The fake populism of Jason Kenney

Alberta Premier Kenney and Energy Minister Savage respond to the federal government's decision to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

William “Bible Bill” Aberhart, founder of the Social Credit Party, became the premier of Alberta in 1935. His government was populist: it pledged to take on the “50 big shots” that ran Canada.

Pushed by his caucus, Aberhart’s government instituted relief programs for the unemployed, froze mortgage foreclosures and debts, issued “prosperity certificates” as a sort of provincial currency, and introduced legislation to control banks operating in Alberta.

The lieutenant-governor refused to sign the banking law; other initiatives were eventually quashed in the 1940s by the Supreme Court. But the populist measures helped people in Alberta get through the worst of the Great Depression.

In electing Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party (UCP), the people of Alberta have given themselves something else: a fake populist government. Instead of imitating Aberhart and taking on 50 big shots, the UCP is working on behalf of “the fossil-power top 50,” the powerful oil and gas interests identified by the Corporate Mapping Project, that wield great influence in Edmonton and Ottawa.

While the rate of corporate profit has fallen since the oil price plunge of 2014, the mass of corporate profits of the five largest corporations in the oil sands — Suncor, CNRL, Cenovus, Imperial, and Husky — which together produce 80 per cent of Canada’s bitumen, remains huge.

According to a 2018 Corporate Mapping Project study, “The aggregate gross profits of the big five in 2017 were $46.6 billion, which was close to the Alberta government’s revenues of $47.3 billion.”

The Alberta economic problem can be simply stated. At current and expected prices for oil and gas, there is a shortage of profitable investment opportunities in the industry. The province needs to look elsewhere for its opportunities.

The main market for Alberta — the U.S. — has gone from having an import deficit of $40 billion in 2007, to being an exporter (including to Canada), thanks to hydraulic fracking.

U.S. fracked oil and gas provoked a world fall in oil prices and initiated the 2014-2016 recession in Alberta.

The Kenney plan to revive the Alberta economy is a provincial corporate tax cut of one percentage point over four years (from 12 per cent to eight per cent).

As fully integrated multinational corporations operating in both Canada and the U.S., the big five are liable for taxes in both jurisdictions. This means Alberta corporate tax cuts will not reduce the overall tax liabilities of the big five. Because combined federal and state corporate taxes will be higher in the U.S. than combined federal and provincial corporate taxes in Alberta, it means those corporations will pay taxes in the U.S. that they could have paid in Alberta!

The UCP premier points to academic research to justify his decision to lower provincial corporate taxes. Professor Bev Dalby has developed an econometric model that show a reduction in their taxes provokes an increase in corporate investment.

But no economic model can change the reality that faced with a poor business outlook, no oil and gas companies will gear up for new ventures in Canada regardless of what real reductions in corporate taxes do occur.

Having money on hand to invest is not the issue in the oil and gas sector. A 2016 study showed Canadian governments subsidized the sector to the tune of $3 billion-plus (ironically while profitable solar energy investment is taking place in Alberta, the Kenney government is cutting back support for renewable energy sources).

The Alberta economy will stagnate unless the government invests in the future — which is what the previous Notley government was doing — but not the UCP government, which rejects that idea and is betting on austerity instead.

The Kenney government has just brought in a budget that CUPE Alberta points out “hurts everyone” in Alberta. Research from the Alberta Federation of Labour demonstrates that the Kenney approach will prolong the economic slump and “kill more jobs than the oil price collapse of 2014-16.”

The main thing the fake populism of Jason Kenney has in common with the William Aberhart era is that the UCP, like Social Credit, will outdo itself to promote social conservatism.

Under Aberhart, Social Credit was openly anti-Semitic.

The Kenney government is prepared to vote for Bill 207, what blogger David Climenhaga describes as an “Act to Restrict Reproductive and Other Rights in Alberta.” SOURCE


Jason Kenney’s war on everything and everyone

To Confront Climate Change Humanity Needs Socialism

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Humans may not survive. Reports from the UN’s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change provoke images of land masses drowning, fleeing populations, starvation, terrible droughts, terrible storms, migrating diseases, new deserts, and intolerable heat. It’s an “ecological Armageddon,” says one expert. We hear about “the sixth extinction,” the geologic epoch that is our own. It’s called the “Anthropocene.” The name suggests human activity and human responsibility.

