killed five fellow high-school students in Washington state. He struggled with alcohol in its wake.

      He’s travelled to Ottawa to campaign against pipelines. Perhaps most significantly, he met an indigenous woman who bathed her grandchildren in bottled water because petroleum had contaminated her water supply.

      “It changed my life,” Parker-George said. “It’s changed my outlook on how oil is extracted and how it’s affecting this country and this economy.”

      Parker-George, a resident of East Vancouver, is one of several young men and women emerging as influential activists in the fight against the recently approved Kinder Morgan pipeline. They could become a potent force against the Justin Trudeau government in the coming months and years.

      In his interview with the Straight, Parker-George said that in other countries, environmentalists can be killed by governments or corporations for opposing resource-extraction projects. But here in Canada, he has the right to freedom of speech, and he’s not going to give it up easily.

      “When you see a woman crying for her grandchildren—her tears, right in front of you, asking for help—it does something to you,” Parker-George said. “It really goes inside your heart and explodes and you feel that sympathy.”

      Parker-George comes from a distinguished First Nations family. His great-grandfather, Chief Dan George, was a widely admired environmental activist and actor. His father, Rueben George, is project manager of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s Sacred Trust Initiative and a leading activist against the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

      If it is built, it will increase Alberta bitumen shipments to the Lower Mainland from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000. It will also result in an almost sevenfold increase in annual oil-tanker shipments through Burrard Inlet.

      Parker-George said that he’s terrified by the prospect of more petroleum shipments because carbon-dioxide emissions are already at a dangerous tipping point. And he said that if these emissions keep increasing, this will wreak economic and social havoc as climate-change induced droughts curtail agricultural production in California and other parts of the world.

      “There’s going to be a lot of starvation,” Parker-George predicted. “There’s going to be a lot of fighting for water. There’s going to be a lot of fighting for basic needs.”

      It’s already happening elsewhere.

      Cedar Parker-George's father Rueben has been a leading campaigner against the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

      Climate change incites chaos in other countries

      Last year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America concluded that a drought from 2007 to 2010 in Syria—the worst in its recorded history—caused massive migration from rural areas to cities. According to the study’s authors, this contributed to the intensity of the Syrian civil war.

      Meanwhile, U.S. author Christian Parenti has written that climate-change induced droughts in Afghanistan have forced farmers to switch from growing wheat to producing opium poppies, which are used in the manufacture of illicit drugs.

      Parenti’s 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos, also noted that droughts in Mexico have hurt the fishing and farming industries, causing people to flee north, where some have been caught in a violent drug war.

      Parker-George sees a similarly apocalyptic future for Americans and Canadians if greenhouse-gas emissions aren’t scaled back. While he respects environmentalists older than him, he said he is primarily motivated by his little brother and his goddaughter. “As much as I get scared, I think of them—and I’m not scared of what I will do for them.”

      That’s why Parker-George plans to continue bringing his antipipeline message to community centres, churches, and political forums on both sides of the border. And he has no shortage of allies among his generation.

      U.S. author Christian Parenti's Tropic of Chaos explained how climate change creates political havoc in many countries.

      Some young leaders started in high school

      Sophie Harrison, a 22-year-old climate activist with the antipipeline Dogwood Initiative, is an old hand at raising awareness of rising greenhouse-gas emissions.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, she said she has been working on pipeline and tanker issues since she was 16.

      “I got together with some other friends and started a group called Kids for Climate Action to basically get high schoolers involved in the political process around climate change,” Harrison said.

      One of their first actions was creating a flash mob during the holiday season. They targeted shopping malls and other public places. “We rewrote the lyrics to Christmas carols. So our first big hit was ‘Climate Change Is Coming to Town’ rather than ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’.”

      Harrison referred to the recent approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline as “a very disappointing, frustrating decision by our government”. But she was energized by a follow-up demonstration on November 29 in downtown Vancouver.

      “It felt good to be with my friends and to see how much commitment there is going forward to stop this project—to see how much anger there is and to be with those people, to give them a hug and just strengthen our commitment to make sure this thing gets stopped even if the Trudeau government is now onside with Kinder Morgan and pushing it forward.”

      The Dogwood Initiative's Sophie Harrison (middle) was among many young people at last month's UN climate meetings. They brought messages of climate justice before Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna (right).

      Harrison’s brother Sam was also a leader in Kids for Climate Action. After the Kinder Morgan pipeline received approval, she said, he mentioned the possibility of never being able to show his kids the population of resident orcas along B.C.’s south coast.

      “Those questions about those impacts are really personal because we will be here,” Harrison said. “It is the world that we will be living in.”

