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I was one of the people who spoke at Vancouver city hall council meeting in support of motion B5, to hold polluters accountable.
Other cities around the world have been suing or exploring the possibility of suing oil companies for the damages their infrastructure and residents are experiencing and will increasingly experience as a consequence of climate change. Here in Canada, Toronto recently passed a motion to explore this possibility and Greenpeace has been working with councillors Jean Swanson and Christine Boyle, who brought forward the motion in Vancouver.
I lead the local volunteer group for Greenpeace and I had been hearing about this upcoming initiative for a while and was very excited and keen to be involved. Jesse Firempong and Keith Stewart briefed me on the details and I was happy to help by adding my voice to messages about this and by reaching out to other people to encourage them to speak at council. I was happy to be chosen as one of the spokespeople for this initiative but unfortunately, we did not end up having a press conference.
Together with Sophie Birks, Greenpeace Vancouver’s new mobilization campaigner, we scheduled a meeting with councillor Christine Boyle beforehand where she explained some of the ins and outs of council and prepared us for what we could expect speaking up at council.
I reached out to people inside and outside the Greenpeace volunteer crew, some of whom are parents I have met through having a baby, who are also concerned about the future of the climate. Some of them attended this meeting and decided to speak at city hall to support the motion. Sophie organized a meetup beforehand so people could practice their speeches.
I was not initially planning on being one of the speakers myself, as I thought mostly of helping others prepare and organize. I am not a huge fan of public speaking (pretty terrified) and I sometimes feel like it is not my place to speak to politicians directly because I am not Canadian and I cannot vote. But hearing the details about the proposed motion did motivate me and when I got home I sat down and wrote a short speech, I decided to speak on behalf of my almost 2-year-old daughter who was born here in Vancouver and will likely grow up here.
I worry about the city having to spend so much on infrastructure and repairs because of climate change that it will cut social programs and the already threadbare social safety net will become even more fragile. I worry about the good things we take for granted such as socialized healthcare could be in danger.
I worry that my daughter will spend her adult and teenage years not only surrounded by increasingly erratic weather and natural disasters, millions of desperate refugees, failing crops, and all that but also in a more desperate and unequal society.
Some people, and I am guilty of this myself sometimes, hope that they will be able to avoid the worst consequences of climate chaos because they are well off, or privileged in some other way. I think we need to realise that this will not be the case.
Even just in terms of social inequality, there are studies that indicate that increased inequality leads to more depression, anxiety and mental health issues not only in the disadvantaged but in everyone. And I can believe that, having grown up in a very unequal society and having felt the resentment, the huge self-esteem issues, the mistrust and the guilt that even the privileged feel in this situation.
So I spoke about my fears regarding the future of the framework of civilization that many in Vancouver are fighting to strengthen and that could be ripped apart by climate change chaos and costs. I mentioned my visions of a science fiction-like dystopian future. And I spoke about how we are so used to companies socializing the costs and privatizing the gains and that there is another way. I said that I thought it was reasonable and feasible to pressure said companies to share the immense profits they made while knowingly putting climate chaos in our futures.
I touched briefly on my feelings of maybe not being entitled to speak as a non-voting immigrant but I countered that imagined objection by saying that I live here and my daughter is Canadian.
And also that this is a global issue if ever there was one, and that our local efforts must coalesce into a bigger pattern that changes the future.
Finally, I urged the councillors to pass this motion and I thanked them for letting me speak.
To be honest, I do not remember the moment of giving the speech, I was so nervous. I believe I did ok in delivering my speech, considering I had recklessly decided not read out my speech but speak off the cuff. I did tangle myself in my own sentence a few times and I need to work on my ‘ahms’ and my wan/-to-get-it-over-with monotone. But, no Mr Bean moments happened so I left the podium relieved, only feeling a tiny bit of cold sweat evaporating. I was disappointed I did not get any questions as I had been crafting imaginary answers for all questions the previous speakers got. But I could also understand that the first speakers would be asked more questions as then the topic was fresher and councillors were perhaps not yet thinking of going home as much.
Unfortunately, I did not get to hear all the speakers after me as I had to go home and put my daughter to bed. As much as I like to think I am speaking for her if you asked her now she would surely say she would rather I was at home drawing birds with crayons and reading about crocodiles making friends.
The speakers before me were very interesting to me and very varied, two expert and charismatic lawyers, Dustin Klaudt and Stepan Wood, eloquently giving us the details on the merits of this motion and the potential lawsuits.
A moving speech from Luca Pan, speaking for the generation of people now in their teens who have the most reason to be scared by climate change, being old enough to realise what is happening and young enough to have many years of climate chaos and uncertain future and even survival to look forward to. He spoke about accountability in general terms and reminded us that while most normal people have to face consequences for antisocial behaviour, powerful companies, in this case oil giants, are given a pass when really they have done incalculable damage to our future. He was asked what in my opinion was a pretty absurd question. He had compared a student writing on his desk and facing consequences with oil companies who pollute and emit without facing any. Councillor Kirby – Yung asked if one should in this metaphor sue the student or the manufacturer of the crayon. She said that we all use fossil fuel products in our lives. He had a great retort; he said, do you then think we should sue the earth for having fossil fuels? I would have also added that this tired old argument that climate change is all our fault for using petroleum is so absurd considering people use the options they have available and we are seeking to hold accountable some of the people that have been working very hard to make sure we have no other options.
Yvon Raoul also spoke – a charming humorous man – giving the perspective of a teacher and a grandparent and also supporting the motion. Anna Barford and Claudia gave their perspectives as longtime activists and informed citizens.
Sophie Birks gave a rallying speech where she touched on how Canada’s fossil fuels (and all fossil fuels really) fuel wars where millions are killed and millions suffer. She was asked a question about the KM pipeline being a conduit to sell more oil to China instead of the US (therefore in theory not fueling as much war I suppose) and she had a wonderful answer, schooling us on how China is making strides towards converting to renewable energies more quickly than any other country and may very soon rightly turn up their noses at Canada’s dirty outdated bitumen.
We also heard from fellow GP volunteer and friend Ekaterina Potapova, who spoke about how climate change affects her home country and her adopted city of Vancouver and about how she believes we need to act on this urgent matter and how she has been shocked to learn for how long Fossil Fuel companies have known about climate change and how intentionally they have deceived us and made the problem worse.
After hearing these speakers and speaking myself, I biked home to relieve my partner who had a party to attend and after spending some time with a little reluctant sleeper I watched the end of the debate and the happy conclusion on live stream. The motion passed! This makes me happy and hopeful. I hope future developments will allay my remaining scepticism and turn this from a so far symbolic act into a real tool for our city to protect somewhat from the consequences of climate change and to change the narrative around oil corporation’s infuriating impunity.
Sofia Engelbrecht is a Vancouver-based activist, mom and organizer with the Greenpeace Vancouver volunteer local group.