David Suzuki Q&A: making environmental change from the ground up

One of Canada's greatest environmentalists talks mining, fracking and the North’s unique role in the environmental movement

David Suzuki was in Yellowknife this week as part of a cross-country tour aimed at building grassroots support for a constitutional right to a healthy environment.

The Blue Dot Tour, run by a former Obama campaign strategist, is built on a bottom-up philosophy – environmentalists should be pressing their municipal leaders, says Suzuki, who then pressure provincial and territorial governments to ask for constitutional change.

Suzuki has extolled this model of activism to 17 Canadian cities since the tour started in St. John’s, Nfld. on Sept. 22.

I sat down with him before his talk at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre on Monday.

You’re touring across the country, trying to build up a new environmental movement. What role could northerners play?

Up here in the North, you have a huge advantage because you have a devolution of power and you have a majority of Aboriginal people who have a different perspective. In the south, the big problem we face is the cities. In a city, your highest priority is your job; you need a job to make money to buy the things you want. And in the city, there’s an increasing disconnect. People aren’t going outside. The average child in Canada in the city spends eight minutes a day outside, and over six hours a day in front of TV, computer or iPhone screens. They don’t see the world, and they don’t realize why it matters to them.

Do you think it’s different in the North?

Being up here, anybody that doesn’t think that weather and climate affects their lives … well, you just can’t say that up here. So with an issue like climate change, everyone I’ve met says ‘of course it’s going on, we’ve seen it here. On Halloween we don’t have to wear our parkas, we can wear our costumes.’ I think the North, if nothing else, is the canary in the coalmine saying ‘for Christ’s sake, what you’re doing is changing everything up here.’

The Blue Dot campaign is all about creating a movement from the group up. Why are you taking this approach?

I’ve spent a lot of my time lobbying governments, seeing every minister and prime minister, and they either lose interest, or get promoted, or they get demoted and then you have to start all over again. The only way we’re going to bring about real change is to get down to the grass roots and start telling people, ‘we live in a democracy, you elect people to be your servant, now you goddamn well get out there and start telling those politicians what you want.’

You’re telling people the best place to start advocating for change is at the municipal level of government. Why?

I’ve done a number of tours across Canada trying to spark a movement, and we’ve learned a lot from the failures of those tours. We can get a lot of people coming out, really enthusiastic. But you need to give them something to do after you leave. What we’re doing with the municipal thing is telling people you can begin to lobby, call up your politicians, go to city council meetings and try to persuade them to get a declaration for a healthy environment.

What would a declaration at the municipal level do?

The declaration is about air, water and food. Once you realize that we are now committed to having clean air, then what the hell’s that factory doing over there? Once you say, ‘we’re committed to clean air,’ it changes everything. Individuals can now complain to the city and say, ‘look, you promised we’re going to have clean air. What the hell? You’re allowing that factory to do this?’

There’s an ongoing debate in the NWT over fracking for natural gas. What’s your take on this?

Fracking to me is the dumbest way to get energy, on par with the Tar Sands. The way we’re extracting it is drilling down and injecting superheated steam. It all takes energy to superheat steam. And fracking is not just about drilling down and releasing, it’s about using massive amounts of water that you pollute. Over 100 different chemicals go into it. And we now know there’s a huge leakage of methane as that gas is harvested; methane is 22 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. A lot of natives in B.C. have been sold on the idea that natural gas is a transition fuel. But fracked gas is not natural gas, and fracked gas is just as bad as coal. The idea of fracking up here is nuts.

A huge part of our economy is based on mining. Yet there are examples, like Giant Mine in our backyard, of mines turning into environmental disasters. Can we have an economy that relies on mining and still be environmentally sustainable?

Mining is a really difficult challenge. First of all, it’s not sustainable, it’s a finite resource. The way we’re mining leads to things like the Mount Polley disaster in B.C. Can the mining industry show some creativity, or are we still going to do it the same old destructive way we’ve always done? We’ll have to see. Two hundred years ago, the southern states said ‘there’s absolutely no way we can stop slavery, it will destroy the economy.’ And it did destroy the economy in the south. But the reality is, some things you don’t do because it’s simply wrong. And with mining, if you can’t do it in a way that protects the air water and land, then maybe you can’t do it.

There’s been talk of running a pipeline up the Mackenzie Valley and shipping oil out of Tuktoyaktuk. You’ve been a vocal opponent of the Northern Gateway Pipeline in B.C. What’s your take on this new plan to go North?

Canada tried to monkey wrench the last big conference in Copenhagen, didn’t agree to any targets, nothing. But at the last minute they said we do not want the temperature to rise more than two degrees. The minute you sign and say no more than two degrees rise this century, physics tells you how much more carbon you can add to the atmosphere and then you have to stop. It turns out to be 565 gigatons of carbon. That number doesn’t mean anything to me, but the important number is we’ve got five times that much carbon that we know is already in the ground. We’re going to have to leave 80 per cent of that in the ground. Why the hell are we exploring for more? There’s no point. We know there’s way too much already, why would we spend billions of dollars building a pipeline when we’ve got to get off fossil fuel?

Your goal with the Blue Dot campaign is to create enough popular support to amend the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to include the right to live in a healthy environment.  Why is it important to do this?

Once it’s embedded in the charter, you can’t weaken it. We’ve seen, with omnibus bills, you can take legislation that’s been painfully built up over years and years, stick it in an omnibus bill, where no one has the time to go through it, and basically throw out 20 years of legislative progress in one fell swoop. To me, it’s intolerable that people have worked so hard to get these little things in there, and then suddenly have it erased. But once you have it in the charter, you can challenge anything; you really can’t weaken legislation once you have that in the charter, so it’s very powerful.

To amend the Charter you need seven of 10 provinces to agree with over 50 per cent of the population. Do you think this is possible?

There have been over 20 amendments, but only one the way we’re doing it. There are other means of amending, and we’ve chosen to do the grassroots thing. But quite frankly, I don’t think it’s that formidable a challenge. Eighty-five per cent of Canadians in polls say yes, it should be in the charter. So it’s a question how much we can get that support for it vocal so that politicians hear it.