Yesterday, activists took to downtown Hamilton, like many locales, to protest climate change. This newest campaign, urging us to “connect the dots”, comes from notorious climate activists 350.org, Hamilton’s actions have focused on the dramatic increase of severe storms and flooding in our city, which has taken a toll on many areas. In the past decade there have been 17 storms which caused flooding, six of which were supposed to happen once in fifty years or less (with one rated “once in a century”). The public costs of this flooding have now almost doubled between the 2005-2009 budget and 2010-2014, now well over $200 million. The private costs are likely immeasurable, with many residents now unable to get further home insurance.

Climatedots.org – Global slideshow

We are one city, in one province, of one nation, on a single continent. How many other communities are now looking at costs in the hundreds of millions? How many will ever be able to afford them? Who and where is this money supposed to come from?

Like Hamilton’s hundred-million-dollar mess at Randle Reef, we’re now left with the fallout of these bad decisions and nobody but taxpayers to foot the bill. . It was never easy to argue that these natural spaces were really “valuable” in a way that compared to their utility for industry or development. Now, decades later, when left with the cleanup bills, it’s clear that those seemingly worthless trees, shrubs or fish will cost a fortune to restore.

After years of scaremongering and doomsaying about the price of simple measures to deal with climate change (like a carbon tax), we’re beginning to realise the costs of continuing on our present course. Every attempt has been made to characterize the status quo as “inaction”, but of course it isn’t. Burning coal, oil and natural gas at our current rates takes a concerted global effort. It costs hundreds of billions of dollars and requires a workforce of millions. The petrochemical economy may not be cheap, but it is unbelievably profitable.

We all pay into the energy industry, whether through bills, filling our gas tanks or the hidden costs of shipping, storage and production in everything we buy. This gets counted in GDP estimates and earning reports as a positive, that’s only really true if you’re on the receiving end of these payments, which most of us aren’t. Petrochemicals are a perfect business for two reasons – first because they demand payment from everybody, and second because they’re so good at passing on production costs to the rest of us. From subsidies to drilling permits on public lands and the inevitable cleanup costs of the destruction left in their wake, we pick up the tab on both ends of this process.

The level of dependence we see on fossil fuels has been called an “addiction”, and in many ways it is. When you’re an addict, indulging seems “normal” and natural, no matter how much you consume. Using more energy than anybody else in history while still feeling that we need more would certainly fit that metaphor. Unfortunately, as any addict knows, stopping is never easy (if it is, you’re not an addict). We’ve planned cities around automobiles, built homes based on the premise of permanently available cheap natural gas, industrialized our food production systems, designed labour markets and hooked all of our homes up to centralized power grids. This was intentional, of course, often in the name of “promoting economic growth”, since each of these “innovations” was massively profitable exactly because of that dependence.

What I like so much about Hamilton350 and groups like them is the attempt to go beyond the confines of the usual “environmental” movement. “System change not climate change” has been a policy for some time now, and that’s crucially important. It helps fight the creeping irrellevance of “green” politics as they’re co-opted by governments, corporations and NGOs. It helps build bridges with other groups (labour, First Nations etc) affected by these issues. And it brings the issue down to causes, rather than debating which of the increasingly frequent severe storms “was caused by climate change”. On a broader scale, efforts of 350.org and other “big green” environmental groups to return to civil disobedience (such as mass-rallies at the White House and Parliament last year) is long overdue, as is the renewed community focus. However small and civil these actions have been, they were amazingly widespread. The “on-the-ground”, grassroots organizing they represent is exactly where a serious response to climate change needs to start. Hamilton350 has been the most active environmental group in town for almost a year now, putting on talks, group bike rides and small rallies – it’s those kind of small steps which build larger movements.

Our “leaders” have dithered and bickered for two decades now over a treaty, with no progress to speak of. It’s about time somebody else tried.

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