From saving parks to saving the world: How political organizing is the key to winning the fight against climate change. An interview with Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director with the Dogwood Initiative.
By Jacqueline Ronson
(Photo: Kai Nagata)
Kai Nagata is the energy and democracy director with the Dogwood Initiative in British Columbia, Canada. Dogwood currently only has two areas of advocacy: Ending the expansion of crude oil tankers that carry fossil fuels from the Canada’s west coast to international markets, and stopping a proposal to ship eight million tons of American coal overseas via the B.C. coast. Despite this exclusive focus on activism to curtail the expansion of fossil fuel transportation infrastructure, Dogwood does not position itself as a conservation group. Instead, Nagata says that it’s about empowering the citizens of British Columbia to make decisions about which resource projects should be allowed to proceed in the province.
Pacific Standard spoke with Nagata on the day that President Barack Obama announced his government’s rejection of TransCanada’s Keystone XL oil pipeline proposal, and just days after Canada swore in a new government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has pledged to take a hard line on climate change.
What do you think that the Keystone announcement signals for your work with Dogwood?
I would say Keystone XL is the first domino, and it’s a big one. So we’ve been in this interesting sort of gridlock. Those of us who are critical of these big multinational companies, like the Chinese steel and oil companies that are backing the Enbridge project and the Texas billionaires behind the Kinder Morgan project on the south, we have been basically playing defense about an inch from our own goal line for a good number of years.
The tides have shifted very rapidly, and suddenly we find ourselves with a Canadian government that was elected on a promise to not only ban oil tankers off the North Coast of B.C., but bring in a full review of its regulatory processes and pipeline approval process.
We’re seeing this kind of death spiral, where the longer time marches on, the cheaper the alternatives get, the more the demand overall for lower-grade petroleum products diminishes, and the longer the prices stay low, the more pipelines are going to be delayed or canceled.
Do you see yourself and Dogwood as being part of a war on climate change?
I think that the first step in tackling climate change is to stop expanding the infrastructure that makes climate change worse. So, in a general sense, I think that expanding especially coal terminals, like thermal coal terminals destined for Chinese power plants, I think that that is a necessary step in the overall transition to a clean economy. But for many years, we’ve found ourselves in the position of playing defense, where industry wants to expand everything all at once forever, because that’s how they continue to give over dividends to their shareholders, and each of those projects is proceeding forward without considering the cumulative impacts of everything overall that’s being proposed in the same place at the same time. And so, no, you can’t build it all, or we will cook the planet.
If you want to organize, and you don’t have accountability from your politicians, then for damn sure the fossil fuel companies are going to be in there writing the laws for you.
I think that that’s been clear. The question is, what gets built, and why? And who is involved in the decision? So we don’t message explicitly around climate change because, for the most part, our research has found that people find it really overwhelming and depressing. It’s really not a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But defending your home and having some control over your own life and the decisions that get made in the place where you live, that’s something that people can get behind.
I think that our work is connected to the overall solutions movement around climate, but it hasn’t been an explicit part of our messaging around the oil tanker issue in B.C.
It sounds like your climate change strategy is to not talk about climate change.
Let me dig a little bit deeper. We’re fully cognizant of the fact that pipelines are steel tubes that carry product from one destination to another. And if one pipeline is not built, but the demand still exists, market laws dictate that that demand will be filled from supply from somewhere else. So we’re not naive about the realities of the global appetite for fossil fuels, and we know that it’s bigger than just one pipeline — you stop Keystone XL, it doesn’t turn off climate change overnight.
But I think that it’s part of the overall transition. You can’t switch to a sustainable low-carbon economy while you continue to expand the most carbon-intensive form of fossil fuel infrastructure forever and ever. I think that building these gigantic crude oil tanker terminals and shipping that much bitumen is probably inconsistent with a carbon-constrained future, and I would say that’s even more true for the coal export terminals, because coal is far worse for the climate.
If not climate change, what is the messaging that really gets people engaged?
We’ve found that greater accountability from politicians is something that people almost don’t dare to admit they believe in, because folks are so cynical about the likelihood of politicians actually responding to their constituents. I think that’s really, really sad, and it doesn’t have to be the case, and indeed I think we’ve proven in some local places where our field teams have worked, especially in elections, that absolutely a likeminded group of citizens with concerns around a certain issue can fire their representative if that person is offside of the values of the community.
I think that there’s a need for a greater connection between constituents and their representatives that is largely lost in modern partisan politics, and the role of third-party groups like Dogwood is to help to organize those people to take back that relationship and swing the pendulum of power a little bit back toward the constituents.
There’s a real sense for people who live on the coast in B.C. that this is a place that we have a responsibility to take care of, and current government policy and the plans of these big, unaccountable pipeline and oil tanker companies do not take into account some of the values that we hold most dear in British Columbia.
Do you think that conservation advocacy in general has changed its strategies or tactics in response to climate change?
Conservation used to be about creating parks, and setting aside land from development and deciding that everything else is basically up for grabs. In B.C., in the 1990s, it seemed like that sort of transitioned into a value-by-value, watershed-by-watershed fight over clearcut logging, where basically First Nations and environmental activists were fighting big international timber companies over forestry practices. But it was a very disconnected battle. People were basically trying to protect individual groves and meanwhile everything else was being cut down all around it.
I think that, in the face of a threat that is global and pervasive, you can’t really apply the same logic. And the timber companies think much differently from the oil companies, because trees grow back. And the point of forestry, at least modern forestry, is that you want to leave a landscape that you can re-plant and that in 80 years might have harvestable timber on it. In the fossil fuel word, it’s a one-way street. And so the way that these companies continue to deliver dividends and remain profitable is by expanding, either by buying up smaller companies, or expanding operations, or building new ones. I think that more and more people are realizing that there’s a logical endpoint, where you just can’t keep expanding fossil fuel consumption and production, and at the same time reduce overall carbon emissions and save the planet.
