Co-authored by Clayton Thomas-Muller, Indigenous Campaigner 350.org, Canada and Charlie Wood, Campaigns Director 350.org, Australia
For the past 22 years, world leaders have met at the UN in the weeks before Christmas to hash out a plan to save the climate. For 22 years they have failed. Some countries are more to blame for those repeated failures than others. Australia is one, Canada another. Combined, they have won more Fossil of the Day awards (a tongue-in-cheek accolade for doing the most to block climate progress) than most of the other countries combined and both have had egregious relations with their local Indigenous Peoples. None of this should come as any surprise considering the men who have led them of late.
Until recently, Canada and Australia were run by two of the most ardent blockers of climate action — Tony Abbott — famous for declaring “coal is good for humanity” and Stephen Harper — a former oil executive who systematically worked to make his Government a wholly-owned subsidiary of the petroleum industry. With the defeat of Harper at Canada’s elections last month and the ousting of Abbott by his party a few weeks earlier, the fossil fuel industry has lost two of its biggest supporters.
But Harper and Abbott’s departures alone won’t solve the climate crisis. In their place have stepped two new leaders, both who say that they understand the science and urgency of climate change but now need to prove it. With the Paris climate negotiations only a few weeks away, now is when we need the climate pendulum to seriously start shifting away from deniers, dirty money and grandstanding towards community-centered and science-based solutions.
Although Harper and Abbott are out of the game, the fossil fuel projects that they have backed so hard and for so long remain and set each country on a collision course with their local Indigenous populations. In Canada, we’re talking about the Keystone XL pipeline — which would open up the second largest pool of carbon on the planet — the Alberta Tar sands. And in Australia — the Galilee Basin coal mines which would tip the climate into the red zone and trash the Great Barrier Reef.
The recent halt on Arctic drilling is cause for hope that other carbon bombs could soon topple too. But unless the entrenched and toxic ties between the polluters and our politics are severed, that hope is at best a distant one. Abbott and Harper worked hard to build these ties — pouring billions of dollars into fossil fuels, dismantling progressive climate policies, marginalizing and suppressing the collective rights of frontline Indigenous communities and giving industry lobbyists free reign within their parliaments. Australia elected one of their biggest coal barons to parliament and Canada put the petroleum industry in charge of regulating itself.
Cleaning up after these damaging legacies will take time and effort. But the fact that politicians like Harper and Abbott are now being shown the door is cause for hope that people-powered efforts like the global divestment campaign are beginning to work. Thanks to the work of hundreds of individuals around the world, over 450 institutions from Norway’s $900 billion sovereign wealth fund and the Canadian Medical Association to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Australian Capital Territory have now committed to move their money out of fossil fuels, each commitment sending a powerful message to politicians and polluters that we won’t stand idly by as they profit from wrecking the planet.
In just three years, the divestment campaign has worked its way through college campuses, city governments and board rooms. It has made fossil fuels the new tobacco and helped to call-out politicians like Harper and Abbott for using their political power to benefit the dirtiest industries on the planet rather than the people they were elected to serve. But there’s more work to do. We must make sure that a just transition framework is guiding the process so that energy workers and frontline communities hit hardest by the end of the fossil fuel era are first in line when it comes to re-investment.
Canada and Australia’s new leaders Trudeau and Turnbull may well turn up in Paris next month but the real proof of their commitment to tackling the greatest moral challenge of our time is whether they’ll do what it takes to keep their countries’ massive fossil fuel reserves in the ground. For Australia — that means saying no to projects like Adani’s Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin. And for Canada — freezing tar sands expansion. It would also mean paying for the damages that their predecessors’ obsession with fossil fuels has inflicted upon local Indigenous and non-indigenous communities at home and abroad.
Thousands of communities and millions of voters in Canada and Australia will continue fighting until their leaders act in a way that matches the science and delivers justice. In Canada, organizers are already planning a multi-day sit-in to greet their new Prime Minister. In Australia, community resistance to fossil fuel expansion is growing by the week.
That the pendulum seems now to be inching in the right direction is in no small part thanks to the leadership of people who are facing the impacts of fossil fuel extraction and climate change first and worst. Time and again — Indigenous peoples, farmers and workers on the frontline have stepped up to take on this challenge where our leaders have failed us. It is these ordinary people doing extraordinary things who will win us this fight. Politicians like Trudeau and Turnbull either get on board or end up like Abbott and Harper — voted out. The choice is theirs.
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