What is the real crime here, who are the real criminals?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

21 June 2022

701 words

On June 15th, my friend and colleague Tim Takaro was sentenced to 30 days in jail. So what, you might say, lots of people go to jail. True, but you need to know that Tim is, like me, a physician and has just retired from his position as a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University (SFU).  He was jailed for trying to protect the health of the public through an act of non-violent civil disobedience – trying to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) by sitting in a tree.

Tim is “a physician-scientist trained in occupational and environmental medicine, public health and toxicology”, to quote from his SFU bio. His primary research is focused on the health impacts of global heating, and he has completed two major reports on the health impacts of the TMX.

Like many physicians these days, he is very concerned about the health, social and ecological impacts of climate change. What he knows about these health impacts – including the health impacts of the TMX – concerns him so much he took those extra, brave steps into peaceful civil disobedience.

When Tim camped in that tree along the Brunette River in Burnaby, in November 2021, he was defying an injunction awarded by the BC Supreme Court to the TMX project.So he was arrested, and subsequently pled guilty, leading to his sentencing.

But Tim was doing exactly what an ethical physician should do: defending the health of Canadians and people around the world. For Tim, as a public health physician, the ‘patient’ is the community as a whole, and the harm he sought to prevent is the further expansion of fossil fuel use; as he said on CBC Radio‘s Early  Edition on June 13, “increasing emissions will kill more people”.

The Code of Ethics of the Canadian Medical Association is clear: Physicians should  “always act to benefit the patient and promote the good of the patient” and “take all reasonable steps to prevent or minimize harm to the patient”.  A 2019 World Medical Association Declaration states clearly that when the law and medical ethics conflict, “ethical responsibilities supersede legal obligations”.  

Let us be clear: Climate change – actually, human-induced climate heating resulting in climate instability and chaos – is a danger to health. The World Health Organization has said ‘climate change is the greatest threat to health in the 21st century”. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, responding to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in August 2021, declared a “Code Red for humanity”. In April this year, commenting on the latest new IPCC report, Mr. Guterres described countries that increase fossil fuel production as “dangerous radicals”, adding that “investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”

He doubled down on that criticism on June 17 in speaking at the Major Economies Forum. He accused the fossil fuel industry of investing  “heavily in pseudoscience and public relations – with a false narrative to minimise their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies”. In doing so, he added, “they exploited precisely the same scandalous tactics as big tobacco decades before.”

His criticism extended to the governments that aid and abet the expansion of the fossil fuel sector, saying “Nothing could be more clear or present than the danger of fossil fuel expansion. Even in the short-term, fossil fuels don’t make political or economic sense.”

The TMX is being built  by the Government of Canada – which means by us – in order to expand production and export of oil from Alberta. In doing so, the government is acting as a dangerous radical, contributing to climate change and harming people, which is or ought to be a crime, and the courts are protecting that behaviour. Even worse, they are making all of us, as owners of the pipeline, accomplices, which I resent.

I accept that the judge and the legal system are correct in their interpretation and application of the law and Tim is on the wrong side of the law. But in the wider sense of what is right for people and the planet, he is on the right side and the government and the courts are on the wrong side of both morality and history.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


We are falling behind in a world going backwards

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 June 2022

702 words

Last week I discussed our failure to meet many of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, in particular those dealing with the environment. Since then we have missed other important environmental goals. An independent scientific report prepared for the recent Stockholm+50 conference examined progress across a range of environmental goals agreed since 1972 and found that “typically only one-tenth of targets show significant progress or can be considered achieved.”

Moreover, it is expected that quite soon we will miss a vitally important target. In about 9 years, at current rates, we will have emitted enough greenhouse gases to miss the target to keep the rise in global heating  below 1.5°C. Indeed, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres commented in April, responding to the latest IPCC report: “We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5-degree limit agreed in Paris.”

When the MDGs expired in 2015, the nations of the world adopted a new and broader set of goals – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are 17 SDGs with 169 targets, and they are meant to be achieved by 2030. But the 2022 progress report, released in May, noted we are not doing well, due to “the multiple and interlinked global crises we are facing – the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the impacts of the conflict in Ukraine and elsewhere.”

