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After Durban: We must pull the emergency brake before the 1 per cent drive us off the cliff

On behalf of Canada, Environment Minister Peter Kent recently spent several days in Durban at the UN climate talks treating the global community like, well, shit -- disrespecting her, ignoring her wishes and just generally displaying rude and selfish behaviour.

But Minister Kent did not have the guts to break up with the global community face to face in Durban. So he waited until he landed back home in Ottawa before officially announcing that Canada was dumping the Kyoto Protocol, making us the first country to ratify the agreement to abandon what is -- for all its flaws and shortcomings -- the only legally binding international climate treaty in existence.

Ironically Peter Kent, years ago when he was a respected CBC TV journalist, had narrated and helped produce a groundbreaking documentary on global warming way back in 1984

From 1984 to 2011 -- that's 27 lost years. Twenty-seven years of failure to do what must be done. In 1984, Kent's documentary inquired about a potential ban on fossil fuels, or a 300 per cent tax on carbon dioxide emissions.

But nothing like this type of serious, drastic action ever happened. And that's because the past three decades of the climate crisis have coincided with three decades of neo-liberal politics and economics. The market came before society; money came before science, the environment, reason and even morality.

The result of the 2011 Durban climate talks is that the big polluters have given themselves a few more years to fiddle while the world burns. They spin this by telling us that at Durban they agreed to a "roadmap" to a future agreement.

But the map of the road agreed to at Durban leads only one place for humanity -- off the cliff.

In the lead-up to Durban, new evidence emerged about just how quickly we are speeding towards the edge:

-  In November, the International Energy Agency reported that the world was headed for irreversible climate change in five years, unless we immediately cease creating new oil and gas infrastructure.

-  Then, at the beginning of this month the Global Carbon Report revealed that global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year.

Then, on Monday, as the world reeled from Canada's irresponsible decision to pull out of Kyoto, there came a new report that suggested it may already be too late to stop our collective drive off the cliff. The story ran in the UK Independent. It read, in part:

Dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane -- a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide -- have been seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean by scientists undertaking an extensive survey of the region.

The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.

Igor Semiletov, of the Far Eastern branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that he has never before witnessed the scale and force of the methane being released from beneath the Arctic seabed.

"Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter…

Scientists estimate that there are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost, which extends from the mainland into the seabed of the relatively shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. One of the greatest fears is that with the disappearance of the Arctic sea-ice in summer, and rapidly rising temperatures across the entire region, which are already melting the Siberian permafrost, the trapped methane could be suddenly released into the atmosphere leading to rapid and severe climate change.

Reading this news report hit me hard.

My mind raced back 15 years, to when I was sitting in a first-year environmental science class at the University of Victoria, riveted as the professor explained the theory of the potential for runaway climate change. The theory is simple but horrifying: that the initial effects of warming -- melting polar ice and permafrost, for example -- will set off "positive feedback loop" effects like the release of stores of methane gas that in turn cause additional warming. Once a certain tipping point is reached -- and the science tells us this is likely somewhere in the neighbourhood of two degrees Celsius of warming -- there will be no possibility of curtailing or reversing the climate change.

Catastrophic climate change will go from theory to reality.

The new findings of massive Arctic methane plumes are perhaps the most startling warnings yet that runaway processes may already have been set into motion. It's the latest indication that we are hurtling towards the cliff. If and when we go over, it won't just result in massive loss of life and dislocation for us humans -- we will also take millions of species over the cliff with us.

This is where the neo-liberal, capitalist joy ride has taken us. Heading over the edge. Only an unprecedented collective mobilization and effort can save us.

It feels like it's now or never. And the once unthinkable thought is becoming the unavoidable thought: it may already be too late.

I'm tempted to suggest that the 1984 Peter Kent would tell the present-day Peter Kent to go to hell. But maybe Kent's just been a vacuous opportunist all along and only the words on the teleprompter have changed. And, secondly, this is much, much bigger than Mr. Kent and the rest of the sock-puppets and salesmen for the tar sands and the rest of Big Oil. 

This is now about political power. Forget speaking truth to power. We are going to need to take power, and transform power. It's an almost unbelievable challenge in front of us, especially the younger generations.

Those of us who grew up in the neo-liberal years were told again and again that politics was the art of the possible, but now we face a situation where we must do the impossible. 

Walter Benjamin once wrote: "Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake." Pulling that emergency brake today will require a global movement like we have never seen before.

We are going to need a revolution. An energy revolution.  A social revolution. And a revolution in international relations -- waging war on climate change, instead of war on countries with the misfortunate of sitting on top of oil and other coveted resources. 

To achieve all this we are going to need to summon an unprecedented collective will to take back the public sphere, including the media, and we will have to re-imagine our democracy, our cities, our societies, and our daily lives.

But our first task is clear: Those who have driven us to this perilous point -- the 1 per cent, the rich, selfish, shortsighted, uncultured and ignorant ruling class of our times -- must be removed from behind the wheel once and for all. (And have their keys taken away, too, for good measure.)

System change, not climate change -- this is indeed our only option left.


Note: I did a radio version of this commentary on Wednesday morning, some hours before Justin Trudeau called Peter Kent a "piece of shit" in the House of Commons. For this written version, I made a few tweaks and added one "s-word." You can listen to the original audio here; it's from a segment on the W2 Morning Radio Project, which airs Monday to Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., on Vancouver's Co-op Radio.

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