It’s bad enough to imagine blame and scenarios of dread, as if from science fiction, but add in the presently feeble response to dire threats and we’re in a funk. If tools were available, we’d get a lift. Marc Brodine’s book Green Strategy, reviewed here, is about tools.

It’s about capitalism too. For Brodine, that’s “the root cause of most of the environmental problems we face, and is also the biggest obstacle in finding real solutions.” Those problems stem from “wide-ranging imbalances between the ways that humanity impacts nature and the limits of the resources that nature is able to provide.” For Brodine, environmental abuse manifests as climate change and also vanishing fresh water, toxins and pollutants on land and in the sea, ocean acidification, deforestation, topsoil losses, decreasing soil fertility, disappearing species, and the spread of infectious diseases.

Brodine apparently regards scientist and environmental activist Barry Commoner as a mentor. In 1997 Commoner attributed the environmental crisis to “our systems of production – in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation.” That year he predicted “global human catastrophes: higher temperatures [and] the seas rising to flood many of the world’s cities.”

Ever-expanding production is the hallmark of capitalism, and the role of capitalism in causing environmental devastation is under the microscope. “[T]his new ecological stage was connected to the rise, earlier in the century, of monopoly capitalism,” Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster claimed in 1994. Judgment as to who is responsible for global warming turns to the association of production, fossil fuel, and emissions as the “smoking gun.”

Knowledge of cause might have brought about strategizing. That hasn’t happened. Naomi Klein in her 2016 book This Changes Everything blamed capitalism for disturbing the climate, but limited her remedial proposals to civil-disobedience and life-style alterations.

Now the Green New Deal surfaces in response to the environmental challenge. Separate proposals sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others and by Senator Bernie Sanders contain what Foster calls “revolutionary reforms.” In his opinion and that of Naomi Klein, whose views have evolved, these reforms could lead to transformational changes. What’s needed, says Foster, is “a mass mobilization of the entire society.”

Neither Green New Deal proponents nor commentators have explained how that might happen. How to launch education, organization, and unified action is left for another day. The Labor Network for SustainabilityThe Atlantic magazine, the People’s Policy Project, and Resilience instead focus on feasibilities or on the availability of resources. The Nation magazine calls for mobilization, but offers little more.

Marc Brodine’s Green Strategy fills the void. The book is about developing political will, specifically about creating a movement “capable of building the political power to implement fundamental change.” Brodine envisions a giant coalition in which political struggle for nature would merge with other struggles.

Or more precisely: “A massive movement is needed, worldwide in scope, to fight defensive battles against environmental degradation and exploitative development. Then the movement can proceed to fight for long-term fundamental transformation of our economies.” The object is “broad-based unity to reach and organize millions of people.”

His book discusses context, science, philosophical underpinnings, environmental organizations, past political movements, mass protests, and socialism. Facts, observations, verdicts, and proposals fill a book larger by far in content than in physical size.

Brodine calls for defenders of the environment to organize politically and make linkages in many directions to build “political force.” He envisions alliances with “struggles for peace, justice, equality, health care, immigrant rights.” People will be “gaining strength from each other” from a “network of mutuality,” an expression of Martin Luther King.

Coalition-building will be reciprocal: “All progressive struggles have an environmental component, and successful alliances have been built … uniting environmental concerns with economic ones.” Environmental struggles will join with peace and justice movements throughout the world.

In his survey of U.S. movements for civil rights and labor rights, for ending apartheid and the Vietnam War, Brodine finds precedents for achieving unity and avoiding hazards. He discusses problems posed by far-left politicking, mixing moral imperatives and practicalities, and confusing tactics with strategy. He would pursue reforms and revolutionary goals simultaneously and work with “cross-class elements.”

The labor movement is a crucial player, both because of labor’s organizational expertise and because the enemies of labor are the enemies of other progressive causes. And, “Only workers have the power to shut down the economy [and to] wrest control of production decisions away from the capitalist class.”