      Sam Harrison was among those who campaigned against Port Metro Vancouver’s decision to become North America’s largest coal exporter. In 2013, he told the Straight that he appreciated how secondary students were trying to make their schools greener. But he also wanted them to view environmental issues through a broader lens.

      UBCC350 raises climate alarm on campus

      This message had a profound influence on Kate Hodgson, a 19-year-old international-relations student at UBC.

      “Sam Harrison was actually a huge part of my transition from doing those small-scale actions like recycling and riding my bike to getting involved in the world’s climate activism,” Hodgson told the Straight by phone.

      Hodgson is the student-outreach coordinator for UBCC350, which campaigns for the university to stop investing in fossil-fuel companies. The group’s name refers to its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas concentrations to 350 parts per million in the atmosphere.

      “I think that climate change is really the issue that will define my generation,” she said.

      There are now more than 400 parts per million of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If this ratio keeps rising, there is a real risk of the world’s average temperature rising 2° C higher than it was in the pre-industrial era. Many scientists say this would cause glaciers and other land ice in places such as Greenland and Antarctica to melt more quickly, leading to much higher sea levels and climate chaos.

      Hodgson criticized the UBC board of governors for creating a “sustainable future fund” rather than divesting from fossil-fuel companies. The university has defended the fund because it enables donors to target gifts in areas where environmental, social, and governance factors are taken into account.

      Although the university has claimed that this fund gives contributors a “low-carbon choice”, Hodgson argued that this concept is “deeply problematic”.

      “It has more to do with production emissions than it does with downstream emissions,” she said. “A coal plant could be considered sustainable because it doesn’t have a high carbon footprint at the production level, whereas a solar-panel plant could be considered to have a high environmental impact because that rubric doesn’t take into account the downstream emissions.”

      UBCC350 campaigners are pinning their hopes on new president Santa Ono to take the divestment movement's arguments seriously.

      She’s hoping that UBC’s new president and vice chancellor, Santa Ono, and the board will revisit this policy. In the meantime, Hodgson said she’s prepared to do “whatever it takes” to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline from being built.

      “I’m very scared of climate change,” she stated. “And I’m really scared of what it means for my future and my generation and for the lives of people living all around the world who don’t have the means to protect themselves from its impact.”

      Climate change defines a generation

      Then there’s the politics. Hodgson revealed that she voted Liberal in the past federal election because she felt confident that party leader Justin Trudeau would make climate change a priority. She admitted feeling “hurt” when his cabinet approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

      “I think it’s really time the Liberals put their money where their mouth is when it comes to climate policy and making the decisions that will help them get to where they said we needed to be as a nation,” Hodgson added. “At COP21 [the 2015 international climate conference in Paris], they got up on the stage there and said, ‘We are going to be climate leaders.’ They said, ‘Canada is back.’ And we haven’t been seeing that with the decisions they’ve been making.”

      Earlier this year at the TEDxEastVan conference, young environmental journalist Geoff Dembicki delivered a speech suggesting that Trudeau won this past election because he galvanized nonaligned millennial voters who wanted action on climate change.

      “A poll in B.C. on election day found that over 42 percent of young people engaged in strategic voting, the highest of any age group,” he said.

      In his presentation, Dembicki mentioned a recent study led by former NASA climatologist James Hansen that suggested Antarctica could be warming 10 times faster than previously expected.

      If this turns out to be true, Dembicki said, there could be major flooding of coastal cities around the world within young people’s lifetimes.

      “As Hansen’s study reminded us, climate change is not just some abstract scientific issue,” he stated. “It’s a moral crisis that, literally, threatens the future survival of an entire generation. We are not willing to tolerate a political and economic system that doesn’t take that threat seriously.”

      Watch Geoff Dembicki's TEDxEastVan talk on climate change.

      Back at the Georgia Straight office, Cedar Parker-George expressed skepticism about Trudeau’s commitment to his generation. To teach a lesson about the difference between words and actions, the young indigenous activist casually announced that his preferred pizza is Margherita. It seemed like a strange comment in an interview about pipelines and politics.

      “It has mozzarella, it has the basil, it has the tomato—that’s why it’s my favourite,” Parker-George said with absolute conviction. “Then it has the olive oil. I like to put the Parmesan on top.”

      Then he suddenly reversed his position.

      “I just lied to you,” Parker-George said. “It’s not my favourite. Pepperoni is my favourite.”

      Continuing along this vein, he switched pizza allegiances a third time. “I just lied to you again. Cheese is my favourite.”

      So what was his point?

      “That’s how easy Trudeau can go up there and say words that mean nothing,” Parker-George said. “When the government says something, do your homework. Challenge it and ask questions, because it was that easy for me to tell you my favourite pizza is Margherita.”

      From somewhere in the heavens, Chief Dan George might have been looking down on his great-grandson with a giant smile.