Now is the time for a climate leap

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What do Leonard Cohen and Black Lives Matter Toronto have in common? What do some of the country's most powerful labour leaders and most hard-core green groups agree on? How about Ellen Page and the head of English Canada's Jesuits?

All share a belief that it is possible for Canada to fight against climate change in a way that changes our country for the better -- delivering meaningful justice to First Nations, creating more and better jobs, restoring and expanding our social safety net, reducing economic and racial inequalities, and welcoming far more migrants and refugees.

That's the message many of Canada's most prominent artists, authors and musicians -- along with an unprecedented coalition of social and environmental justice organizations -- sent yesterday when they joined together in Toronto to launch The Leap Manifesto.

The oil price crash and destabilized economy we find ourselves with is Stephen Harper's legacy, a culmination of his entire approach to policy: recklessly betting everything on a single volatile commodity, the Alberta tar sands. Yet the plummeting price of oil is not merely a crisis, but a moment to reflect on what our country has become and to catalyze a shift in a different direction.

The Manifesto, bolder than anything on offer from the major federal political parties, lays out an alternative vision that would get us to 100 per cent renewable electricity within two decades -- while building a fairer, more humane society in the process.

And it's not pie-in-the-sky -- this coalition is backing more than a dozen specific policies to turn this goal into a reality.

We think there has never been a better moment for Canada to lead such a transition. This summer has seen massive wildfires in British Columbia, flooding in Alberta and a drought-parched Prairie. Scientists warn that if we want to avoid turning the climate crisis into a full-fledged catastrophe, we need to start dramatically cutting emissions now.

Already, Canadians are joining together to reject new fossil fuel projects -- whether new pipelines or more tankers or gas fracking -- with First Nations leading the way. Renewables, on the other hand, are better and more affordable than they have ever been.

It's a moment that calls for audacity and ambition. But the leaders with an eye on Sussex Drive are playing it safe -- proposing what amount to minor policy shifts given the magnitude of both the crisis and the opportunity before us. Which is why we need a people's platform, filling the vacuum left by a far too cautious political class.

We have both spent more than our share of time in disaster zones, from New Orleans after Katrina, to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to Greece in the grip of economic austerity. What we have learned is that large-scale crises invariably act as catalysts -- for better and worse. Most often, they are harnessed by elites to push the most dangerous kind of change: rollbacks of social protections, land grabs, privatizations.

But that does not need to be the case. When the population is clear on its alternatives, crises can also produce positive transformations -- for instance, Fukushima drove Germany to rapidly transition its energy grid to renewables. And our social safety net was forged in the popular unrest of the Great Depression and the aftermath of the Second World War.

For the past six years, we have been working on a twin book and documentary project, both titled This Changes Everything. It is based on the premise that climate change can provoke progressive change on the scale of these past transformations. But for that to happen, there needs to be a clear and compelling vision for a post-carbon future.

So last spring we helped host a meeting in Toronto focused on precisely this. Present were 60 leaders from Canada's Indigenous rights, social, migrant and food justice, environmental, faith-based and labour movements. The idea was to create a space to not just say "no" to the worst attacks on human rights and environmental standards, but to dream together about the world we actually want.

We holed up for two days, hashing out a vision of the transition to a post-carbon future -- how it could begin to heal wounds that date back to our country's founding; how it should be deeply informed by Indigenous knowledge of the land; how it must care for all workers, including migrants, as well as those who would lose jobs in carbon-intensive sectors.

Both difficult and inspiring, it made us all realize how rare it is to have honest debates across differences. And the results could be seen almost immediately. In early July, these strengthened alliances helped drive the march for Jobs, Justice and Climate Action in Toronto, when, on the eve of the Pan Am games, 10,000 participated in the most diverse climate march the country had ever seen. And we led with hope, not fear.

But a march can only convey slogans, not specifics. And specifics is what we need if Canadians are going to move beyond a decade of relentless Conservative messaging telling us we need to choose between protecting the environment and having a strong economy.

Which is where The Leap Manifesto comes in. It begins to get into the nitty-gritty of how we get from where we are, to where we need to be -- and how we pay for it. The document calls not just for renewable energy but "energy democracy" -- bringing power generation under democratic community control, with First Nations first in line. It also calls for massive public funding for affordable transit and housing to create a huge wave of green jobs. And it redefines that well-worn category as not just the folks in hard hats putting up wind turbines, but everyone already working in the low-carbon economy: caregivers, health-care workers, artists and teachers. It even calls for national debate on a guaranteed income.

By today's cautious political standards, it's a radical document. But thanks to climate change impacts already locked in, as well as a precarious global financial system lurching from greed to panic and back again, the future is already going to be a radical place. The pressing question is which radical future we will choose.

Many of the initial signatories to the Leap Manifesto are organizations that one might anticipate -- labour unions, Oxfam and Greenpeace. But what has surprised us is how many unexpected people were eager to add their names to such a far-reaching document. Musicians like Feist and Arcade Fire. Filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve and Patricia Rozema. Actors like Rachel McAdams and Donald Sutherland. Authors like Yann Martel and Ann-Marie McDonald. Respected elders like Roy McMurtry, Charles Taylor and Haida carver Guujaaw.

Those who have signed include supporters of all parties, and some who support none. But all share the belief that now is the moment for a transformative agenda to come from outside electoral politics, to build a wave of popular support that will put real pressure on the next federal government -- whoever forms it. History tells us that this kind of outside pressure is the best gift any new government can receive.

During elections, opposition leaders like to talk about change. These Canadians and many others who will add their names to the manifesto in the coming weeks have embarked on a historic project: we hope to make them deliver, and on a scale we are only just starting to imagine.

Because now is not the time for small steps. Now is the time to leap.

Some of the Leap Manifesto's policy recommendations:

Implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous communities across Canada having been leaders in the growing movement to block oil sands pipelines and other major extractive projects that contribute to rising carbon emissions. Recognizing their rights as set out in the United Nations Declaration would strengthen their ability to be Canada's carbon keepers.

100% clean electricity by 2035. The latest research shows it is feasible for Canada to get 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources within two decades. That's the conclusion of a major academic report written by 60 researchers from every province in Canada, representing disciplines across engineering, sciences and social sciences.

Expand the green economy. Canada needs to expand the caring and constructive parts of its society, while contracting careless and destructive ones. "Green jobs" include more than building solar panels and wind farms: child and elder care, agro-ecological farming, nursing and teaching and other essential services are all low-carbon "green jobs" that must expand in this model.

Ensure a "just transition" for workers and impacted communities. Canadians living in the communities most impacted by toxic industries should be the first to have access to energy that doesn't burst or spill, poison their water, or incinerate their hometowns. The government must help create dignified, meaningful jobs and training for those currently or formerly employed by environmentally unsustainable industries and those whose lands have been devastated by them.

"Polluters pay." How to pay for this transition? There is ample money, if we choose the right policy tools. These include ending fossil fuel subsidies, increasing resource royalties, higher income taxes on corporations and wealthy people, and a progressive carbon tax, holding to account those that created the climate crisis in the first place.

Avi Lewis's film inspired by Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything just had its world premiere at TIFF. Read and sign the manifesto here. This column was first published in theToronto Starand is reprinted here with permission.

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