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Interview / Catherine Abreu

Interview / Catherine Abreu

Catherine Abreu is an internationally recognized, award-winning campaigner whose work centres on building powerful coalitions to advance transformative action on climate change. Until recently she was the Executive Director of Climate Action Network — Réseau action climat (CAN-Rac) Canada — a coalition of about 100 organizations, including CAUT. Now she is the Founder and Executive Director at Destination Zero, a new global initiative focused on energizing the transition away from fossil fuel dependency.

This summer, there were devastating wildfires and hotter than normal temperatures in parts of Canada. Was this the wake-up call we need as Canadians?

Climate change has been happening here faster than it has in other parts of the world.

The problem we’re facing in Canada is not that Canadians don’t know climate change is happening; we do. It’s not that we don’t believe climate change is real, we believe the science. The people that we need to wake up are not everyday Canadians, it’s our decision-makers who we need to hold accountable.

The science of climate change is clear, so why is policy so slow to follow?

We can look to the COVID-19 pandemic for a lesson in why policies have been so slow to adapt to the climate crisis. In the past, we would have said to ourselves, “Oh, that’s just the nature of government to move too slowly to address emergencies. The policy-making process is too bureaucratic and clumsy to be able to address a crisis like climate change.”

COVID-19 showed us that’s not the case. We saw governments using the policy apparatus to adapt to a global crisis in record time, including by putting huge investments, previously unprecedented unimagined investments, into responding to this deadly virus.

There isn’t a huge powerful industry that has set itself against addressing COVID-19 in the same way that there is a huge powerful industry that has set itself against addressing climate change. The fossil fuel industry has, for decades, been running a well-funded misinformation campaign about climate change, and has so much influence, that inaction isn’t necessarily about an oil and gas lobbyist telling one elected official not to do their job. It’s about the system of government being so intertwined with the interests of the oil and gas industry, that it can become difficult to separate the two and take concrete action on the climate crisis.

What can academic staff associations do to be part of the solution?

Academic staff associations can work with their membership to make sure that conversations about climate change happen in every classroom. I would issue a challenge to those in the academy who perhaps don’t see their subject matter as being directly linked to climate change to reflect on the ways in which their department, their subject matter, and their students are a necessary part of the conversation, because time and time again, studies about communicating around climate change tell us that the way people change their minds is by speaking with people who they trust, who they see themselves in community with.

Educators and researchers need to think through what a climate-safe future requires, and then figure out how to train people into those skills and job qualifications for a just transition to a fossil-free future.

What exactly is a “just transition”?

For a long time, our thinking has been that climate policy equals incremental greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Making sure that the fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles are incrementally better so that they’re burning incrementally less gas, and putting incrementally fewer emissions into the air, is a very transactional way of understanding and approaching the issue.

Why don’t we think about, “Okay, how do we transform the transportation options for this community, this region, so that we are making sure people of every demographic, of every social standing, are able to get to where they need to go in a way that takes care of their daily needs, as well as their health, and reduces emissions from internal combustion engines?”

It’s only by putting people at the centre of climate change policies that we’re going to be able to build durable policy that people accept because they see it improving their lives on a daily basis. This is how we lock in the economic and social changes that we need to see climate change addressed in a fair, long-term and permanent way.

Is it too late to confront climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, and scientists have told us, time and time again, that we have all that we need to dramatically cut emissions over the course of the next decade: the renewable energy technology, the regulatory and policy solutions and the lower carbon service technologies. Whether we’re able to completely address the climate crisis or not, we have no choice but to try.

What we require to implement these things is the political will. We must train ourselves to have hard-hitting conversations with elected officials and hold them accountable for their actions. Climate change is a non-partisan issue. We all need to feel comfortable speaking about it with each other as well as speaking about it in the classroom, in the workplace and with the people we’re electing.

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