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Opinion: A POWerful voice on climate

'POW is a cause célèbre uniting the global winter sports community in a dozen countries to educate and act on climate change through athlete, science, creative, brand and local alliances'
POW protect our winters summit 2 Photo submitted
Protect Our Winters Canada at its annual leadership summit in the Squamish Valley.

With all eyes on what national leaders will say at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, a simple axiom coined in the heady environmental movement of the 1970s still holds more agency: Think globally, act locally. And if there’s one credo that Protect Our Winters (or POW—you’ve doubtless seen the logo) lives by, it’s this. But we’ll come back to that.

COP26 kicked off a day after a prelude G20 meeting in Rome failed to see those same leaders commit to a target to halt net carbon emissions by 2050. That’s the science-derived deadline to prevent the most extreme effects of the irreversible global warming already underway—something the Sea to Sky is all too aware of. Instead, the Rome talks merely blah, blah, blahed about “the key relevance” of halting net emissions “by or around mid-century,” reached no agreement on phasing out coal, and diluted commitments to cut emissions of methane, the powerful greenhouse gas of fossil fuel extraction and agriculture. With this damp squib, the inevitable cheerleader/protestors milling outside the Glasgow facility were already restless, with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg inciting them with “No more whatever the f*ck they’re doing in there!” and rightly asking her millions of supporters to sign an open letter accusing world leaders of betraying their constituencies, a letter I didn’t hesitate to sign.

It would be a mistake, however, to conflate not doing all that’s necessary with doing nothing, because significant movement is afoot. Trudeau’s new cabinet reflects it, as does his Glasgow announcement that Canada will put a hard cap on emissions—the much-awaited move needed to checkmate unmanaged growth in the tar sands. Canada’s renewed commitment on climate, however, comes with no illusion about the fossil-fuel industry—still regularly caught in lies over its own emissions—which feigns cooperation while employing every scintilla of accounting creativity it can muster, starting with long-held objections to consider “exported emissions” of oil, gas and coal that leave the country (ditto emissions embedded in trade and international travel).

Yet the reality is that from 2012 to 2019 Canada’s exported emissions rose by about 50 per cent, outpacing domestic emissions; in 2019 that was 730 megatonnes of domestic CO2 versus 954 mt exported. For context, the latter figure exceeds domestic emissions of the U.K. and Japan combined. Clearly much work is required to hold both industry and government to account in such key areas, for Canada’s citizens to pick up the climate advocacy ball and run. Which brings us back to POW, an organization not only aware of such weighty things, but committed to addressing them from the ground up.

Founded by American snowboard icon Jeremy Jones in 2007, POW is a cause célèbre uniting the global winter sports community in a dozen countries to educate and act on climate change through athlete, science, creative, brand and local alliances. Free to join, Canada’s 22,000-plus members comprise 11 chapters including Whistler, where I caught up with the national organization’s board chair, Mike Douglas, a few weeks after I attended POW’s annual leadership summit in the Squamish Valley. The informative, energized conclave featured expert speakers and workshops on topics such as: what the climate leadership landscape in Canadian politics looks like; diversity, equity and inclusion in climate activism; climate change communication with energy worker communities; key ingredients for social media success; carbon capture science and investment; and pathways to net zero.

“Such a wide variety of presenters made this year’s summit great,” says Douglas. “That was helpful because the biggest reason to bring POW ambassadors, chapter leads and staff together is to recharge their batteries. Over time you tend to get disengaged— particularly during COVID—but where you’re loaded up with fresh information and energy it brings you back. After a meeting like this everyone feels stronger about the mission— more inclined to dig in and get work done.”

If knowledge truly is power, the information on offer in engaging and digestible chunks highlighted a key POW mission: turning passionate outdoor people into effective climate advocates. Most informative were two dovetailing talks; the first explored the benefits, the challenges and the role in reducing emissions of POW’s four policy pillars of Renewable Energy, Carbon Pricing, Fossil Fuel Divestment and Nature Based Solutions, followed by lawyers from the NGO Ecojustice describing how each were currently actionable.

“As a group we tend to get swayed into the whimsical side of climate action,” says Douglas, “but real-world practicalities like these—as well as carbon capture and getting to net zero—can sober you up to the challenges ahead and how they need to be managed.”

The interest in both knowing and doing is out there. POW Canada has grown swiftly, adding more staff to work on programs with an expanding number of chapters. “Someone wants to start one in Squamish, which is great,” Douglas tells me, to which my immediate reaction is why not just have a Sea to Sky chapter? “Because each community has its own issues. There are a million puzzle pieces to solving climate change, and if you focus on that you’ll get nowhere. But community chapters working on solving small challenges add up to getting the puzzle done.”

He points to the huge potential of organizations to influence policy with an unexpected example. “Look at the NRA. At its peak it had massive influence over governments in the U.S.—no matter how absurd the gun problem got. If that’s the potential of a large group of people working together on something [on the] negative side, we’d like to do that on the positive side.”

That might already be happening. During Canada’s recent federal election, POW hit the national media when NDP leader Jagmeet Singh mentioned the “Climate Policy Report Card” for federal parties that POW had circulated.

In terms of future direction, Douglas notes, “Our highest level of energy is aimed at the money pipeline—divestment, or, as coined at the summit, the more positive term ‘sustainable finance.’ Money drives the direction of the energy industry, so the need to shift from bad to good as soon as possible requires moving the money. For example, Quebec’s biggest pension holder, Caise Populaire, just committed to pulling out of fossil fuels. That’s huge.”

That kind of momentum, as well as some landmark shifts coming out of COP26, are at least something to build on—and certainly better than blah, blah, blah.

Leslie Anthony is a science/environment writer and author who holds a doctorate in connecting the dots.