The Sunday Magazine

'Incrementalism is the new denialism': The climate politics of Canadian youth

Young people are typically the least likely to vote in Canadian elections, but that may be changing with the emergence of climate change as the defining political issue for a generation.
Hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets across Canada on Friday, September 27th, as part of a global climate strike. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Millions of young people around the world have been marching for climate action over the past two weeks, in what has become the largest climate protest movement in world history. 

They have declared that the status quo will not hold — and that the failure to act in the face of an existential crisis facing humanity spells a threat not just to our collective futures, but to the here and now. There is, after all, "No Planet B," as one of the popular slogans of the movement has repeated again and again.

Not being hopeful is not an option for me.- Rebecca Hamilton, 17-year-old climate strike organizer- Rebecca Hamilton, 17-year-old climate strike organizer

You can hear echoes of this global awakening in Canadian politics, where climate change has become a key issue in the federal election campaign. With the UN warning the world that we have little more than ten years to limit the onset of a climate catastrophe, the policies of our government over the next four years will be vitally important. 

The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright spoke to three young Canadians about what the upcoming election means to them and what they think is at stake.

'Climate change touches everything'

"I don't think a leader can be considered rational or somebody who is fit to lead the country if they don't have a plan for dealing with the biggest crisis that humanity has ever faced," Rebecca Hamilton told Michael Enright.

Rebecca Hamilton is a 17-year-old Grade 12 student who has been organizing climate strikes in Vancouver. (Danielle Campani)

She's a 17-year-old in her last year of high school who has been organizing school strikes in Vancouver since last year, as part of a group called Sustainabiliteens. 

"[Climate change] is to me the biggest impediment to justice, to a better world, that we're facing. The scale of this crisis is overwhelming really — the amount of loss that this is already causing around the world, the amount of loss that this will continue to cause," Hamilton said. "Canada has one of the highest per capita emissions and we are contributing disproportionately to this crisis and so it's I think my moral obligation to do whatever I can."

Riley Yesno, a 20-year-old from Eabametoong First Nation who grew up in Thunder Bay, added that the effects of the climate crisis are already being felt in this country.

Riley Yesno is a a 20-year-old student and climate activist from the Eabametoong First Nation in Northern Ontario. She was formerly a member of Prime Minister Trudeau's Youth Council. (Lisa Macintosh)

"Look at my community, look at the north and the complete change of their life and their livelihoods and how their economies work … that they can no longer hunt even though they're living in one of the most food insecure places in the country and in the world," she said. "The quality of people's lives is already being significantly altered and damaged by climate change."

Yesno was a member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Youth Council from 2017 to 2019. And last year, she was also part of the Canadian delegation at the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland. 

"Climate change touches everything. You can't talk about any issue or any injustice without climate change touching it.... And this happens to impact, in this country, Indigenous people profoundly — and the most." 

'This can't be a partisan issue'

"I look at the future generation and I see that for our children, for our grandchildren, we have a responsibility — I have a responsibility — to ensure that we make choices that don't harm them and that we can create a sustainable future for them," Rahin Virani added.

Viriani is a 20-year-old student at York University. Until last week, he had been a member and volunteer for the federal Conservative Party and the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party for two years. He has since cancelled his membership in both parties. 

Rahin Virani is a 20-year-old student and former volunteer for the federal Conservative Party (Submitted by Rahin Virani)

"I quit both because I do not believe that these two political parties represent my views," he said. "I believe that especially on issues like climate change, the climate crisis, taxation, government investments, debt reduction, it's simply not responsible for me to support these parties anymore in the form of a membership."

"Conservatives flat out don't have a climate plan," Rebecca Hamilton said. "They are not going to meet the emission reduction targets that science says that we need to.

"I think that what's exciting to me has been to see plans like the NDP and the Green plan that are looking bigger and recognizing how we need to so fundamentally change so much if we're going to get past this crisis."

"In the end, this can't be a partisan issue," Hamilton said. "We need to move beyond competition between parties to save the future of civilization. That's not something that we should be competing on."

It's not climate change denial that I think is the greatest problem facing us. It's this idea that we can just make these small tweaks ... whereas what we really need is large scale change.- Rahin Virani, 20-year-old student in Toronto- Rahin Virani, 20-year-old student in Toronto

Riley Yesno added that too much of the conversation about climate policy in Canada has been bogged down by debates around things like the carbon tax. 

"What is really hugely missing is [a] conversation around justice, about the migrant and refugee crisis that has already begun and is only going to get worse," she said.

"These people coming from coastal countries that are facing the impending challenges of climate change and are facing them the hardest … the reason that they're in this state is largely because of the western world and our contributions to the climate crisis. And now, despite that, with all of our wealth, we still don't let them in the borders while we let material goods go through. It's actually a huge grave injustice."

An aerial shot of the climate strike in Toronto, on September 27th, 2019. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

'Radically transform everything'

For Rahin Virani, what's missing in the conversation about climate change in Canada is how to reach those who still don't see it as a crisis. 

"It's not climate change denial that I think is the greatest problem facing us. It's this sort of idea that we can just make these small tweaks, these small changes, maybe just drive a hybrid car to work and then we're going to solve this issue. Whereas what we really need is large scale change," he said.

Rebecca Hamilton agrees.

"I don't know very many people who completely disagree with the science," she said. "Our biggest problem right now is people who understand that it's real but seem to have an alternate reality where climate change exists but we don't need to radically transform everything in order to solve it.

"I think in this way, incrementalism is the new denialism."

But Virani stressed that it's important to continue engaging with those who believe in incremental changes. 

"I used to be someone who is an incrementalist," he said. "Right now I'm sitting here with you and I'm telling you that this is a crisis. That's a huge improvement." 

"I'm not the only one," he added. "I think lots of people are getting more awareness. I think it's extremely important for people like us to find those people ... and not believe that we can't convince [them]."

Young Canadians are typically the least likely to vote in federal elections, but that may be changing with the emergence of climate change as the defining political issue for a generation. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

"The reality of it [is] that our house is burning, as Greta would say," Riley Yesno said. 

"I think we all have a role to play and so for some it might be talking to that demographic of people. But for me, I'm not going to hold your hand and walk you through the burning house." 

"Also the individual person, you know, they're not the ones so often lighting the greatest fires to this house. It's these big corporations. It's government," she said. "That's where the greatest work needs to come from and that's [what] these climate strikes are for."

The quality of people's lives is already being significantly altered and damaged by climate change.- Riley Yesno, 20-year-old Indigenous activist- Riley Yesno, 20-year-old Indigenous activist

Despite the scale of the work ahead, the 17-year-old Rebecca Hamilton told Michael Enright that she remains optimistic about the future. 

"Not being hopeful is not an option for me. I can't imagine how devastating it would be to even entertain the possibility of this not getting solved," she said. 

"I guess I have faith in the ability of humanity to in the end choose continuation of our civilization and choose justice and choose love, really, for future generations and compassion for people, for our wider human community and for other forms of life — over the current apathy and the current inertia.... I have hope, yes."

To hear the full conversation, click 'listen' above. 


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