Environmentalist Tzeporah Berman is no stranger to controversy. At a 2009 international climate conference in Copenhagen, she attracted stinging criticism for presenting a plaque to then-premier Gordon Campbell on behalf of several environmental groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation. Campbell received the award for introducing the first economy-wide carbon tax in North America.
Shortly after a provincewide uproar over Campbell receiving another honour—the Order of B.C.—Berman visited the Georgia Straight office to promote her new book, This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge (Alfred A. Knopf Canada). Berman, the climate and energy campaign codirector for Greenpeace International, said that she has no regrets about giving that plaque to Campbell.
“Other jurisdictions were watching whether or not the public would support it in order to decide whether or not they should move forward with a carbon tax,” Berman explained. “So I felt it was a really important thing to support it, so I’m not sorry I did. What was frustrating about that whole experience is people then extrapolated that to say I support everything the Liberal government is doing, or I’m a Liberal, or I support everything Campbell did, which wasn’t at all true.”
Some of Campbell’s critics saw the carbon tax as a way for him to distract attention from climate-harming policies to rapidly increase natural-gas extraction, export large amounts of coal, and promote the Gateway Program, which will massively expand road capacity.
“I have concerns about those policies,” Berman acknowledged, while still defending her decision to honour the former premier. “I think they’re misguided. And I don’t think they’re consistent with what he claimed to be his aims to build a low-carbon economy.…We should continue to oppose fossil-fuel infrastructure and development in Canada and in British Columbia, and I plan to do that. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. I think that we need to be willing to give credit where credit is due—and not if it’s a token gesture. But an economy-wide carbon tax, especially at that moment, was not a token gesture. It wasn’t enough, but it was a tremendously important policy.”
Berman, who cowrote the book with Straight contributor and filmmaker Mark Leiren-Young, became a darling of the left in the early 1990s when she led antilogging protests in Clayoquot Sound. Later, she helped create ForestEthics, which, along with Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, negotiated an agreement with coastal First Nations, the logging industry, and the B.C. government to protect 2.1 million hectares of the “Great Bear Rainforest” on B.C.’s central and north coast.
Shortly before the 2009 provincial election, many progressives turned on her when she condemned the B.C. NDP’s opposition to the carbon tax. At the time, Berman also praised the B.C. Liberals’ controversial policy of contracting private companies to generate renewable electricity in run-of-river hydro projects. Later, she joined the B.C. Liberal government’s green-energy task force, further poisoning relations with opponents of run-of-river power projects.
Recently, the Christy Clark–led government indicated that it’s backing away from Campbell’s policy of having B.C. Hydro contract run-of-river power at above-market prices to maintain “energy self-sufficiency”. According to a Vancouver Sun report, B.C. Hydro CEO Dave Cobb revealed in a conference call that this policy shift will save “hundreds of millions of dollars per year that we would be spending of our ratepayers’ money with no value in return”.
Berman called Cobb’s statement about self-sufficiency shortsighted because it “completely denies the need to move to a fossil-free future”.
“The majority of British Columbia’s energy right now—not electricity, but energy—comes from fossil fuels,” Berman said. “If we’re going to reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, we need to electrify our transport. We need to electrify our ports.…I think B.C. Hydro should be planning for the elimination of fossil fuels by 2050. And if we’re going to plan for that in British Columbia, that means that we have to plan for a dramatically increased demand for electricity.”
She emphasized that most countries wholly or partially rely on the private sector to develop renewable-energy projects. “I don’t think we should be wedded to who is producing the power,” she stated. “As an environmentalist, I’m looking at how it’s being produced.”
Environmental groups often rely on U.S. and Canadian charitable foundations for financial support, and Berman acknowledged that this can create uncomfortable moments for people in her position. She said that traditionally, foundations negotiate agreements to grant money to conservation groups to complete projects. In the last couple of years, however, she has noticed that foundations sometimes take a more active role.
“Pew [Charitable Trusts] is now an advocacy organization,” she pointed out. “They sit on coalitions as an environmental group, but they’re also a funder. There are other foundations that do that here in Canada.”
Berman has even attended meetings to negotiate with government and industry officials, only to find herself looking across the table at a representative of a foundation that had written cheques to her employer.
“I’ve had a lot of disagreements with foundations,” Berman stated. “I think I’ve had a long enough relationship with a lot of them that it didn’t affect the funding of the organizations I was in, but I certainly thought about it. And I called my executive directors and said, ‘Look, I disagree with what’s happening here and with the major foundation—and it could affect our funding base—but I’m going to disagree.’ And they said, ‘Do what you need to do.’ ”
Berman also revealed that companies sometimes try to give money to environmental groups that are zeroing in on them. In This Crazy Time, she describes how Victoria's Secret offered ForestEthics funding when the organization was telling everyone that the lingerie giant mailed out a more than a million catalogues a day printed from paper made from B.C. rainforests.
"I have often felt torn about it because there are points where you honestly think, We should just take their money and use it for good. Then we could hire more campaigners, or we could have some money to help First Nations communities," Berman writes. "And, in fact, that's the decision that many organizations make."
However, she emphasized that Greenpeace and ForestEthics have never taken money from the targets of their campaigns. Victoria's Secret did provide a $1-million fund, which was used for advocacy, science, and mapping. Berman was on a board that decided where the money went, but she said that none was handed over to ForestEthics.
"One of the things we asked the company was to not just make their own policy about what they buy, but to help us change the market, to help us change the way that paper was made and that logging happened," she told the Straight.
At Greenpeace International, Berman sees her job as trying to keep as much fossil fuel as possible in the ground. That means focusing campaigns on the “most egregious” projects, including the Alberta tar sands. Berman also wants to stimulate debate over oil and gas development underneath the Arctic Ocean.
“I think of it as humanity’s stupid test,” she quipped. “The ice is melting. It’s exposing new fossil-fuel reserves, so we’re rushing in to grab them. My hope is just that we can expose how ridiculous and unsafe that oil development is.”
Greenpeace, which was founded in Vancouver, will celebrate its 40th anniversary on September 15. On September 17, a Rainbow Warrior Festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Jericho Beach, featuring an action zone where people can attend a civil-disobedience workshop, as well as a kids zone with face painting, storytelling, and other activities.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.