David vs Goliath or Janki vs Exxon



DEC 20, 2022 6:00 AM

The Quest to Defuse Guyana’s Carbon Bomb

A former BP lawyer is going up against Exxon—and her own country—in a bid to stop offshore oil drilling before disaster strikes.

View of Georgetown Guyana.

View of Georgetown, Guyana.PHOTOGRAPH: TOM VIERUS

IN LATE JUNE, inside a squat concrete building in Georgetown, Guyana, on a noisy street flanked by telephone repair shops and beauty supply stores, two lawyers were waging one of the most significant legal battles in the global fight against climate change. Melinda Janki and Ronald Burch-Smith sat in a ground-floor office staring intently at a computer screen, ignoring the sounds of macaws, monkeys, tree frogs, and traffic packing the streets, waiting to connect to the country’s Supreme Court via Zoom. The internet is unreliable at best in Guyana’s capital city, and the fear that it would choose today to conk out was palpable.

The two lawyers were a bit of an odd couple. Burch-Smith is tall and meticulous. Ask him if he knows the time and he’s likely to answer “yes” rather than divulge the hour. Janki is a petite woman with warm eyes and a sharp wit, quickly moved to rigorous denouncements of injustice, from the war in Ukraine to the plight of the planet to the litter on the street. Burch-Smith has a framed Phantom of the Opera playbill above his desk. The art in Janki’s office is a little more confrontational: a life-size painting of a fierce yellow jaguar that appears poised to step out of a blackened forest and straight through the picture frame. Together, the two attorneys have mounted a novel and audacious attack on Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest corporations with the legal muscle to match.

In 2015, Exxon, which is known in Guyana as Esso, struck oil off the coast, the first significant find in the country’s history. The scale of the discovery, 11 billion barrels so far, landed Guyana on the list of the world’s top “carbon bombs”— fossil fuel projects capable of releasing more than a gigaton of carbon dioxide. Exxon ultimately plans to produce more than 1 million barrels of oil a day. That would transform Guyana—currently a carbon sink thanks to its dense blanket of rain forests and minimal emissions—into one of the world’s top 20 oil producers by 2030. An Exxon Mobil spokesperson says that during the world’s transition to cleaner energy, “we need two things at the same time: reduced emissions and a reliable source of energy. Exxon Mobil has a role to play in both.” By 2027, Exxon expects its Guyana operations to have “about 30 percent lower greenhouse gas intensity” than its average oil or gas production. Climate experts estimate that 2030 is also the year by which much of Georgetown and coastal Guyana will be underwater as a result of unchecked global warming. Those living in the interior of the country will face the devastating impacts of worsening droughts and floods, from intensifying food insecurity to loss of land and homes. In 2021, Janki and Burch-Smith sued the Guyanese government for giving Exxon the green light. Exxon later joined the government as a codefendant in the case.

Georgetown’s lush beauty—its neighborhoods teem with tropical flowers in scarlet reds, peacock blues, sun-kissed yellows, and turquoise greens—is made possible by its abundant sources of water: Rivers and canals carve paths through the streets, carrying water from the Amazon to the Atlantic, along whose coast most of the city—and 90 percent of the nation’s population—resides. Viewed differently, though, the abundance of water is a sign of Georgetown’s particular vulnerability to climate change. All around is the evidence of an impoverished city that is rapidly industrializing. Newly traffic-clogged streets strain to make room for horse-drawn carts; cows graze on street corners near Popeye’s and KFC. Many homes and buildings have that beaten-down look common to places of either war or extreme weather.

Photograph of a monkey in a tree

Guyana is a carbon sink. Exxon’s project stands to make it a carbon bomb. PHOTOGRAPH: TOM VIERUS

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To call the Exxon lawsuit a David-versus-Goliath endeavor would be an understatement. When several US state attorneys general sued Exxon about five years ago for misleading investors and the public about the risks of climate change, a judge joked about the oil company, “Y’all have 300 lawyers on your side.” Exxon then submitted more than 2 million pages of records to just one New York court. By contrast, Janki and Burch-Smith had one legal assistant. Janki has been known to stand in long lines at the court to file pleadings. She has also carted around enormous files filled with thousands of pages of material, which she reads without the assistance of a litigation team.

