Clarion call: Language, the climate crisis, and the Green New Deal

Written by Lauren R. Korn on July 31, 2019

Video: Green New Deal Town Halls. On the Pact for a Green New Deal YouTube channel.

When it comes to the world’s changing climate, we are inundated with buzz words. Climate change. Climate crisis. Climate emergency. Climate catastrophe. Global heating. Global warming. Rising temperatures. The greenhouse effect. Green New Deal. Just transition. Assessment. Report. Vision. Movement. Action. Now!

It’s hard to imagine, in a world whose realities are perpetual coastal erosion, record-breaking wildfires, and daily power outages, that something like language ranks on someone’s list of priorities. But it is becoming apparent to me that the ways we talk about environmental destruction and global human impact may become hindrances to policy-making processes and necessary change.

My attention to language accompanies my role as a research assistant for the Rural Action and Voices for the Environment (RAVEN) project that wants to advocate for a rural rhetoric and discourse that surrounds environmental issues. Even using the words “rhetoric” and “discourse” seem counter to what I’m supposed to be aiming for here: a language that reaches everyone.

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On June 18, community members in Fredericton, New Brunswick, gathered for one of many town hall meetings that took place in more than 150 other communities nationwide, in order to share their visions for Canada’s Green New Deal (GND).

Fredericton’s event was hosted by the local chapter of the Council of Canadians and was co-sponsored by 15 other community groups, including RAVEN. These events were organized by The Pact for a Green New Deal (Pact). The Pact, according to the group’s website, is a “coalition of workers, artists, Indigenous leaders, scientists, youth, and people directly impacted by climate catastrophe […] who want to ensure a safe world for our children and all generations after that.”

The meetings were organized as small group discussion events. On the many tables set up in Christ Church Cathedral’s Memorial Hall were numerous pieces of paper, including two large, lined sheets, one with a green-markered “Green Line” and another with a red-markered “Red Line,” each accompanied by separate sheets of paper that stated examples of what exactly “green lines” and “red lines” meant: what the community wants included in a GND and what the community doesn’t want, respectively.

Green Line, Red Line: Image from the Green New Deal Town Hall in Fredericton, June 18 2019. Photo by Lauren R. Korn.

Canada’s campaign for a GND followed quickly on the heels of a 14-page resolution introduced in the U.S. by Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Senator Ed Markey in February of this year. These were not the first resolutions of their kind.

In 2008, in the U.K., “A Green New Deal: Joined-up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices” was released by the Green New Deal Group and the New Economics Foundation. In Quebec, Le pacte pour la transition, a plan divorced from the GND but one that carries with it many of the same ideologies, began in November 2018, and much like the U.S. resolution and the vision being created by the Pact, Le pacte is a commitment made by each signee and citizen of Quebec (and now Moncton, New Brunswick) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The GND borrows its name from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of programs and projects implemented to help the American economy recover from the Great Depression. Green New Deals worldwide combine FDR’s approach to the economy with ideas about renewable energy and resource efficiency.

In an essay in Naomi Klein’s forthcoming book of essays, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (Knopf Canada, September 2019), she writes, “By evoking FDR’s real-world industrial and social transformation from nearly a century ago in order to imagine our world a half century from now, all of our time horizons are being stretched. We are part of a long and complex collective story, one in which human beings are not one set of attributes, fixed and unchanging, but rather, a work in progress, capable of deep change.”

Canada’s GND does not hold fast to the resolution currently debated in the States, nor does it wish to invoke FDR’s deal as it relates (or does not relate) to the country’s Indigenous populations. Canada’s GND has been written with the rights of Indigenous populations in mind, but many feel that it is not yet attempting enough.

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I recently spoke with Margo Sheppard, a full-time and life-long environmental activist and a volunteer with Fredericton’s Council of Canadians. Sheppard was present at the town hall meeting in Fredericton, and after listening to her interview on CHSR-FM’s “The Lunchbox,” I wanted to know what she thought of the event and how she sees language playing a role in the GND.

“The language we use,” said Sheppard, “comes from different movements that have distilled really complicated ideas into the words and phrases we’re steeped in now. Like ‘a just transition for a green economy,’ for example. It’s a phrase that came directly from the Green Economy Network. Instead of some long description about how to get from here to there, a ‘just transition’ can be understood immediately.”

Steeping in this language does have its challenges—challenges supporters of the GND ardently need to address.

“We talk to one another, and we talk to other organizers,” said Sheppard, “but it’s not often that we have the occasion to speak with others who are not engaged with the social justice and environmental quests that we are.”

Not all Canadians are well-versed in the language of environmentalism.

For the most part, the discussion of my town hall meeting group was friendly and productive. We each scribbled our green line and red line bullet-points on Post-It notes and stuck them to the large, lined sheets. Even though our points were not identical, we found ways to talk about each point that overlapped one another’s interests and intents.

That changed when something said by one participant was not understood by another. A young man, confident in his knowledge and in his articulation of his point, became frustrated when it was dismissed because it wasn’t understood. A slight difference in language meant that two empathetic participants actively struggled to understand what the other was saying.

“How are these messages being received?” asked Sheppard. “Is this all presumed knowledge, or is it unapproachable? Is it excluding people? Is it irritating people?” I share her questions about presumption and exclusion.

Posters at the Green New Deal Town Hall in Fredericton. Photo by Lauren R. Korn.

In her interview on The Lunchbox, Sheppard cited what is known as “the Overton window,” “how ideas come in and out of fashion.” Ideas that were once too radical to bring into political and public discourse become mainstream. Such is the case with climate change (and all of its associated vocabularies).

“How long has ‘colonization’ been a part of the conversation?” Sheppard prompted. “Not long! That shift, though, is really taking place. When I moved to New Brunswick 26 years ago, you wouldn’t have heard about that. And you wouldn’t have heard anything any about capitalism, either.” It’s true that ideas (and populations) once actively ignored are now being given a seat at town hall meeting tables nationwide, but I’m curious: what happens when the tables are cleared, the chairs stacked?

After the meetings in June, the Pact released a brief report that outlined the discussions that took place across Canada. Though the Pact was quick to organize in May, and the organization was vital to assembling the resources used at the June 18 meeting in Fredericton, Sheppard said that her local chapter of the Council of Canadians is trying to move forward more quickly, urgently.

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Klein writes about “why so many of us aren’t acting like our house is on fire when it so clearly is.” Perhaps we have been failing to act, because our words for “house” and “fire” have not been the same. But we share this house, this Earth, this responsibility for extinguishing the flames.

Canada is pulling its vision for the GND from a large swath of cloth—from people of all backgrounds and interests. It will only feel like a success if everyone is understood. The language we use to talk about the GND needs to be a language understood by everyone. Our visions, based in history and emotion and research and economy, need to coalesce.

And we did come together for the Fredericton meeting. At the end of the evening, a representative from each group presented their table’s green lines and red lines to the hall. No one was surprised to learn that our priorities overlapped.

My hope is that we will find the shared language to tell this part of our story, the part that will determine our future.

“I cannot see this being abandoned,” concluded Sheppard. “I can see the GND being renamed or taken up by individual groups, but it is an idea whose time has come! There’s no turning back. I feel that [activism is] the thing to be doing at this moment in time. I want to be able to say that I’ve done everything I can.”

Lauren R. Korn is a research assistant for the RAVEN project Summer Institute and an M.A. student of Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick.

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