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Indeed, “Working class power is the only force capable of saving humanity from capitalism and creating a sustainable economy and sustainable environment.” The author identifies the working class as the “vast majority of humanity that works for a living.” He calls for collective solutions for environmental problems, social control of resources, and “fundamental changes to our economic system.” In essence, “socialism is a necessary precondition for the survival of the human race, for the kind of fundamental solutions humanity needs.” The socialism Brodine wants is “based on a scientific understanding” of human-caused risk to nature.

Socialist assumptions in Green Strategies are frequent but unobtrusive. The chapter on “environmental socialism” is a high point. While perhaps not the author’s prime goal, the book provides the reader with useful information on the workings and aspirations of the socialist movement, which includes the author’s own U.S. Communist Party. Socialists reading the book might be reminded as to who they are. For the others, says Brodine, fight for the environment may be “a new path to socialist consciousness, a new way to understand the need for fundamental economic change.”

Marxist theory explains how change occurs. Brodine cites interconnections, “feed-back” loops, and contradictions affecting natural and social phenomena. They lead to tensions and thus to change, which is constant. Small quantitative changes accumulate and then manifest as one big change, a qualitative one. That’s the so-called “tipping point.”

Looking at societal problems, he describes new realities and struggles impinging upon the political status quo. In theory, new political solutions follow, one after the other. Those political processes dealing with environmental challenges are under stress. They misfire and go on a new tack. Eventually they solidify into a collective human effort aimed at rescue. That’s another tipping point

Brodine is well-equipped to author a book outlining society’s response to environmental disaster. He has long headed the Communist Party’s environmental program and the book demonstrates his familiarity with research findings and dialogue in the natural sciences. Socialism, he writes, “harnesses the latest in science, technology, and social organization.”

Virginia Brodine, Marc Brodine’s mother, must have had a lot to do with why this book exists. A colleague of Barry Commoner, she was a prominent anti-nuclear and environmental activist and an author (Air Pollution and Radioactive Contamination, 1972). Her writings are collected in book Red Roots, Green Shoots (International Publishers, 2007).

Brodine’s writing style is clear and cogent. The book is well organized. Readers may object to repetition of insights and conclusions. But for this reviewer, reiteration was useful in reinforcing the author’s main points. Any future edition of the book – potentially a prize as the crisis advances – would benefit by the addition of an index.

From this vantage point, Green Strategy is a valuable and much appreciated book. It’s a primer on forming a mass movement serving the people. Grounded on science and on political and social realities, it’s well suited to have an impact on what counts, which is conscious-raising in favor of collective solutions. Above all, the book is about the survival of living things and the integrity of nature and so has ethical thrust.

Green Strategy: The Path to Fundamental Transformation
Marc Russell Brodine
(International Publishers, NY, 2018)



The new left economics: how a network of thinkers is transforming capitalism

Doug Ford government puts Ontario’s water up for grabs

The provincial moratorium on new permits to bottle water may expire on January 1 opening the tap for multinationals like Nestlé

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As the climate crisis worsens, why would any government allow a multinational corporation like Nestlé to take precious water?

Premier Doug Ford’s government has announced that the provincial moratorium on new permits to bottle water may expire on January 1, 2020, opening the tap for multinationals like Nestlé.

This decision directly conflicts with the two-thirds of Ontario residents who support phasing out all permits to take water for bottling.

Already, Nestlé Waters Canada has permission to extract 4.7 million litres of water a day at wells in Hillsburgh and Aberfoyle in Wellington County. The company has applied to renew those permits, while it extracts water without the consent of Six Nations, on whose territory it operates, and despite public opposition from several Indigenous organizations.

Nestlé also has a licence to produce more than 3 billion, 500-millilitre plastic bottles every year, at least half of which wind up in landfill or litter in the county. For the second year in a row, Greenpeace recently reported that Nestlé and Tim Hortons are the top companies behind branded plastic bottles, coffee cups, lids and other plastic waste collected in shoreline cleanups across Canada.

At the corporate level, Nestlé’s record of questionable behaviour where it bottles water at 100 plants around the world illustrates why the Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow calls the multinational a “water predator.”

In Vittel, France, Nestlé depleted the water table by 3.5 centimetres per year for 30 years, threatening the town’s drinking water. Still, the company lobbies to continue taking water.

Tim Hortons,In Florida, Nestlé wants to extract water from Ginnie Springs, part of the Santa Fe River, even though the local water authority deems the water system “in recovery” from over-pumping.

In Maine, a former governor put a Nestlé manager on the state’s environmental protection board, and a former Nestlé lobbyist previously ran the environmental protection department.

Speakers from these communities will take part in All Eyes On Nestlé, a series of four public meetings in Waterloo, Toronto, Hamilton and Guelph from November 11 to 14. The Toronto event is on Tuesday, November 12 at New College’s Wilson Hall Lounge (40 Willcocks).

Given its track record, Ontario cannot afford to be “open for business” when it comes to Nestlé.

In the fall of 2016, Nestlé outbid the small municipality of Centre Wellington for a well the community needs for future growth. Nestlé then tried to deflect public outrage by proposing a public/private partnership with the municipality to “share” the water.

Several months later, Nestlé offered the Town of Erin a “voluntary levy” on the water they extract from the Hillsburgh well. That was after the Liberal government of the day increased the administrative fee on water taking for bottling from $3.71 per million litres to $503.71. The amount of the “voluntary levy” Nestle proposed was precisely equal to the amount the government levied. Nestle has a well-established record of making modest donations to cash strapped communities to curry local favour while pocketing tens of millions in annual profits.

The Ontario government’s online process for public consultations typically only values input of a technical nature. Other concerns related to bottled water operations, like plastic pollution, microplastics in water and issues around privatization, are set aside as being “out of scope.” There is no face-to-face interaction between members of the public and either the public service or political decision-makers. The process denies the public the right to be heard.

At a minimum, the Ford government should extend the moratorium on new permits, put renewal of Nestlé’s existing permits on hold, and conduct a full environmental assessment of Nestlé’s operations in Wellington County.

More than that, the government should order a comprehensive public review of the entire bottled water industry in Ontario.

Water must remain a public trust. SOURCE

Imagining a liveable planet for our children

This is a story about us being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about.—Tim Jackson

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We can build solar panels. We can build windfarms. We can supply the world with near-free energy and electrify  everything. And if we stop there, we will simply have sped up the death of Mother Earth.

The cheaper electricity becomes, the more we use. This behaviour  is so predictable that there is a name for it, Jevon’s Paradox. 

When we start modifying the fabric of the web of life there are always consequences, unanticipated and sometimes severe, violent and harsh. Mother Earth is not amused.

Our capitalist system of accounting celebrates the rise of GDP. The costs of ripping non-renewable resources from  Earth or the life-sequence costs of new ‘breakthrough’ technologies don’t appear on our national accounts. The value of leaving resources in the ground, undisturbed, is never considered. That life-value remains largely unknown. But that value is part of all Canadians’ heritage.

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.” — Greta Thunberg

Non-renewable resources are one-shot deals. When we use them we should use them with our eyes wide open. Our actions must respect limits to growth on our finite planet. What would be wrong with negative growth, where life-value where life-value can be our guiding principle?

We have to wake up. We have to reject a consumer culture where  buying junk is considered a ‘lifestyle’ choice. Because of our failure to distinguish between want and need, we are drowning in stuff. In the process, we are despoiling the planet. What were we thinking? Our children are telling us, we weren’t.

Naomi Klein,  one of the founders of the Leap Manifesto, explains, “The Leap came out of a meeting that was held in Toronto in May of 1915, attended by sixty organizations and theorists, from across the country, representing a cross section of  environmentalists: labour, climate, faith, Indigenous, migrant workers, antipoverty, and incarceration, food justice, human rights, transit, and green tech.”

The Leap remains a homogenous, justice-based attempt to replace the myth of endless resources with the reality of climate limits — a vision of a sustainable, life-affirming economy, one not reliant on othering people and producing the sacrifice zones required by our fossil-fuel-based, extractive economy. A vision for climate justice. A vision widely held by the majority of Canadians. It is a forerunner of the  Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal, a plan to fight climate change, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. That’s what it would take to limit global warming to less than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. It’s the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious climate goal.” 

But Thumberg doesn’t think the Green New Deal goes far enough. 

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in ten years only gives us a 50 percent chance of staying below 1.5 degrees and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. A fifty percent risk is simply not acceptable to us, we who have to live with the consequences.”

The real bottom line

This is an emergency. We are part of the web of life, not apart from it.  We can’t negotiate with nature. We need the sacred air, the life-giving water, the bounty of a fecund earth, and climate justice– all part of Indigenous’ beliefs that have served them well, living sustainably for thousands of years.

 Above all, we need a livable planet for our children. For a green economy, we have to abandon mindless consumption.


Layoffs hit CBC News amid operating budget decline

A photograph of the CBC building in Toronto on April 4, 2012. File photo by The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette

Citing a decrease in its operating budget, the news division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced layoffs Thursday.

Approximately 35 positions were impacted, most of them in the broadcaster’s Toronto newsroom, a spokesperson for CBC said.

“Today, as some of you may already know, a number of CBC News staff were given notice of redundancy,” wrote Jennifer McGuire, the editor-in-chief of CBC News, in a memo to staff. “This is part of a difficult but necessary exercise to manage a decrease to the CBC News operating budget this fiscal year.”

McGuire said affected staff include unionized members of the Canadian Media Guild, unaffiliated employees, as well as members of management within CBC News.

In its 2018-19 annual report, the CBC reported a 14.5 per cent decrease in revenue. The public broadcaster, which has a mixed funding model from government and advertising, reported $490 million in revenue for 2018-19, compared to $573 million in 2017-18.

The steep year-over-year decline, however was in large part because the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games provided a boost to advertising and licensing in 2017-18. Excluding the impact of the winter Olympics, CBC’s revenue from its ongoing activities fell 1.9 per cent in 2018-19, according to the annual report.

“Like every other Canadian media company, CBC/Radio-Canada faces challenges in the context of an ever-shifting media landscape with much disruption,” McGuire added.

CBC has to contend with a digital advertising market dominated by sophisticated technology firms such as Facebook and Google.

According to the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, Google and Facebook accounted for 74.3 per cent of online advertising spending in 2017, while the CBC had a market share of 2.2 per cent which resulted in approximately $300 million in advertising revenue. SOURCE


These building rules could be our climate salvation

Photo courtesy Cascadia Windows

You’ve probably never even heard of two of Canada’s more effective provincial and city-scale climate policies—and that’s probably not a bad thing.

The BC Energy Step Code and the City of Vancouver’s Zero Emissions Building Plan are both building regulations introduced within the past two years or so by the Province of British Columbia and the City of Vancouver, respectively.

Not that anybody even raised an eyebrow. As conservative trolls drown the internet with disinformation on carbon pricing and cynical politicians force stupid and inaccurate stickers onto Ontario gas pumps, these regulations have been quietly working away in the background out west, driving down emissions in the communities that have been putting them to work.

Moreover, according to one recent report, they’re seeding the ground for a low-carbon economic bonanza.

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a fan of these regulations. I’ve been writing about and advocating for climate and clean energy policies for close to a decade. I’ve produced dozens of reports on clean power and energy efficiency for Clean Energy Canada and other think tanks, renewable-energy industry associations, and others. And I believe these two policies will ultimately have as much of a positive impact on Vancouver’s—and British Columbia’s—climate leadership legacy and reputation as the much-celebrated carbon tax has had.

How the Regulations Work

But before we get too excited, what is the BC Energy Step Code, anyway? And what is the Zero Emissions Building Plan? And why am I such a fanboy?

Let’s start with the first one. British Columbia’s former Christy Clark government enacted the BC Energy Step Code mere days before calling the election that would eventually spell the undoing of her Liberal Party of British Columbia government. It did so after a team of industry, government, and utility experts hashed out the regulation’s core characteristics over the course of a year and a half.

In simplest terms, the provincial BC Energy Step Code regulation allows cities to require their builders to deliver a higher level of energy efficiency performance in new projects than is expected of them under the base building code. So far more than 50 cities are using it, and together they represent more than 70 percent of new residential construction in the province.

This graphic depicts the rate at which communities have adopted the BC Energy Step Code. Credit: Courtesy Energy Step Code Council.

To understand the BC Energy Step Code, it helps to picture it as a metaphorical staircase. Each step up the stairs represents a higher level of measurable energy efficiency. Cities that use the regulation—it’s optional for them, but not for their builders — move up this “staircase” at their own pace, one “step” at a time. Each time they move up a step, new buildings going up become more energy efficient.

The BC Energy Step Code is basically irrelevant to existing homeowners who live in a community that is using the regulation, unless they intend to tear down their place and rebuild it, or launch into major renovations. In either instance, their builder will be constructing a more efficient home than they would normally would be required to do so, because the construction has to comply with the level of the BC Energy Step Code that their community has adopted.

Those who may be in the market for a new house or low-rise townhome might ask city hall when their community will be adopting Step 3 of the BC Energy Step Code. West Vancouver and both the city and district of North Vancouver are already there. Houses built to meet the requirements of Step 3 will be more durable and more comfortable, with better indoor air quality. And the owner or renter’s heating bill will be lower than it otherwise would have been.

The Zero Emissions Building Plan is similar, but explicitly targets greenhouse gas emissions instead of energy use more broadly, and it only applies in the City of Vancouver. But in both cases, new home buyers no longer have to think of energy efficiency as an optional “upgrade package”—competing for their attention with sexier items such as an all-granite kitchen or, God help me, a salamander broiler.

It’s built into the very DNA of the building.

But, but… What About the Cost?

Yes, thank you, I have heard about the housing affordability crisis.

In 2018, BC Housing, the provincial housing authority, updated an extensive study of the cost implications of the BC Energy Step Code. The building science experts who produced it ran the numbers on thousands of different types of buildings built to various steps of the BC Energy Step Code, then vetted the results with the industry.

It’s a very technical report, but the important bit is on page 37. That’s where we learn that in the areas of the province where most British Columbians live, “all buildings modeled were able to achieve Step 4 for less than a 3% incremental capital cost, and achieve Step 3 for less than 2.4%.”

Allow me to unpack that. First, a home built to meet the requirements of Step 3 or Step 4 will be substantially more durable, comfortable, and cheaper to heat than one built to minimum legal requirements. And, the researchers concluded, such a home can be built for 2.4 to 3% above what it would cost to construct it to the base building code. A series of real-world case studies subsequently confirmed the projections.

Three percent isn’t nothing, but it’s in line with what builders already pay to get up to speed each time there is a new building code update. And there’s another way of looking at it, too.

Earlier this year, with funding support from Natural Resources Canada and BC Hydro, I co-authored a report Lessons From the BC Energy Step Code. One of the sources I interviewed put the “costs” of energy efficient buildings into perspective nicely: “Just as with seismic standards, fire prevention and egress measures, and public health requirements, energy performance is not cost-neutral,” one interviewee said. “Rather, it is an investment for societal good.”

Some in Canada’s home building industry argue that energy efficiency measures must remain voluntary, and out of the realm of regulation. Unfortunately, that approach has not yielded a wave of high-performance, energy efficient, climate-fighting buildings. Instead, until these regulations came along, high-performance homes in B.C., and in most other places, were relegated to a niche product—pursued only by the most affluent home buyers.

Voluntary energy efficiency standards have effectively kept the many benefits of high-performance homes away from the broader market, from people like you and me. And they have only increased the retrofit burden we will need to deal with down the road as we eventually inevitably work to shift all building emissions to zero.

The BC Energy What Code?

The Province of British Columbia first made the BC Energy Step Code available to local governments in 2017, and it came into legal force at the end of that year. If you missed the hue and cry, that’s because there wasn’t one; all of the province’s largest building construction, and architecture groups helped put it together. No conflict meant no coverage.

The City of Vancouver’s regulation, developed through a similar process, enjoyed a similarly uneventful rollout. The media collectively yawned, and moved on to yet another story about pipelines.

Of the two regulations, only the Zero Emissions Building Plan explicitly targets carbon pollution. But Burnaby, Richmond, and Surrey have figured out how to use the BC Energy Step Code to advance their community climate goals. They’re making life a little easier for developers of tall buildings to install low-emissions super-efficient electric heating systems in their buildings rather than the default setup—boilers that burn natural gas, a fossil fuel. MORE

No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference review – Greta Thunberg’s vision

The speeches of a young climate crisis activist who inspired global school strikes are sobering but tentatively hopeful

In 1791, a tall, good-looking ex-naval officer called Richard Brothers claimed to hear the voice of an angel predicting God’s imminent destruction of London. In the same year, William Bryan – a Bristolian with mellifluous voice and “clear and gentle” eyes – prophesied the overturn of global monarchies, followed a few years later by the “fall” of Bristol, and an earthquake in which London would “burn like an oven”. Their critics accused Brothers and Bryan of “enthusiasm”, of falsely believing they were acting under divine inspiration. Satirists aligned them with the bloodiest of French revolutionaries. They seemed to exhibit the same disrespect for established social hierarchies, the same untamed emotions, the same wild eyes, torn clothes and dangerously unkempt appearance.

Judging by the criticism levelled at Greta Thunberg – the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who launched a Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for the climate) in August 2018 – many fear her as the Brothers or Bryan of our times. She has been accused of alarmism and fearmongering, with a “doomsday” prophecy of climate catastrophe, necessitating changes that will crash the global economy. Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers Corbyn has dismissed Thunberg as a “brainwashed child”, an inspired puppet of cynical adults. Spiked magazine’s Ella Whelan sees Thunberg’s school strike as an encapsulation of her entire method: a rejection of rationalism and education for “kneejerk, panicky responses” and wild, self-indulgent emotion. Thunberg is painfully aware that “people tell me that I’m retarded, a bitch and a terrorist, and many other things”.

But her speeches – now collected and published under the title of her refrain, “no one is too small to make a difference” – give the lie to these caricatures. Yes, she reiterates, “I want you to panic … I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” But this is offset by dispassionate emphasis on bullet-pointed facts and figures, and the defence that emotion – even panic – is completely rational.

Perhaps Thunberg is a prophet after all. Brothers and Bryan leaped to fame in the 1790s, when their visions of toppling hierarchies and ravaged cities gave shape to people’s inchoate hopes and fears about change and corruption after the French Revolution. Their prophecies confirmed the widespread sense that to live in 1790s Britain was to live in a time of profound, unsettling and not necessarily optimistic change. 

Thunberg’s appeal to us now is slightly different. Her simple emotion and “black-and-white” rationalism suggest authenticity and trust to her audience, many of whom are wary of adult experts suspected of harbouring hidden agendas.

But most of all, whereas Brothers and Bryan’s prophecies gave shape to public fears of catastrophe and collapse, Thunberg speaks to a people acutely aware of living in a time of transition, on a knife-edge between multiple possible futures. Her argument is not driven by a belief that we are all doomed, but is cut through with tentative hope. And as a small, isolated figure, with her pigtails and open face, poised bravely behind an enormous lectern, facing down a roomful of powerful, suited adults, she embodies what it’s like to be an individual who yearns for change, against a juggernaut of commercial and political interests defending the status quo. I wonder if many of us right now, across a multitude of political persuasions, see ourselves in Thunberg, in the fragility of our political and environmental hopes, and our sense of personal impotence. As she says: “I’m too young to do this. We children shouldn’t have to do this.” A greater readiness to involve ourselves in collective action would go a long way towards lessening not just Thunberg’s vulnerability, but our own.

 No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg is published by Penguin (£2.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

 A prophet for our times? … Greta Thunberg at the R20 Austrian world summit. Photograph: Lisi Niesner/Reuters