author: marty grande-sherbert | op-ed editor
During one visit I took to Calgary a few years ago, I went to the local science centre for the first time. It was a lot of fun and very impressive, and I can say that I enjoyed almost every exhibit. Every exhibit except for one, which honestly shocked me – maybe just because I wasn’t accustomed to Alberta’s political climate – and made me feel uneasy about the future. It was an exhibit on the oil sands in Alberta, how they are used to extract oil, what oil is used for (no mention of the impact on air or water pollution, or the impact on the land, from what I could tell). When I was baffled that a science centre would actively choose to promote this, I found the answer to that question in learning that the exhibit itself was sponsored by an oil company.
My gut reaction to people making an active decision to use fossil fuels instead of renewable energy is total bewilderment. Solar energy has always seemed so obvious and so uncomplicated to me, someone who first learned about it as a child before money or infrastructure were ever an issue. This might have made me grow into somewhat of an idealist, and I’ve heard plenty of people in my childhood and adulthood tell me that it’s only realistic to plan for pollution in the future, but I think idealism also helps me persist and not give into those attitudes which can sometimes impede our progress. All the progress we’ve made in renewable energy since my childhood is proof to me that something “too good can be true” can still turn out to be true anyway.
As far as I understood it as a kid, you install solar panels and the job is done. After all, allowing the sun to exist costs zero dollars. That thing is really just up there in the sky with absolutely no caveats whatsoever, and to not make use of it seems a little foolish. For a lot of my life, continuing into the present, I felt like nobody was even trying to go solar because of experiences like the one I had in Calgary. The more I look into the issue, though, the more I realize we would have such a stronger push for energy transitions if more people’s efforts had more weight.
Canada still seems to be holding onto fossil fuels, even though we should be well aware of the damage they’re doing and the alternatives we have available. Actually, though, many people probably wish they didn’t use fossil fuels but still do. There are actually good reasons for this beyond corporate greed out there; for some communities, things like coal and oil are synonymous with good work and a steady wage, and for that reason, it’s hard to imagine living well without them. Similarly, someone who is working-class likely doesn’t have the extra time or money to, say, buy an electric car when gas is everywhere and more convenient. We can look at this reality and realize that, actually, people who are supporting fossil fuels with money or even in arguments might actually need support in totally separate areas of politics – job security or fair pay. It’s important that these people are engaged as well as the rest of us.
According to an article by Janani Whitfield at CBC News, Just Transitions Summit in Saskatoon this weekend looked at this very issue. Climate Justice Saskatoon engaged in a discussion with Estevan and Coronach, two Saskatchewan communities relying on coal to support their families, to talk about how phasing out coal might become a possibility. One resident said that they had installed solar panels on their house, but the only way they could afford those solar panels was by working in the coal mines.
So, not only do a lot of families not see solar as an option because of their financial situation, but some of them may have been fearing for the security of future generations without the coal industry. This does not mean “save the coal industry,” although many may use this problem to push that conclusion. It means that we need to offer solar energy in a way that is accessible for people, such that they won’t be afraid to take that step. That resident’s story about using coal wages to buy solar panels shows us that clean energy still demands a certain level of wealth. As long as that barrier is there, we can’t reach everyone, even if they actually want to make a difference.
Luckily, we have people in Canada’s government who are aware of this reality and are working to overcome it right now. Saskatchewan’s NDP leader, Ryan Meili, has announced a “Renew Saskatchewan” program, which according to Rebekah Lesko of Global News will offer families or businesses loans to cover the costs of installing renewable energy sources. A family who might not normally be able to afford solar panels could use this program to purchase them, and then, since the panels would automatically go toward saving money on an electric bill, they would actually pay for themselves.
This plan is so refreshing for me because it is one step closer to making renewable energy as easy as it always seems in my imagination. The government should be supporting us in whatever way it can to make renewable energy as easy to use as any other kind. According to Solar Panel Power Canada, Saskatchewan is rated third in Canada in its suitability for solar energy. Our wide open prairie skies give us amazing access to the sun, and most of us are just sitting here letting all that energy pass us by; it’s a shame.
Although Trudeau’s pushes in the past for oil pipelines and his relative silence on the IPCC’s recent report are not encouraging for environmentalists, there are certainly movements that are. Let’s keep supporting them, and putting pressure on the others to do better, because our government owes us more than reliance on fossil fuels for a stable life and much more than a feeling of helplessness about the fate of our planet.