The view from the climate disaster in B.C.: ‘We have departed from the shores of the safe and predictable world we imagined for ourselves and our children’

In the fall of 2019, I was arrested for peacefully sitting on the Burrard Bridge in Vancouver in an action protesting government culpability in the climate and ecological crisis. On Monday evening, Nov. 15, 2021, that same bridge was shut down because of the climate emergency itself.

Following a weekend of record-breaking rain from the “atmospheric river” event that lashed B.C., a barge had broken loose in Vancouver’s English Bay and rammed itself up against the beach. The barge was so dangerously close to the bridge that the city closed it off, fearing a disastrous collision. On the seawall next to the barge, waves from the storm surge drowned the usually busy benches and lawns in over a foot of seawater, completing a surreal tableau.

This was only one of the strange scenes unfolding across the province in the last few days. Vancouver is now cut off from the rest of Canada by road because all our east-west highways have been broken apart, gouged by water and mudslides pouring off adjacent clear-cuts. Only yesterday, forest protectors were in court, facing Canada’s justice system for standing in the way of old growth logging on Vancouver Island—protecting the very ecosystems that hold carbon and stabilize soils. These are only two examples of the absurdity of living in a civilization that is still at the peak of decadent climate and ecological corruption, even as things begin to crumble.

I have more: for the last year and a half, my friends and fellow activists have been living in the treetops of a Burnaby forest, and getting periodically arrested, in an prolonged act of civil disobedience obstructing the direct path of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. On Nov. 15, construction on the pipeline expansion halted and the existing pipeline (which carries 300,000 barrels of oil a day) was turned off.

Its route, like B.C.’s highways, is now gutted by erosion and covered in debris. The pipeline project that the Trudeau government bought and stands to lose billions on has been halted—this time not by protesters, but by a climate disaster the likes of which its expansion would make even worse in the future.

Canada’s leaders have tried to plead that they need the pipeline to make money to fund an energy transition, but even this seems futile. The pipeline itself is on the verge of being swept into river canyons as its construction hemorrhages money.  

The irony doesn’t stop there. Sumas Prairie, a part of the Fraser Valley that used to be a shallow inland lake, has now turned itself back into one as water pours into it from the Nooksack River in Washington State. Once a rich freshwater lake and vast wetland, the lifeblood of the Sto:lo nation, Sumas Lake was stolen by the Crown and drained in the 1920s. The lakebed was turned into some of the province’s richest farmland, which now supports tens of thousands of dairy cows and hundreds of thousands of chickens—decimating the Sto:lo way of life, for which they are seeking compensation.

On Tuesday night, farmers were told to abandon their livestock and get out. The Barrowtown pump station, the only thing standing between them and an additional three-metre rise in the water levels, was about to fail. If it did, water would start pouring in from the Fraser River as well. Thankfully the pump station survived the night, but thousands of animals have already perished.

The entire town of Merritt, which was evacuated only three months ago due to wildfires, was evacuated again as their flooded sanitation system failed. Highway 1 near the town of Lytton, which was entirely razed by fire after the record-breaking heat dome this summer, was literally broken in two, dumping a massive slide of mud and debris into the Thompson River below.

Hundreds of travellers were plucked off highways in helicopters after spending nights in cold vehicles in between dangerous mudslides. Private choppers are being booked by Sikh Gurdwaras delivering thousands of meals from Vancouver to stranded evacuees in Hope because roads are impassable.

Meanwhile, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth has been busy—get this—deploying RCMP up to Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C., where the Gidimt’en clan are bracing for another round of standoffs with Coastal Gaslink construction crews and police in full tactical gear who protect them on the Wet’suwet’en’s traditional territories. Crews have been evicted time and time again by the hereditary leaders of the nation, but no agreement seems forthcoming.

In summary: the very people, many of whom are Indigenous, who are protecting Canada and the world from the build-out of fossil fuel infrastructure (which everyone up to and including the International Energy Agency says is incompatible with containing global warming to 1.5 degrees) are getting their asses kicked by the state, even as our province’s major infrastructure has just been decimated by a climate disaster.

In British Columbia, it may feel like a year of disasters, and it has been: a heat dome that killed 600 people, massive wildfires and now floods. But statistically speaking, this is the easiest year we are likely to experience for the rest of our lives. We cannot just build it all back—it will happen again, but worse, before we can.

We have departed from the shores of the safe and predictable world we imagined for ourselves and our children. What’s left is, first, to grieve for that world. Second, to make a series of ethical choices about how to live in a world that, while dying, is still very much alive: how much do we care about each other? What are we willing to do as citizens together to avoid the worst, adapt to the inevitable and create a better world while we do it?

As Jews, we know that when the forces of illiberality and fear strike, we usually suffer. It is imperative that we take on the climate and ecological crisis in our Jewish communal life as a central social and ethical challenge. This challenge is sadly something we will never be able to declare “won”. At the same time, our collective choices as part of political and social movements matter profoundly to dial the trajectory toward the still dangerous, but less extreme, outcomes we know are possible.

Dr. Maayan Kreitzman is an agricultural sustainability researcher and activist on unceded Coast Salish territory in Vancouver. You can find her @maayanster on Twitter.