Dear Mr. John Horgan and Mr. Justin Trudeau,
I write to you from Kelowna, British Columbia. If things had gone a different way, I would be writing from Vancouver, where I was hoping to visit my sister this week. But as you might have heard, getting between those two places isn’t feasible right now. Large sections of Coquihalla Highway and the Trans-Canada highway are currently gone. The Crowsnest Highway and the Duffey Lake Highway sit under mounds of mud.
I’ll outline the situation in case you or anyone reading is not aware. Over the length of the storm (roughly 2 days) that has hit southwest B.C in the last few days, Hope, British Columbia, the epicentre of it all – a town that normally receives about 350 mm of rain over the month of November – has received almost 300 mm of rain over the length of the storm ( in just 3 days ). Freezing levels spiked to above the tops of the Coast Mountains, so what was shaping up to be a heavy early winter snowpack has been washed down into the valley. The two main highway arteries between Vancouver and the interior are, in sections, mostly gone. There are evacuations and road closures across the Fraser Valley. The town of Princeton is mostly underwater. Most of it now has no potable water or heat. The entire town of Merritt, over 7000 people, has been evacuated as its waste-water system failed. Much of the city of Abbotsford remains under waters that may still be rising, and what remains has been saved only by the herculean effort by first responders and volunteers who worked through the night to save the Barrowtown Flood Pump. If that pump were to fail, it could mean even further damage to the city and a “catastrophic flooding” with “significant threat to human life.”
It remains to be seen how unusual this flooding is. A one-in-a-hundred-year flood? Two-hundred? Five-hundred? It will be some time before the data is available to chalk this event up to climate change. However, in B.C. where just months ago we shattered national heat records and lost several communities to fire, it is hard not to point the blame at the climate crisis.
But I have a question for you both: how rare would this flood have to be before you determine it is a good time to act on climate change? Would a one-in-five-hundred-year flood be shocking enough? This summer we lost 865,307 hectares of our woods to wildfires. In 2017 and 2018, that number was well over one million. What would it take for you to act? 1.5 million hectares in a year? We’ve gotten close to that number. How about 2 million hectares in a year? How many one-in-a-hundred-year weather events do we need to experience in one year? We watched several communities, most notably the town of Lytton, burn to the ground. Now, five months later, we’re watching Princeton, Merritt, and Abbotsford be overwhelmed by water. How big of a town should we lose before you do something? Or how many towns? If we lost every town along the Thompson and Fraser Rivers, from Cache Creek to Hope, would we see something change? If Kelowna and Kamloops washed away, would you act? How about Vancouver and Montreal?
Over the last few years, I’ve watched friends lose their homes to fires. I’ve seen whole towns destroyed. I’ve heard stories of people in California and Oregon and right here in B.C. killed by raging fires. What would it take you to act? Mr. Horgan, if Langford burnt to the ground in a wildfire, would you act? Mr. Trudeau, if the island of Montreal washed away in a flood, would you act? If the ocean stole away at the coastline until your Tofino vacation home fell into the sea, would you do something tangible?
If Vancouver, or Toronto, or Montreal sat under five feet of water, would the government do something about climate change? What would it take? What else do we need to lose? Your home? Someone you love? If someone you loved died during a heatwave? If they were washed away by a landslide? Or is it enough, for you now, to look at the very real things people are losing, and do something?
But you see, I already know what you are going to say. You will say you are already doing something. Mr. Horgan, you will say something along the lines of, “Climate change is already affecting British Columbians, that’s why our government has introduced CleanBC…” Mr. Trudeau, you will say, almost verbatim, “Climate change is real, and it’s here. That’s why we’ve committed to doing more to combat climate change.” But see, I don’t believe you! I have no reason to believe you.
You have both been saying those things for years and yet you have made no progress on mitigating climate change. So my generation does not believe you. Young people, the people who will have to live their entire lives in a world of your creation, cannot trust your promises. We don’t see why you would keep them when this country and this province have never met an emission reduction goal. Not that it would matter even if you did keep your promises. Because we all know they ring oh-so-hollow.
Mr. Horgan, you have placed much of your government’s political capital in LNG Canada, a fossil fuel project that will take up well more than half of our province’s carbon budget by 2050. But beyond your devotion to this climate crisis accentuating project, we aren’t even close to meeting any of our emissions goals. In fact, our emissions are higher now than they were in 2007, when the previous Liberal government first announced emissions reductions goals. In 2020-2021, your government increased its spending on oil and gas subsidies by 8.3% to $1.3 billion dollars. And when you rebut, “but we are also spending over a billion dollars on climate change,” know that your statement is meaningless to me, as your total climate change spending, at $1.1 billion dollars, is $200 million less than you hand out to fossil fuel companies.
And Mr. Trudeau, you have just returned from COP26 in Glasgow where you callously and preemptively announced the disappearance of Lytton, a town that, despite burning this summer, is still very much a community of loving and caring people. There you shouted repeatedly about your government's commitments to maintain a 1.5 degree warming goal. A goal, I should note, you championed all the way back at the Paris Climate summit in 2015. An important timeline, given that since 2015, our country's emissions have not seen any noticeable reduction despite your repeated statements about 1.5 degrees. And your envoys haven’t exactly railed against the governments of the summit who have taken any teeth out of COP26’s attempts to reduce fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, your lieutenants have defended the wholly inadequate agreement and said that “there was language” – the words in question here being “inefficient subsidies” – in it about reducing subsidies. But governments have been abusing empty words like “inefficient subsidies” for decades as we watch our emissions rise. “Inefficient subsidies” is a great excuse to call all of your billions of dollars in fossil fuel handouts “efficient.” And despite all your talk about language and 1.5 degrees, you have gladly come home patting yourself on the back for signing an agreement that doesn’t even attempt to reach 1.5 degrees; even if we do manage to meet the goals of your COP agreement, we would still only keep global temperature change at 2.6 degrees!
Moreover, Climate Scientists, the people who I do trust and have reason to believe, have spoken strongly on what needs to be done. Without reductions, we will have exhausted our carbon budget for 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030, a year by which you, Mr. Trudeau, have promised to meet Stephen Harpers’ paltry 30% emissions reduction goal (well below the 45% number the International Panel on Climate Change calls for to meet the goal). Yesterday morning, on The Current with Matt Galloway, our Federal Minister of Environment Steven Guilbeault said that your government needs to “do more.” Then do it! Do it right now! You and him have just arrived home from possibly the biggest opportunity to “do more” that your government will ever receive, and instead of doing more, you have signed on to an abject failure of a plan, a plan that does not seek to meet the 1.5 degree goal, that doesn’t phase out fossil fuel infrastructure or subsidies. This world, and this country, are horribly addicted to oil, and you are shoving another six pack into an addicts’ hands and telling them “We’ll kick the stuff in the morning.” Your government often says that we cannot transition to a green economy “overnight.” But overnight, BC has watched two of its main highways wash away and three towns be overwhelmed by flood water. If not overnight, when?
So, now that we're all clear: clear on what your two governments have done so far--that what you aim to do--is woefully inadequate to protect our future, now that we have watched towns burn and towns sink in just six months, now that we have watched people lose their homes and their lives, I’ll ask again, what will it take for you to step up?
Jonathan Van Elslander, MSc. Student in Environmental Science at UBCO