So there’s this race among the companies that are just trying to make as much money as they can before the realities of that carbon-constrained world come about, whether that’s in terms of national prices on carbon, or if that’s international binding agreements on emissions. There’s a point at which not all of those projects can be winners, and not all of them are going to be built, and that reality has set in very quickly within the fossil fuel industry, and I think it’s created this rush to get everything built all at the same time before it’s too late.
In that context, no, you can’t just employ this value-by-value, watershed-by-watershed strategy. And people who care about conservation and even people who care about very local issues like the salmon stream behind their house are affected by climate change now, and it’s actually happening, whereas maybe 20 years ago it was this abstract future thing we should be worried about, now it’s like wildfires plus the glaciers melting, no snowpack, plus the fish all dying in the warm spawning streams because they can’t get upstream all at the same time, all in the same summer. I think that what you’re seeing is that it’s drawing together a larger number of people than ever before in realization of the fact that the current path we’re on is incompatible with the survival of the things that we value the most, and that’s especially true in B.C.
It’s a lot more straightforward to figure out how to protect the stream or the park behind your house. So do you fight that bigger, global, elusive thing of climate change?
The other part of the history of the conservation movement is that there was also, for many years, a focus on consumer choices as a solution to environmental problems. There was a whole cottage industry for years — decades — built around phosphate-free soap and lower gas consumption cars and LED lights and all of these tangible household-level decisions that you can make that might cost a little bit more but cumulatively, hopefully, are good for the planet. For years, environmental groups poured resources into trying to convince people about how they could make tiny little incremental changes in their lifestyle that didn’t overall detract from their quality of life but might in the grand scheme of things solve a problem like acid rain, or the hole in the ozone layer, or tropical forests being cut down.
I was never a climate guy or a pipeline guy, but I saw that there were democratic implications in the way that these projects are being rammed through by our government.
I think that what the climate crisis has forced us to realize is, as conservation groups or as an environmental movement, is that consumer choices are not enough. They’re not going to get us there. They’re important, they’re part of the overall picture, and, yeah, we should find ways to make cars more efficient, but we need to think like citizens, not just like consumers. And the real power in creating the conditions for survival on this planet is going to come in organized fashion through governments. So it’s going to be regulatory frameworks and government policies that set out a level playing field where companies can still compete in a way that’s fair to those entities but which sets out a much smaller overall carbon budget for our use.
If you want to organize, and you don’t have accountability from your politicians, and you don’t have control over what laws get passed in your country, then for damn sure the fossil fuel companies are going to be in there writing the laws for you. That’s what we’ve seen for many years in the United States, and I think that it’s only through mass organization on a scale that we haven’t seen globally since … maybe forever, that we’re going to re-gain the kind of citizen power over our governments that allows them to pass the laws and make the decisions that allow them to survive politically while also giving us a shot at survival physically.
You’ve written about why you left your fairly high-profile job in television journalism. Why do you think you landed where you did?
My interest in journalism goes back to when I was much younger. My family is Japanese-Canadian on my dad’s side, and in World War II they were interned and all of their rights and property were stripped. And that was the story that I grew up with, around the family dinner table with my grandma and grandpa. So they had this living memory of this injustice that had been visited on their family and their resistance and responsibility for our generation to not just remember that story but also to look around the world for other sources of injustice and point them out. That was sort of a moral responsibility that we were tasked with as young kids.
I contemplated a lot of different career options. I actually joined the infantry reserve after college and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a teacher or a peacekeeper. And then this idea of becoming a journalist came up, and serving the public interest that way. In a sense it’s extremely satisfying, doing that kind of day-to-day work, because you constantly get to ask questions of powerful people, and up to you to try to hold them to account, and you try to bring people stories that shape their perception of how power operates in their community and what they can do to hold their leaders accountable.
But it’s a little bit indirect, and what I discovered as a journalist is that there are also a lot of compromises that we had to make that sort of diluted that aspect of the work. For me, I wanted a more tangible connection between the work that I did every day and the task of empowering individual citizens, one at a time, to hold their leaders more accountable.
I was never a climate guy, particularly, or a pipeline guy, but I saw that there were democratic implications in the way that these projects are being rammed through by our government. And it just seemed to me like a battle we couldn’t afford to lose.
You say that Obama’s rejection of Keystone XL is the first domino to fall. Do you expect to see more and more momentum through the future, or are we going to see push and pull?
Of course it will be push and pull. And some of this is market forces outside of the control of governments in Canada or the U.S., and certainly activists in one place in the world. I think what Saudi Arabia chooses to do, and whether Iran brings production online, and what happens with technology in oil fields around the world, this is all going to play a factor in what the prices are and how quickly the transition happens.
But I think that, overall, the pattern has been set and the intentions are clear. You have the biggest economy in the world, the most powerful actor on the world stage and the most powerful political leader in the world saying, we’re rejecting this pipeline partly on the basis of climate, and this is a gesture of how seriously we take the issue of transitioning away from fossil fuels and beginning that switch to a cleaner economy.
Obama made the point that you can have more jobs and lower gas prices and less carbon emissions and cancel a pipeline at the same time. They’ve proven that that’s possible, and so I think that it’s not the last major fossil fuel expansion project that we’re going to see canceled.
The Conservation in the Age of Climate Change Project is an effort to explore how conservation organizations around the world are responding to rising seas, droughts, extreme weather events, and other threats posed by global warming.
Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for a moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic in Northern British Columbia. As of press time, he is working to formalize the ban.