5,000km on One Wheel for Climate Action! That's the journey Joseph Boutilier will be making across Canada during the Unity for the Climate campaign. Please view the full website or update your web browser for a better experience. Click here to do so.
NOTE: This article originally appeared in The Environmental Advocate, published by the Conserver Society of Hamilton. Reposted with permission.
Unicyclist Cam Rawinson, left, and business owner Bob Dupee, centre, were just a few of the generous strangers who jumped head-first into helping me unicycle 5,000km across Canada.
How unicycling across Canada ranting about climate change has restored my hope in humanity
What can I possibly hope to achieve? In as many words, that’s the question I get asked by the most people; supporters and skeptics alike. And I don’t blame people for laughing off the idea of using a unicycle to spur political action on climate change, even though I’ve used the ‘gimmicky’ device as the basis for a 5,000km cross-country ride that has brought me in contact with dozens of reporters, scientists, politicians and thousands of concerned Canadians. The truth is, while I’m confident I’ve helped surface, in some small way, the urgency we should all be feeling about the climate crisis, I have no idea whether or not I’ll be able to reach our elected leaders, much less contribute to a movement to force them to address our climate concerns. But still, when you ask me what I hope to achieve, that will always be my first answer. My first answer, but not my only one.
Selfishly, I was also hoping such a trip might bring me in contact with other advocates who have embraced the broad scientific consensus that we’re on track for absolutely devastating global warming within our lifetime. I was hoping that I wouldn’t feel alone. I was hoping to see my passion for political action to address the issue mirrored in others; to quell that anxious sensation that motivation and awareness for our own sustainability is simply too sparse in the everyday bustle of the great majority. I hoped to see environmental wisdom begin to take its place; climbing the ranks of more common concerns like career succession, family life, personal health, and material gain. Simply put, I suppose you could say I was hoping a shaky faith in humanity would be restored. And with more than 1,000km still to go, I can gratefully say my outlook on our society and culture has never been more positive.
But wait a second, you say, are we really any closer to achieving an undeniable, overwhelming public consensus on the true severity of our predicament, much less the widespread political willpower to improve our fortunes? A little bit. More and more people believe in climate change as it hurtles brutally into their personal lives, and I’ve spoken to many of them first hand. Families whose homes have been battered by ice storms, hurricanes or shoreline erosion. Hardworking Canadians who find themselves suddenly jobless, like farmers who can’t cope with harsh cycles of droughts and ‘hundred year floods’ that occur mere months apart, or fisherman whose operations are compromised by ocean acidification and rapid mollusk die off, or loggers who find timber supplies sacrificed to pine beetle invasion.
People are beginning to see how drastically unprepared we are for the relatively limited changes in our atmosphere, let alone the radical 6-degrees Celsius of warming forecasted for the next century or the 3-5 meters of sea-level rise that could swallow thousands of coastal communities in the following centuries or less. But the suffering of others, even if it’s necessary to generate adequate concern, is not the source of my optimism. Instead, my faith has been restored not as a result of any surprising evidence of environmental awareness, but through a constant demonstration of kindness, compassion, resilience and hope.
These traits surfaced in every imaginable nook, cranny and corner of the country. From the wealthy suburbs of Vancouver and the hustling energy of its vast downtown, to the sleepy tourist towns and isolated mining communities scattered between the towering, snow-swept Cascade and Rocky mountains. Through the booming oil communities of southern Albert and Saskatchewan and the remote ranchland in between; From the pristine urban core of Regina through the rolling hills of Manitoba, down the rustic old streets of Winnipeg and along the rocky shores of sparkling Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. When my daily stops were separated by 80km over dozens of hillcrests and hairpin turns during frigid rain storms, or a mere 20km of flat straightaway forcing though hot prairie headwinds while staring down the grain elevators dotted on the horizon that never seemed to get closer. Whether on a quiet trail among fellow cyclists and hikers, or struggling to hold my line on the razor-thin shoulders of Highway 17 while fighting off gusts of smoky air pushed through the underbellies of looming 18-wheelers as they raced by.
In all these places, on all these days, I quickly learned – out of necessity you might say – to trust my life with thousands of strangers. The ones I asked for directions, the ones I asked for help, and the many more who offered it voluntarily. The people I stayed with, ate with and entrusted my unicycle and backpack with. And, of course, the thousands of drivers from whom I requested by my very presence a portion of the roads they were used to owning alone. And I have been rewarded not just by surprisingly few negative encounters and close calls, but a long series of small, simple encounters that have brought me unexpected joy, and a few unforgettable conversations that have changed my outlook on life forever. Through the stress and anxiety of the narrow roads, the headaches and heartaches of fighting for climate justice and through the months of separation from the people and places and events I most cherish, I have been reassured by the welcoming charity of communities big and small. I feel at home wherever I go. As much as I’m a complete oddball, an ‘activist’ on a unicycle with sometimes controversial proposals, the common values and experiences that connect me with my fellow Canadians remain stronger than any of the quirky characteristics that set me apart.
When my tire slipped on a gravel incline and my ankle got caught in the fork of my unicycle, it was like an anchor trapping me clumsily on the middle of the Crowsnest highway. Would the approaching truck driver even stop? Yes and he would make sure that myself and my unicycle were okay. I was hardly in a position to argue if he’d faulted me for riding a unicycle there in the first place; instead he wanted to make sure I could continue.
When I got lost in a small town and had to interrupt a single mother juggling a household of children, she didn’t just give me directions. Chilled water and fresh baking were also provided. When people invited me into their homes to stay the night and spent the entire time apologizing for the temperature, the food, the mess; when they insisted I rest and wouldn’t accept help with anything. When a man on the Downtown Eastside insisted on giving me all his change so I could buy a coffee, because I was tired.
When David and Helen found me with a flat tire and drove me an hour back to Regina and all over town on a Sunday evening to find a new tube. Then drove me back to dine with them. A few weeks later David and Helen were among thousands caught in the state-of-emergency flash floods that swept through southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba; the second such devastating floods to hit the region in four years. The recovery, I was relieved to hear, was swift and effective, as neighbours came together like neighbours do.
When I met Derek who was cycling around the world with terminal cancer to raise funds for other survivors, and dozens of other cyclists who had taken months out of their busy lives to raise funds for loved ones. When I met Ted Musson who has returned for his second year of walking and re-walking the distance of Victoria to Ottawa to call attention to democratic injustices like the robocall scandal. When I marched with Idle No More protestors in Winnipeg to promote respect and action for future generations, and met people like Michael Champagne who have helped transform a city plagued with discrimination and crime into a place of hope and pride for young first nations.
When Shane in Maple Creek heard I wanted to see the Cypress Hills but couldn’t afford the time and gave me a personalized tour. When a woman found me on a muddy construction zone in the pouring rain outside Brandon and insisted on driving me into town because lightning was forecast and she feared for my safety. When the two times I had to hitch-hike I was picked up in less than 2 minutes by people who offered to go out of their way to get me back to my route. Everytime I pulled over for rest and someone inevitably stopped just to make sure I was okay. When that border guard spent more time giving me directions and local advice and encouragement than questioning me or searching my gear.
When hundreds of school kids sat quietly and patiently and listened to everything I had to say about climate change, and asked brilliant questions I’d never thought of. When reporters changed their plans and went out of their way to tell my story, and thanked me for the opportunity to write about global warming. When government employees pulled me aside to offer me their kudos and tell me environmental concerns despite the possibility of backlash from employers. When they expressed regret that they weren’t brave enough to cut their ties and speak out.
When all of these small, wonderful things happened and many, many, more, I was reminded why I remain optimistic. These acts of kindness, compassion, resilience and hope illustrate qualities far more valuable for human civilization and the environment than any amount of acute logic, political persuasion or scientific certainty. With these ingredients in place, it only takes ambition to achieve rapid transformations of our society, culture and indeed our political landscape. Meanwhile, knowledge of the terrifying scope of global warming without this generosity and hope could crush the very spirit that makes us human.
What can I possibly hope to achieve? I can’t hope to achieve ‘global radiative equilibrium;’ an end to climate change. I’m scared even to hope that Canada might regain its rightful position as a leader on environmental issues because I’ve been let down so many times already. Next time, that disappointment could be marked by the stinging ineffectiveness of own campaign. But I don’t hesitate to hope that the strength, courage and kindness of Canadians will ultimately triumph over our recent plague of uncomfortable compliance and dangerous inaction. I don’t hesitate to hope that my 5-months on one wheel will inspire others, perhaps even as much as they have inspired me.
Joseph Boutilier is riding 5,000km on one wheel across Canada to call a heightened political response to the global warming crisis. He hopes others will join him to demonstrate their support for climate action when he arrives at Parliament Hill at noon on September 15, 2014. More info is at www.unityfortheclimate.ca and Joseph is on Twitter as @josephboutilier.
An open letter to opposition political party leaders in Canada
NOTE: This is a companion piece to an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq. An iteration of that letter, in editorial format, can be found in The Hill Times.
Dear Party Leaders:
What would you do if you knew an international crisis threatened to rock the very foundations of our civilization within the next century? If you could act to stop the eradication of thousands of coastal communities, the rapid spread of communicable disease, the threat of economic collapse, famine and war before it even happened, would you? With every day of inaction on climate change, the probability of these and other risks increases dramatically. No one person, party or nation, alone, can stop climate change, but you all have a special opportunity as party leaders to forge a new path towards key political action.
On April 5 I set out from my hometown of Victoria to unicycle 5000km to Ottawa, to call for political action on climate change. I plan to arrive for the opening session of Parliament on September 15. I have issued an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Leona Aaglukkaq and hope to meet with Ms. Aglukkaq after I arrive in Ottawa. However, I recognize that our government encompasses hundreds of MPs from several distinct parties and that every Member of Parliament has a vital role to play in promoting and demonstrating leadership for climate action. Furthermore, with the 2015 federal election rapidly approaching, the potential for a major political shift may present an opportunity for Canada to restore its reputation as an environmental leader and truly reflect the will of the population for rapid, strategic climate action. In order to ensure this outcome, we must all be vigilant in adhering to key targets suggested by the scientific community, and in embracing a cohesive vision for Canada’s energy future.
We are at a critical juncture, a crossroads between two paths: one leading to sustainability, the other to environmental and economic collapse. As a record number of new proposed oil and gas extraction and transportation projects are nearing development, we are perpetuating long-term investments in short-term opportunities, and contributing to a status-quo that, left unchecked, will trigger a devastating 6-degrees of warming (or more) by the end of this century. Canadians need to know in advance of the next election how their votes could affect our government’s reckless course of inaction. Consequently, I am encouraging all party leaders to provide clarity on their climate-action proposals, reinstate their commitments to critical climate policies, and demonstrate a willingness to work across party lines to address the biggest global crisis of our time.
I invite any opportunity to meet with you in person, on or after my arrival in Ottawa. I also invite any public responses to the following questions in advance of my arrival. In interacting with hundreds of ordinary Canadians across western and central Canada, I have come to realize how many of my concerns are shared by a broad range of individuals across every imaginable demographic. I have endeavored to focus exclusively on these shared concerns. While I represent only myself, I’m confident that my deep concern for our lack of action on climate change is shared by the majority of Canadians, and that this will be reflected in the lead-up to the 2015 election.
Thomas Mulcair: I commend you and your party for maintaining a prominent and comprehensive environmental strategy in the NDP’s policy book, and for advocating continually for more direct federal action to mitigate Canada’s significant global impacts on climate change. Your recent attempts to revive the Climate Change Accountability Act calling for greenhouse gas reductions of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 – as well as your opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline, your condemnation of government subsidies for the oil and gas industry, and your stern assertion that Canada must stand by internationally-binding emissions targets – demonstrates a legitimate understanding of the profound concerns of Canadians on this issue. Your proposal of a federal cap and trade program suggests that you recognize the need for further measures to significantly reduce our emissions and foster new economic opportunities and a smooth transition to renewable energy solutions.
As you know, cap and trade systems are widely recognized as a legitimate strategy for spurring C02 reductions, but they have also been prone to significant problems in other countries, which have stifled the intended impacts. Lack of regulation, overly-charitable trading terms and corruption has lead to cap and trade systems in the EU and elsewhere to fall dramatically short of their targets; in 2013, the United Nations Environment Program warned that this climate control mechanism is inherently more prone to corruption than other types of emission-reduction programs. Canadians need to know that you have seriously considered these challenges and have a plan to verify that a national Canadian cap and trade system would quickly and effectively reduce emissions.
Similarly, many Canadians, myself included, are concerned by your endorsement of the Kinder Morgan and Energy East Pipelines; we recognize that these projects are significant economic investments and fear they may be incompatible with restrictions on oil sands expansion that are important for meeting targets such as the one proposed in the Climate Change Accountability Act. Environmentally-concerned Canadians want your assurances that you have a long-term energy plan for Canada that includes new regulations on the oil sands. Canadians also want assurances that the broken National Energy Board and Joint Review Panel processes for approving pipelines – which have failed to ensure the protection of the health, safety and livelihoods of communities in the vicinity of projects like the Northern Gateway Pipeline – would be revised under your leadership.
What are the details of your cap and trade proposal, new industry regulations and subsidy cuts, and what revisions would you make, if any, to new development review processes?
Justin Trudeau: Canadians are greatly encouraged by your promise to price carbon, and are eager for more details to ensure your party has a concrete plan that can help us meet or exceed carbon reduction targets. Your obvious sympathy for the public’s concerns around direct environmental and long-term climate impacts of the Northern Gateway and Energy East (Line 9) pipelines is also hopeful. You have expressed dissatisfaction with the NEB approval process, and are clearly committed to introducing more balanced consideration for oil and gas projects versus renewable energy alternatives.
You support the Keystone XL pipeline. I fear that by suggesting this project has failed to gain public endorsement and American approval due to poor consultation, you are overlooking the significant climate impacts of the project, which would enable rapid growth of the oil sands to an extent that may be incompatible with critical thresholds of global warming. Similar concerns exist about your support of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. What would a Liberal government do under your leadership to mitigate these devastating impacts? What emission-reduction targets do you support, and how would you get Canada back on track for its Copenhagen commitments? What new regulations for the oil sands, if any, would you table to promote the sustainability of our economy and environment? Would a Liberal government eliminate the annual tax breaks that Canada currently grants the oil and gas sector, and reprioritize incentives to foster renewable energy growth?
I challenge you to answer these important questions to solidify your commitment to ensuring that our future generations can look forward to a sustainable economy and livable, protected environment.
Mario Beaulieu: Congratulations on your recent election to leader of the Bloc Quebecois. Your party has repeatedly called for a focused, credible greenhouse gas reduction plan, plus an adaptation program to deal with the reality of increasing climate impacts on our public infrastructure. It’s clear that your party acknowledges the reality of global warming and the need for stronger mitigation policies. Your personal thoughts on climate change are not well known, but advocates for climate action are hoping your recent promotion to Party Leader will shed some new light on the party’s specific climate policies. Do you support a price on carbon, or do you see Quebec’s provincial cap and trade program as a model for a possible federal initiative? What GHG emission reduction targets would you support, and what would you consider an ideal outcome for Canada’s participation in the upcoming UN Climate Change summit in NYC and the COP in Lima, Peru in December?
Elizabeth May: Your party has continually encouraged commendable, bi-partisan action on mitigation of Canada’s climate change impacts through a range of policies. You also support a fee and dividend program to help Canada reach its current C02e reduction targets. However, it’s not clear if any of the larger parties are also considering this approach; accordingly, would your party work across party lines to support other carbon-reduction policies? Although you hope to expand the presence of Green MPs in parliament, you don’t anticipate your party will form government. In an election that will likely cast a fragile balance of power between other parties, how would more Green MPs bolster Canada’s cohesiveness and capacity as it relates to climate action?
As party leaders, Canadians expect the utmost in leadership from each of you on this issue. People of my generation fear we are inheriting a country that is woefully unprepared for the challenges of the future while causing irreversible environmental damage and global injustice. We are eager for change, and recognize the 2015 election as a chance to revitalize our government and its priorities. But we fear that without important answers, specific strategies, policies and commitments around climate change mitigation, this chance could be wasted. Leaving voters uncertain of the impact of their ballots will further damage the public’s faith in our parliamentary democracy and contribute to even lower voter turnout. But it will also perpetuate the biggest frustration with our political system: the government’s lack of ability to work together to address urgent issues such as climate change.
My last question is for all of you and, indeed, all Members of Parliament: If elected, how will you work with members of other parties to address the climate crisis? Would you be willing to vote across party lines in order to support GHG-emission reduction policies from other parties? Canadians understand that it is imperative that we find unity across party lines if we are to successfully avert the pending climate crisis.
Just as we need political unity in Canada, we must find unity with our global neighbours. This is recognized by groups such as ClimateFast. This group of dedicated advocates refrains from eating for several days each year to call for critical action on climate change. I will be joining ClimateFast for their annual five day fast, which begins on September 28 on Parliament Hill. I encourage you all, as Elizabeth May and individual NDP and Liberal MPs have already done, to show your support by signing their pledge for climate action at http://climatefast.ca/pledge-support-fast-politician.
I look forward to being enlightened on the important details of your unique climate policies in advance of my arrival in Ottawa, or during meetings after my arrival on September 15. We must work together in good faith, with expediency and conviction, for our future. We must replace vague promises with clear commitments and a vision for cooperative action. We must embrace unity for the climate.
Thank you deeply for your leadership, your concern and your consideration.
Join the call for unity and action across partisan lines to address climate change and climate injustice! 12pm, September 15 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
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