More than 70 people perished in Quebec this summer during an unprecedented heat wave that sent the mercury soaring across the world. Welcome to the new reality: a decade ago, the Global Humanitarian Forum had already estimated casualties in the hundreds of thousands each year as a result of climate change, with hundreds of millions more suffering serious harm.
These and tomorrow’s victims merit more than our leaders’ latent denialism, or our defeatist shrugs. Particularly when you consider that the one degree of warming we’re experiencing today is a fraction of the rise the IPCC forecasts by century’s end if we don’t shift scales now in our battle against the climate clock. Particularly when you consider that every one degree of warming avoided will make an immeasurable difference in sparing the world, and its most vulnerable, the worst of the impacts.
It’s not often that scientists use terms like “biological annihilation” to speak of humanity’s impact on the natural world. It’s not usual to hear them warn of a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.”
Yet here we are, ten thousand years after the dawning of agriculture first gave birth to human settlements, with the civilizational experiment on Earth racing towards an existential cliff.
And here we are, in an election campaign that must be anything but one more like the rest — and again, we find the three main parties feet first in their preferred electoralist pantomimes, reprising their divisive and manipulative identity plays as a storm batters the theatre walls.
Quebec, we have a problem
We stand before “the greatest challenge in the history of humanity,” write 200 scientists and public figures in French daily Le Monde, while the head of the UN estimates we have two years to upscale our transition or risk disaster. Amid so unprecedented a crisis, the cynical political playbooks of Quebec’s aging political vessels take on the allure of a morbid satire of human inadaptability.
It is thanks to decades of their alternating complacency and diversions that we’ve today entered a realm where steady-as-she-goes managerial tweaks are pushing us towards the abyss, and where “radical” change, by the deflated standards of the times, is the only realistic chance left.
Yet somehow, in 2018, we still have two frontrunners in a Quebec election, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) and the incumbent Liberals, that are so aggressively oblivious to the climate threat, and so assured of voters’ apathy, as to dismiss nearly all 23 demands of the province’s main environmental groups in the run-up to a closely fought election.
Decades after the danger has been known, these two parties continue to blanket themselves in pretences of “realism” to justify more oil and gas infrastructure, more fossil fuel subsidies, and billions upon billions more in highway construction and other sprawl-inducing policies that will dig us into an ever deeper climate hole.
How do they still not get it? How do we not?
It shouldn’t be hard to see why to many in my generation, the “realism” invoked by the establishment contains a historic irony, by capturing the moral and intellectual failure of our elites to apprehend and adapt to the realities of the new century. Whether it’s through cowardice, opportunism or plain incomprehension is an open question. But the consequences are not.
Indeed, if Quebec under the Liberals today faces a steep uphill battle in meeting its emissions goals, it is owing largely, and by the government’s own account, to the intractable reality of Quebecers’ dependence on cars. Year after year, the number of cars (and especially SUVs) on our roads continues to multiply faster than our population, propelled by decades of unchecked suburban expansion which has reached crisis levels across the country. In the last decade, no less than 85 per cent of all population growth in Canada’s metropolitan regions was in the most car-dependent suburbs. And within this overwhelmingly suburban nation, Montreal led the unenviable pack.
Freeze that portrait. Place it against the scientific imperative of achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century in order to keep warming within the safe(r) two-degree limit set out in the Paris Agreement. And then consider, for a moment, the scale of the efforts that will be required to transform our communities, economies, and lifestyles in line with what the science demands.
Reality, in short, is precisely what is lacking from this campaign. For while the PQ at least has a climate plan that’s worthy of the name, the CAQ and Liberals are stuck reliving their 20th-century scripts, where they can say soothing words about climate action, dangle shiny bits of highway to win drivers’ votes, and have the future somehow forgive them for persisting in their childish pretence that we can have it all.
Come election day, it will be no mystery if the youth of Quebec — who are today the largest voting bloc — turn to the fourth-place Québec Solidaire, who despite their flaws, are the only party to treat the climate crisis with the full attention and seriousness it demands.
We may well take issue with parts of their platform. We may well doubt the timelines and budgets of their ambitious proposals. But we would be missing the point.
The point is that history needs their ideas now, and that their ideas need the largest platform, and greatest influence, the voters can give them. The point is that our species is at risk, and that within our children’s lifetimes, the costs of inadequate action will vastly outweigh the costs of finding the money today to do what must be done.
And the point is that by contrast, the two frontrunners have all but uttered whispers, with stuffed cotton in their ears muffling the alarms sounding from all sides.