In an advanced version of his upcoming remarks on the 2022 SDG report, Mr. Guterres stated: “It is clear — we are moving in the wrong direction . . . We are moving backwards in relation to the majority of the Sustainable Development Goals”. 

Poverty increased, with women disproportionately affected, while basic education and essential health services were disrupted. When it comes to the environmental goals in the SDGs, the Stockholm+50 science report noted that the UN Environment Program reported in 2021 that “there are negative trends for material footprints, sustainable fish stocks, forested area and endangered species.”

Within this global picture of the world going backwards, Canada is not faring well. We are “moving backwards in relation to the world on our SDGs progress”, falling from 21st to 29th in world rankings, said Professor Bruce Frayne of the University of Waterloo, Chair of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Canada.

The SDG Progress Report for Canada shows we face major challenges with respect to climate change, protection of life on land and the creation of partnerships for the SDGs. Regarding the latter, Professor Frayne notes that we need to see “more dedication to the SDGs by all levels of government, in particular from provincial governments that are largely absent at the SDGs table.” 

So far, eight years before the 2030 deadline, Canada has only achieved one goal  – quality education – and is only on track for two others – no poverty, and industry innovation and infrastructure.  We are going backwards on responsible consumption and production, and making no progress on protecting life under water. And while making moderate progress on most of the SDGs, we still face major challenges for another four goals: Zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, gender equality, and decent work and economic growth.

It is the latter goal that creates problems with respect to the environmental goals. Goal 8 calls for continued economic growth. But in a 2019 article in the journal Sustainable Development, Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics, showed that Goal 8 translates into a need for “continued global economic growth equivalent to 3% per year”.

However, he shows that such a growth rate will make it impossible to reduce global resource use or to achieve “reductions in CO2 emissions rapid enough to stay within the carbon budget for 2°C.” In other words, he concludes, “Goal 8 violates the sustainability objectives of the SDGs.” Or as Mr. Guterres put it in his opening remarks at the Stockholm+50 conference: “Earth’s natural systems cannot keep up with our demands”.

The only way to resolve this inherent contradiction, Dr. Hickel suggests, is to scale down resource and energy use, especially in high-income countries, and reduce inequality within and between nations. Doing so while maintaining a decent quality of life is our main challenge in the coming years.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

We persist with unsustainable development

Published as “Conventional economic growth is unsustainable”

Dr. Trevor Hancock

7 June 2022

701 words

As I noted last week, the rising concern about the impact of humanity on the environment led to the first UN conference on the environment in 1972.  However, the issue of sustainability itself was barely touched on at the conference, with only one mention in the 80-page conference report.

Nonetheless, publications prepared for the conference, such as ‘Only One Earth’ and ‘The Limits to Growth’, as well as the conference itself, led to a much heightened awareness of the challenges we faced. As a result, in 1983 the UN established the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known more commonly as the Brundtland Commission.

Thirty-five years ago, in its 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’ the Brundtland Report introduced to a wide audience the concept of sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The WCED’s report led to the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit), which opened in Rio de Janeiro on June 3rd 1992, 30 years ago this month. The Rio Declaration’s first principle was “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. But it then leapt into an internal contradiction that bedevils us to this day.

The second principle was:  “States have . . . the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies”. This was modified by a second sentence warning that they also had “the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States”. But in practice it seems the right was heard but the responsibility, conveniently, was not. Note, by the way, that it was not a responsibility to not cause damage to their own environment!

In addition to the Rio Declaration, the Summit also resulted in ‘Agenda 21’, a comprehensive agenda for change which described itself as “preparing the world for the challenges of the next century.” There was also a UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a UN Convention on Biological Diversity and a Declaration on the principles of forest management

Unfortunately, as is too often the case, these fine ideas were not put into practice, certainly not to a sufficient extent. The ironic joke in the environmental community was that business and governments got the noun – development – and environmentalists got the the adjective. So it has been largely full speed ahead for development, with the NGO and community sectors struggling to make sure that development is actually sustainable.

