“Green polarisation” threatens sustainable development
Opinie Duurzaamheid & Economie

“Green polarisation” threatens sustainable development

02 Dec 2019 - 14:10
Photo: Greta Thunberg at the European Parliament, 2019. © European Parliament - Flickr
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On 25 October 2019, a group of children and teens filed a lawsuit against the federal government of Canada. The 15 plaintiffs claim, based on their personal experiences, that the Canadian government violated their fundamental rights to life, liberty, equality and security ‘by promoting and enabling fossil-fuel development in spite of acknowledged risks from global warming’.1

The announcement came a mere four days after Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party secured a narrow victory in the Canadian federal elections. The party of Canada’s prime minister is set to form a minority government while lacking a significant share of public support, predominantly from the Prairie Provinces with booming fossil-fuel industries. These events illustrate a wider phenomenon that we can see in national as well as global politics: the increasing polarisation of society along environmental political lines.

Citizens suing governments and corporations for failing to take general action to tackle climate change is a new development

While the legal action taken in Canada is unprecedented in the country, it is not unheard of internationally. It is merely the most recent example of a series of lawsuits across the globe, all revolving around inadequate climate action. According to Columbia University’s Climate Change Litigation Databases, at the time of writing, a total of 1608 national and international court cases have been filed against governments, corporations and private persons.2

The plaintiffs to these cases come from a variety of backgrounds, and range from farmers whose crop yields are affected by extreme weather events to municipalities suing their own national governments. While environmental lawsuits relating to specific, case-by-case issues are no novelty, citizens suing governments and corporations for failing to take general action to tackle climate change is a new development. More importantly, the most recent cases involve a new type of plaintiff: children.

Youth climate activism
The most well-known example of the rise of youth as a grassroots-level driving force for climate action is the Fridays for Future movement, started by the Swedish Greta Thunberg. While older generations also take part in environmental action, it is undisputable that youth activism for the climate has become stronger, more visible, and also considerably angrier.

However, that anger is no longer only directed at governments and corporations, the “usual suspects” of climate inaction. Expressions of frustration with the status quo of climate politics increasingly target the older generations. Just consider the following quote from Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit this September: ‘You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.’3

Climate change and the federal elections
Parallel to this, the Canadian example also illustrates another expression of anger. The recent federal elections in Canada revolved around climate change. The narrowly victorious Liberals had already introduced more stringent environmental regulations, and have made promises for more. However, the country was far from united on the issue. The Conservative Party took all but one seat in Alberta and won all 14 seats in Saskatchewan, leaving these two fossil-fuel dependent provinces without representation in the now forming Liberal government.4

In 2018, oil and gas extraction represented 27.1 per cent of Saskatchewan’s and 26.4 per cent of Alberta’s GDP. Alberta’s oil sands also have immense reserves of crude oil, making Canada the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world.5 The extraction industry is also a major employer in both provinces; no wonder that voters tried to ensure that the relatively environmentally friendly Liberals do not get another four years in government.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks about the clean energy transition in the province of British Columbia. © Province of British Columbia - Flickr
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks about the clean energy transition in the province of British Columbia. © Province of British Columbia - Flickr

Polarisation
We often speak of a more globalised but also more polarised world. Both of the above described events exemplify a deep dissatisfaction that increasingly polarises our societies along the lines of environmental politics. While most of us are focusing on polarisation by the rise of populism, another force driving out societies apart is inter-generational and inter-community grievances created by the pressing need to address climate change.

These grievances are worsening the already existing issues with coordinating action on climate change

From the regional level to the international plane, these grievances are worsening the already existing issues with coordinating action on climate change. Issues such as the seeming impossibility of reaching an enforceable international agreement, the revocation of policies due to popular discontent, and the voices that still contest the mounting scientific evidence.

The needs of the present
However powerful Greta Thunberg’s rhetoric is, it does not enable cooperation. It rather enables polarisation by provoking feelings of abandonment and resentment. And even though Justin Trudeau told the fossil-fuel dependent communities vehemently that their concerns have been heard, voices of discontent are set to rise even further, because it is highly unlikely that the Liberal party would retract their promises for more environmental regulation.

Sustainable development is said to be about meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. However, the needs of the present are not uniform. The question we need to consider is this: in what way can we balance the diverse needs of today to create common action on climate change, rather than divisions which stifle it?

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