Elizabeth May is leader of the Green Party of Canada and has a long record as a committed advocate for social justice, for the environment, for human rights, and for economic pragmatic solutions. She is an environmentalist, writer, activist and lawyer who has been active in the environmental movement since 1970.
Elizabeth first became known in the Canadian media in the mid-1970s through her leadership as a volunteer in the grassroots movement against proposed aerial insecticide spraying on forests near her home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The effort prevented aerial insecticide spraying from ever occurring in Nova Scotia. Years later, she and a local group of residents went to court to prevent herbicide spraying. Winning a temporary injunction in 1982 held off the spray program, but after two years, the case was eventually lost. In the course of the litigation, her family sacrificed their home and seventy acres of land in an adverse court ruling to Scott Paper. However, by the time the judge ruled the chemicals were safe, 2,4,5-T’s export from the U.S. had been banned. The forests of Nova Scotia were the last areas in Canada to be sprayed with Agent Orange.
Her volunteer work also included successful campaigns to prevent the approval of uranium mining in Nova Scotia, and extensive work on energy policy issues, primarily opposing nuclear energy.
She has held the position of Associate General Counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, representing consumer, poverty and environment groups from 1985–86. She has worked extensively with indigenous peoples internationally, particularly in the Amazon, as well as with Canadian First Nations. She was the first volunteer Executive Director of Cultural Survival Canada from 1989-1992 and worked for the Algonquin of Barriere Lake from 1991-1992. Elizabeth was the founding Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada and held that position until 2006.
While the climate crisis has finally achieved a global agreement focused on actions by every country on earth, the failure of governments to act over the last three decades has dramatically worsened the scale and scope of the threat. Ironically, over those decades the available tools for global climate action have been removed from the toolbox of climate negotiations.
In 1987, governments took effective action to protect the ozone layer in the Montreal Protocol. The Montreal Protocol originated the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” It allowed the developing world to increase use of ozone-depleting substances by 15%, while industrialized countries were required to slash use by 50%. All countries accepted that further actions would be driven by science. Fairly rapidly, both developing and developed countries moved to deep reductions leading to virtual elimination of ozone depleting chemicals.
In 1997, the same governments faced a similar threat – one with the potential of ending life on earth – and agreed to approach greenhouse gases (GHG) on the basis of common but differentiated responsibilities. The Kyoto Protocol differed from the Montreal Protocol in two significant ways- GHG were a tougher challenge than ozone-depleters due to the deep dependence of the global economy on fossil fuels. A second, less noted difference may have been fatal to Kyoto – the Montreal Protocol had an effective enforcement mechanism with trade sanctions available to penalize any offending country. The emergence of the World Trade Organization in the mid-90’s led to a political decision from all the same nations that negotiated the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) to remove access to enforcement mechanisms to Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEA).
The 2009 disaster in Copenhagen removed from the tool kit for MEA negotiators embedding targets and timelines in climate agreements – as had been done in the Kyoto Protocol. The steady diminution of accessible tools to construct a workable global agreement to address the climate crisis has gone by –unremarked and unchallenged. The Paris Agreement is an unquestionable success in being both legally-binding and having the correct long-term target – to avoid global average temperatures increasing by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels. But the agreement has no specific targets for governments, no enforcement mechanism and no penalties. How could it, given that governments had removed those from the negotiators’ available tool kit over several decades?
We are left in a zero-sum debate with many prominent critics of the hypocrisy of governments and global corporate rule laying the blame on capitalism. If we have to replace capitalism in order to solve the climate crisis, we are beyond hope. Even if doable, it will simply take too long. The collision course between increasingly invasive agreements to protect corporate interests while diminishing national sovereignty and climate agreements, on the other hand, can be addressed. To make the Paris Agreement work we need a fundamental re-examination of the web of Investor-State agreements. We do not need to eliminate capitalism. We do need to reverse the trend toward corporate rule.