It is not. If you want the evidence, look no further the world’s failure to meet most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000 by the UN’s member states. There were 8 MDGs, with 18 targets to be achieved by 2015. Looking back in 2018, when the data was in, Oxford University-based ‘Our World in Data’ (OWiD) found that of the 17 targets that were quantifiable, the world reached five: Poverty in developing regions was halved, the gender disparity in education in developing regions was closed, the global rates of infection from both malaria and TB were reduced and the proportion of people lacking access to safe drinking water was reduced by more than half.

But 12 targets were not met by 2015. In some areas there were improvements, sometimes quite marked improvements, even though the targets were not reached: “the share of people in hunger fell, the share of children in school increased substantially, more women got access to reproductive health and contraceptives, the maternal mortality nearly halved, and the global child mortality rate more than halved”, OWiD reported.

But while “substantial progress” was achieved in these areas it came at a cost. Where “the world failed most miserably” – you guessed it – was the environmental targets.  When it came to reversing the loss of environmental resources and biodiversity, OWiD notes there were “clear and alarming failures” across multiple indicators. As I will discuss next week, at the heart of that failure lies the simple fact that we continue to pursue a policy of conventional economic growth that remains persistently unsustainable. 

© Trevor Hancock, 2022


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Fifty years after Stockholm, it wasn’t supposed to be this way

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 June 2022

700 words

Today – Sunday May 5th – is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in 1972 in Stockholm. The Secretary General of the Conference, Maurice Strong, was a Canadian who went on to become the founding Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme that was established as a result of the Conference. In this and many other ways the Stockholm Conference helped launch the modern environmental movement.

This is also almost exactly 30 years since the opening of the Rio Earth Summit on June 3rd 1992, which began to lay out an agenda for sustainable development. The Rio Summit was based on the work of the UN Commission on Environment and Development, whose 1987 report was released 35 years ago this year.

So in this and the next three columns I will revisit these important conferences and reports, reflect on the success and – mainly – the failings in implementing the environment and sustainable development agenda they outlined, consider where this leaves us, and contemplate the future we face and what we need to do to meet the challenges it poses – challenges that are far greater and more acute than they were 50 years ago.

One challenge that was not even on the agenda at Stockholm, surprisingly, was climate change; there was no reference to it or global warming anywhere in the Declaration, and only two minor and oblique references to CO2 emissions among the 109 recommendations for action. This may seem odd, but, “climate change wasn’t getting the attention it could have, and there was a lack of urgency in discussions” throughout the 1960s, according to Alice Bell, co-director at the UK climate change charity Possible, writing in the Guardian in July 2021. Indeed, it wasn’t until around 1977/8 that the issue began to be taken seriously.  

However, there was specific reference in the Stockholm Declaration to “dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings; major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere [and] destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources.” If we look at just those three issues – pollution, changes to the biosphere and resource depletion – it is clear that things have gotten a lot worse since 1972.

For example, plastics pollution was not even mentioned in the Conference report; Our World in Data (OWiD), which is based at Oxford University, reports that global plastics production in 1972 was 44 million tonnes, but reached 381 million tonnes in 2015. The Living Planet Index, which measures the abundance of vertebrate species, declined 68 percent between 1970 and 2016, the World Wide Fund for Nature reports, while we did not fully meet any of the 20 Aichi targets on biodiversity, established in 2011, and only partially met six of them. When it comes to resource depletion, 10 percent of the world’s fish stocks were over-exploited in 1974, but by 2017 that had risen to 34 percent, OWiD reports.

The Stockholm Declaration began by highlighting “the need for a common outlook and for common principles to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment”. But fifty years later, finding a common outlook, principles and agenda for our common future remains elusive. Indeed, in remarks to the UN’s Economic and Social Council in March, following up on “Our Common Agenda”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted “a fundamental lack of solidarity in today’s world and in the mechanisms that are relevant for the global economy and the global financial system”.

The participants at Stockholm were clear: “Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.”

Obviously, the Conference participants expected we would choose the latter course. I think they would be bitterly disappointed that we have largely chosen the former, acting with indifference and – well, not so much ignorance as ‘ignore-ance’ – deliberately ignoring the evidence where it conflicted with short-term benefit and profit. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy