Thoughts on grandchildren and grand challenges

Twenty-five years ago when I was running for the first time as a Green candidate, the opening lines of my speech at the initial debate went like this: “Future generations will look back at the decades we are now living in and they will call them the crazy years: that time when humanity, with full knowledge of the consequences of our actions, carried out the systematic destruction of our only home, planet Earth.”

In some ways everything has changed since then; in other ways nothing has.

What has changed is that I now find myself as an elected politician in a provincial legislature with all of the influence and responsibility that comes with that role. I am also the leader of a political party that has recently emerged as a serious contender to form government in the next PEI election. Two and a half decades ago I never dreamed of either of those things happening. I am still amazed by the trust placed in me by Islanders, and am determined to live up to their expectations.

What hasn’t changed is that despite decades of Canadian governments, both national and provincial, signing on to agreements that promise to reduce carbon pollution and therefore combat climate change, emissions are still rising, and “the systematic destruction of our only home” continues unabated.

Of course I am not alone in issuing dire warnings about the future of our biosphere and for our children’s hopes. A couple of weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their latest report, and it is blunt. Avoiding unimaginable destruction “would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” it says. What makes the IPCC report so powerful is that it is a negotiated statement created by thousands of experts and government officials worldwide. Over 6000 scientific references are cited and 40 countries agreed to the final wording. Here are some of those words: “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,”; “The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future,”; “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”

The report is not without hope however, but that hope lies on the shoulders of decision makers who have the opportunity to act decisively and courageously. We have about a decade to make those “rapid and far-reaching changes in all aspects of society”; we just need politicians prepared to make those tough decisions. That is why I am so disappointed by the PEI government’s announcement this week that, instead of participating fully in Canada’s plan to price carbon pollution, they have instead negotiated a special deal that essentially subsidizes the burning of fossil fuels at the expense of low and middle income Islanders.

The speech I gave back in 1993 also contained this line: “I want to look my children in the eye twenty years from now, when the problems I see emerging today have matured, and their security and wellbeing are threatened, and tell them that I did everything I could to make things different.”

I recently spent time in Montreal visiting with my only grandchild who is now a year and a half old. I don’t know what the future will hold for little George’s generation, but I do know with even more certainty today than I did 25 years ago that our responsibility to them demands that we get our act together right now.

All political decisions impact the future: that is the heavy responsibility that comes with offering yourself to be an elected representative for your community. Whether or not you have children or grandchildren, we are all fleeting participants in the long story of life on Earth, and history has contrived to make our generation the one with the humbling responsibility of choosing whether or not to leave a habitable home for those that follow us. I hope for all our children and for George and his contemporaries, that politicians recognize that bold action is required, rise to the occasion and make the right choices today.