In the June hearing, Exxon was attempting to throw out virtually the entire testimony of one of Janki and Burch-Smith’s clients on the grounds that he was not a climate scientist. When the judge appeared on the screen, he gave the pair more time to present their argument to keep the affidavit, which rests on key facts regarding fossil fuels and climate change, before the court.

Halting the project would deal Exxon a crippling blow; within eight years, Guyana is on track to become the company’s single largest site of daily oil production. But it could also have implications for the global industry. Whereas climate lawsuits against fossil fuel companies have typically attempted to hold those corporations accountable for the harms of past operations, this one in Guyana seeks to force the company and the government to accept responsibility for the damage they will cause in the future. The case argues that oil development is fundamentally incompatible with human health and a sustainable environment. If successful, it could set an example for climate activists in other countries.

To call the groundbreaking lawsuit against Exxon a David-vs.-Goliath endeavor would be an understatement.

Kneecapping a global energy giant might sound like an impossible feat for two attorneys in a Global South nation with a population of less than 780,000 people. But they are wielding some powerful tools. Guyana happens to have some of the most robust environmental protections in the world. Its constitution contains provisions that explicitly protect the rights of citizens—present and future—to a healthy environment. “Virtually every aspect of this operation is in violation of Guyana’s constitution, and the right to a healthy environment, and the right of sustainable development, and the rights of future generations,” explains Carroll Muffett, the president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law. “And from that arise serious consequences in terms of how the government must respond.”

“The provisions are groundbreaking,” Janki says. She should know—30 years ago, she helped author them. Plus, Janki’s knowledge on the matter has still another layer: Early in her career she spent four years working for the oil giant British Petroleum, now known as BP.

JANKI GREW UP in Georgetown, in a house close enough to the Atlantic Ocean for the sounds of waves to lull her to sleep each night. Much of her childhood was spent outdoors, where she developed an affinity for the water and the forest. When she was 5, a small brown dog appeared on the front porch in the bright rays of the early morning sun. Janki was reading a book of Christian fables at the time, so she named her first beloved pet Lucifer, Son of the Morning. “The story ends very badly,” she recalled. “He must have gotten out and been on the road outside the house, and someone knocked him down and killed him.” Janki was crushed—and furious. “It taught me the lesson that life is tenuous,” she says, and also “to fight for the little underdogs.” She would go on to care for dozens of stray animals, including dogs, donkeys, cats, horses, wild birds, and a baby giant otter.

Janki’s family left Guyana in the 1970s, when she was 12 years old and the country was in a period of intense political instability. After living in Zambia and Trinidad, Janki eventually settled in London. She studied law at Oxford and University College London, focusing on human rights, environmental and economic law, and intellectual property. She began her career at one of Britain’s premier corporate law firms, Lovell, White, & King—“otherwise known as ‘Lovely, White, and Clean,’” Janki quips—where she recalled being one of the first non-white trainees. She left the firm in 1989 to become an in-house lawyer at BP’s world headquarters. Janki doesn’t speak negatively about her experiences working there, but over time her growing condemnation of the industry has come to dominate both her life and work.

It didn’t take long for the shine of London to wear off. On the 30th floor of a skyscraper, Janki felt entirely cut off from nature. Her life started to seem all too comfortable. “You know, comfort is a form of suicide,” she says. After four years absorbing the inner workings of the oil industry, she decided to leave. Janki returned to Georgetown in 1994, a time when her homeland seemed brimming with promise. “Your heart tells you what you should be doing, and it just tugged me back to Guyana,” she says.

Melinda Janki’s visionary work introduced the concept of natural capital to Guyanese law—and challenged the dominance of gross domestic product.

GUYANA’S NAME IS said to derive from an Indigenous word for “land of many waters.” The largest of the country’s rivers, the Essequibo, begins at the Acarai Mountains near the Brazilian border and flows north through forest and savanna, cutting a straight line for 630 miles across the length of the country. As the Essequibo makes its way to the coast, it’s joined by tributaries of the Amazon, Rupununi, Mazaruni, and Cuyuni rivers, all carrying a rich bounty of sediment filled with nutrients. Guyana’s ocean contains some of the highest recorded levels of chlorophyll biomass in the world. In turn, the waters are home to more than 900 species of fish, essential to both local subsistence and the Guyanese economy. There are also dolphins, manta rays, sperm whales, and six kinds of marine turtles, some of which are endangered.

In the interior, nestled between forests, picturesque mountains, tributaries of the Amazon, and the headwaters of the Rupununi river, rests the virtually untouched savanna that the Wapishana and Macushi call home. They are among the nine tribes collectively referred to as Amerindians, who have lived in and around present-day Guyana for millennia. Most live subsistence lifestyles based on hunting, fishing, and farming, not all that different from those of their ancestors.

For centuries, a rotating list of foreign powers extracted Guyana’s natural resources and returned the products and profits to their home ports. In 1667, to secure their claim on Guyana, the Dutch traded parts of modern-day New York and New Jersey to the British. The Dutch enslaved Africans to work the sugarcane fields and pushed many Indigenous peoples into the interior to give themselves easy access to the sea. Almost two centuries later, Britain took Guyana by force. It became one of the empire’s most lucrative colonies, powered first by slavery and then the indentured servitude of people from India, China, and Portugal. An 1823 rebellion led by enslaved people in Guyana is credited with contributing to the eventual abolition of slavery across the entire British Empire; in 1917, people in indentured servitude in Guyana successfully organized to force an end to that practice as well. In the 20th century, American corporations came to Guyana, mining for bauxite and gold. By the 1950s, they also hunted for oil, but decades of effort proved largely futile.

In 1992, Guyana held its first free and fair democratic election in decades. The new government, led by the leftist People’s Progressive Party, was eager to protect the country’s natural resources after centuries of colonial exploitation, and it saw environmental protection as part of a broader mission to secure social justice. At the time, Janki had just returned and been admitted to the national bar. She had no party affiliation or political connections. She was, she says, a “nobody.” But, in 1995, when Janki learned that the nation’s first-ever environmental laws were going to be drafted at an invitation-only conference, she knew she had to be there. A partner at the law firm where she worked was also the owner of one of Guyana’s two national newspapers, and he helped Janki finagle a press pass.

The conference was held at the Pegasus Hotel, a seven-story cylinder of blue glass and white steel that towers above Georgetown. No press accounts of the event can be found, and many of the participants have since died, but Janki recalls that there were about 100 attendees, most of them men, who droned through a series of forgettable presentations. What did catch her attention was the draft Environmental Protection Act. “When I got a look at what they were writing, I was absolutely horrified,” she says. In her view, the legislation was far too weak.

During a coffee break, Janki spied a special adviser to the president, Lakeram Chatarpaul, standing alone outside of the conference room. Janki was a lot shier then, she says, but in her recollection she “lobbied like mad and made quite a nuisance of myself.” Chatarpaul invited her to write to him. What she wrote worked: After he read her ideas, Janki was hired by the Inter-American Development Bank to draft the new law for the government.

Over many months, Janki adapted what she felt were the most robust environmental laws from around the world and “put in a raft of new provisions,” she says. She included the “polluter pays” and “precautionary” principles, which hold companies liable for the costs of cleaning up pollution and the government responsible for implementing measures to prevent environmental harm, even in the absence of “full scientific certainty.” Importantly, Janki defined the “environment” to include, among other things, the atmosphere and climate. “This was in 1995, when people were relatively unconcerned about greenhouse gas pollution, and the carbon majors were misleading people,” she says. She imbued the Environmental Protection Agency with significant authority, including the requirement that any proposed project, from mining to construction, had to include a detailed environmental impact assessment. If the assessments were found to be lacking, the EPA would have the power to reject projects outright, as well as the ability to put conditions into permits to ensure that the company’s operations did not conflict with Guyana’s international human-rights and environmental obligations. She also included far-reaching provisions for public access to information, participation, oversight, and compensation for harm, plus some other “visionary stuff in the act that nobody noticed.”

One striking example of “visionary stuff” was the introduction of the concept of natural capital into Guyanese law. Each year, the EPA is required to take a full accounting of the nation’s ecosystem—from wildlife to vegetation—and make it publicly available. This creates a baseline from which to measure both ecosystem value and potential harm. Natural capital is a direct challenge to gross domestic product, or how much a country produces, consumes, and exports—the prevailing measure for assessing a nation’s economic health. A rising GDP is often considered inherently positive, regardless of the human or environmental costs. When a forest is clear-cut, for instance, GDP increases due to the labor and machinery used and the timber sold. Natural capital, by contrast, considers the value of the trees to the climate, the animal species, and the people who call the forest home. Under this model, the forest’s destruction is a cost and its protection a benefit. While Janki’s law doesn’t require this entire calculation, simply introducing the concept was a significant step, which several other nations, including Botswana, Colombia, and Egypt, have since embraced.

Photograph of Guyana waterway

Each year, Guyana’s EPA is required to take a full accounting of the nation’s ecosystem—from wildlife to vegetation—and make it publicly available. PHOTOGRAPH: TOM VIERUSI

N 1995, CYANIDE-FILLED mining waste spilled into the Essequibo River, killing fish and other animals and polluting the cropland on which Amerindian communities relied. The spill and others like it were attributed to a lack of meaningful environmental regulation, and they galvanized the nation to support the Environmental Protection Act, which was signed into law on June 5, 1996.

Two years later, the government turned to rewriting its constitution and solicited public submissions. Seizing the opportunity to embed strong environmental protections within the constitution itself, Janki wrote what she has described as “a statement of the obvious” that was ultimately included in the preamble: “The well-being for the nation depends upon preserving clean air, fertile soils, pure water, and the rich diversity of plants, animals, and ecosystems.”

But it was the provisions that Janki lobbied to be included in the text of the constitution that were the most significant. Drawn largely from South Africa’s new postapartheid constitution, they conferred upon every Guyanese citizen “the right to an environment that is not harmful to his or her health or well-being” and would hold the state responsible for protecting the environment for the benefit of present and future generations. They also required the courts to “pay due regard to international law, international conventions, covenants, and charters bearing on human rights.” These include human-rights obligations to clean air and water, life, and livelihoods. Taken together, these constitutional provisions are far stronger than the environmental protections found in most northern nations, including the US. “I don’t want to sound as if I am showing off,” says Janki, “but, really, it is all there.”

A few years later, an Arecuna tribal leader from the Upper Mazaruni area came to Janki’s law office seeking help to confront continued abuse from the mining industry. Janki turned her attention to building and securing the rights of these communities. She also worked as a consultant in drafting the 2006 Amerindian Act, providing for collective rights to land, natural resources, and self-determination. In academic and legal journals, she made the case that failing to fulfill human-rights obligations to life, health, water, food, nondiscrimination, and self-determination, including the rights of local communities to consent to policies and programs that directly affect them, “can be a trigger for environmental destruction.” She also contributed to the drafting of the Escazu Agreement, the first regional environmental treaty of Latin America and the Caribbean (ratified by 14 nations but open to all 33), “contributing to the protection of the right of every person of present and future generations to live in a healthy environment and to sustainable development.”

Janki had expected that when the time came, Guyana’s government and citizenry would make use of the strong legal foundation she had helped build. She would soon learn that, at least when it came to oil, she was wrong.

Photograph of people fishing from a boat in Guyana

Guyana’s waters sustain over 900 species of fish, essential to local subsistence and the economy. PHOTOGRAPH: TOM VIERUS

IN MARCH 2015, the Deepwater Champion rig was at work for Exxon Mobil, exploring for oil in the Atlantic Ocean 120 miles off the coast of Guyana, drilling below 6,000 feet of water and through 12,000 feet of earth. Ultra-deepwater drilling is so complex that experts liken it to space travel, and the dangers are well known. Five years earlier, the Deepwater Horizon rig was at work for BP when it exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and setting off the worst offshore oil spill in history. (The rig in Guyana was owned and operated by the same company, Transocean, that ran the rig in the Gulf.)

Only two months after it began exploring, Exxon struck oil. The first significant find in Guyana’s history came as a shock. Exxon Mobil’s then CEO, Rex Tillerson, told shareholders it was the largest oil find anywhere in the world that year. The Guyanese government, led by President David Granger of the People’s National Congress Reform, quickly signed a contract with Exxon and awarded the company a series of 23-year permits—which were at the time withheld from the public. When production began four years later (“a fraction of the time it usually takes,” according to Exxon spokesperson Meghan MacDonald), Guyana was officially ushered into the exclusive club of oil-producing nations. President Granger proclaimed it National Petroleum Day and said the discovery would transform the country’s economic development and ensure a “good life” for all.

The People’s Progressive Party, led by Bharrat Jagdeo, accused Granger of signing a one-sided deal with Exxon in exchange “for peanuts.” Industry analysts have found that the government is receiving a below-average return on Exxon’s projects. Exxon will recoup all of its expenses, including all development and operating expenses, out of the oil it extracts, leaving the government and public to largely absorb the company’s costs. For every barrel of oil produced, until it recovers its costs, Exxon receives 85.5 percent of the value of the oil compared to Guyana’s 14.5 percent, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Janki expected Guyana to make use of the environmental protections she instituted. When it came to oil, she was wrong.

Exxon maintains that the contract terms are competitive and that it “provides a structure and terms that are equitable to both the government and investing companies, commensurate with the risk associated with each project.”

Janki, meanwhile, set her sights on scuttling the entire Exxon operation in Guyana. “At that moment nobody else was willing to challenge what the oil sector was doing,” Janki says. In 2018, she realized she would have to go to court.

Janki filed a suit, based on the Environmental Protection Act, arguing that the government had acted illegally by granting production licenses to the two companies that Exxon is partnering with, as they had not filed their own environmental impact assessments. The judge ruled that the license granted to Exxon was sufficient, but Janki was not dissuaded. She began giving talks and lectures, arguing that there were grounds to challenge Exxon’s operations, and she soon found a kindred spirit in Troy Thomas, who was then president of the Transparency Institute, the nation’s leading anti-corruption organization. In time, he would become one of her most important collaborators.

When Exxon started operating in Guyana, Thomas, like Janki, worried that the corrupting force of oil money would threaten the country’s meager political gains of the past few years—the dreaded “oil curse.” Countries that depend on exporting oil are among the most economically troubled, authoritarian, and conflict-ridden nations in the world. Terry Lynn Karl, a professor at Stanford University, documents how, in the past 40 years, the consequences of becoming oil-rich—far from the promise it offers—have tended to be more destructive than positive. Thomas was well aware of this, as well as of the growing efforts worldwide to shift away from fossil fuels altogether. “We know that petroleum is a dead end,” he says.

Globally, as of 2015, the fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for 91 percent of all industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and about 70 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse emissions. Since 1988, more than half of all global industrial greenhouse emissions can be traced to just 25 fossil fuel companies. Exxon Mobil is number five on the list compiled by the CDP Carbon Majors Database.

Photograph of Guyana countryside with several fires happening

Heavy rainfall in Guyana is nothing new. But now the rainy seasons are longer and wetter, and the dry seasons are hotter, with intensifying drought. PHOTOGRAPH: TOM VIERUS

Thomas grew up on Wakenaam, an island with a distinctly Caribbean feel that’s just a short boat ride from Georgetown. His father was a small farmer like most of the island’s inhabitants, growing crops like plantains, cassava, and tubers. Wakenaam is surrounded by a seawall built by the Dutch to keep the water out. But “wall” seems too generous a word for the roughly 4-foot-high crumbling ledge. It worked for a time, but the sea has been rising, and the storms are now worse, regularly inundating the island’s homes and fields. “The ocean just has to decide one day: ‘I’m going to be disruptive.’ And that’s it for the island of Wakenaam,” Thomas says. “It’s not a theoretical, conceptual argument. It’s right now.” It didn’t make any sense to him that the government actively welcomed a project whose massive emissions contributed to the sea-level rise that threatened his own family’s very survival. “I don’t see how we can agree to kill ourselves,” he says.

Thomas, who often wears a dress shirt and blazer, with his hair in a loose ponytail of shoulder-length dreadlocks, is a professor of natural sciences at the University of Guyana. As a father of two young children, balancing family, work, and a political activism that is rare in this small nation, Thomas usually gets no more than a few hours of sleep each night. He understands why many, if not most, people in Guyana find it difficult to speak out against the government and its major partners. Guyana’s political history has a violent side, including the assassinations of famed anti-colonial scholar and political activist Walter Rodney and one of the nation’s agricultural ministers. Political and economic retribution can also be vicious, instilling fear and limiting action, Thomas explains.

Thomas’ organization succeeded in making Exxon’s contract with the government public in late 2017, an effort that brought him into conversation with Janki. Thomas felt he had reached the limitations of traditional advocacy to stop Exxon, and he was intrigued by Janki’s novel, but potent, legal approach. He decided to join forces with her.

In May 2020, Janki filed a new suit against the government on Thomas’ behalf. She argued that the 23-year permits violated the Environmental Protection Act, which stipulates that the government may grant only five-year leases for oil drilling. In a settlement, the EPA agreed to reduce the terms to five years, after which Exxon would need to reapply for new permits. This was a major victory, but it didn’t address the roots of Thomas’ deeper concerns: the increasingly existential threat of climate change.

And so, emboldened by their success, Thomas and Janki began to lay the groundwork for an even more ambitious case against Exxon, which others would soon join.

“I don’t see how we can agree to kill ourselves,” Troy Thomas says about Guyana’s decision to drill for oil.

QUADAD DEFREITAS IS JANKI’S second client in the pending case against Exxon. The 23-year-old with boy-band good looks is Wapishana and grew up in the Rupununi region in southwest Guyana, near the border with Brazil. As a child, he split his time between the village of Katoonerib, where he attended primary school, and the cattle ranch where his family worked. Among its limited modern attributes, the ranch has used solar panels for decades. DeFreitas works on conservation efforts in the region. “There are so many animals!” he says effusively. “Birds, otters, monkeys, caiman, jaguars—you cannot list them all!”

Today, his family has a small cattle ranch and a budding ecotourism business of its own. But DeFreitas worries that the already devastating effects of climate change threaten not only his family’s businesses but the future of his 4-year-old brother—and his ability to call the Rupununi home.

Heavy rainfall in Guyana is nothing new. “People live on the land, they know where the water usually comes, and they plan their farms and houses because of that knowledge,” DeFreitas explains. But now the rainy seasons are longer and wetter, and the dry seasons are hotter, with intensifying drought. All year round, the weather is unpredictable, and it’s getting worse. Wells and ponds are running dry, leaving families without drinking water or fish to eat; the river both swells and dries out well beyond the norm; and floods increasingly destroy crops and villages.

One rainy day, I visited a small plot of land in Katoonerib near DeFreitas’ primary school. Huts made of brown earth and thatched roofs hand-stitched from tree fronds dotted the horizon. A farmer removed an ear of corn from the stalk and, with the deft precision that comes from decades of repetition, swiftly pulled back on the skin to reveal its rotting insides. A waterlogged crop is unable to bear fruit. And it wasn’t only the corn that was ruined, but the cassava, papaya, yams, pineapple, peanuts, and pumpkins—all of the food grown on the farm.

As Janki built her third case against Exxon, DeFreitas became an eager participant. Pointing to the benefits of solar power and the minimal use of fossil fuels in his community, he knows that other, less harmful ways of producing energy are possible. Beyond this he looks at the implications of exacerbating the climate crisis and considers Exxon’s operations not only crazy but wrong. “I just don’t see the point,” he says.

In May 2021, with Thomas and DeFreitas as plaintiffs, Janki, joined by Burch-Smith, filed the landmark suit against the government and Exxon. “The earth’s atmosphere and oceans have been and continue to be polluted by the release and accumulation of greenhouse gases,” the lawyers state, resulting from “the production, transportation, refining and use of fossil fuels.” Therefore, the government’s approval of Exxon’s operations, they argue, violates the constitutional right of current and future Guyanese citizens to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being. It is the first case in which this provision has been litigated.

Thomas’ affidavit, which says that the “existential threat” caused by greenhouse gas emissions is already harming the health and well-being of the Guyanese people, is the one Exxon is trying to get thrown out. “The intensity of that harm will increase as fossil fuels continue to be burned,” Thomas writes, placing responsibility on the government and Exxon by noting that combustion is “the intended and foreseeable consequence of producing that oil and gas.” Thomas quotes extensively from Exxon’s own 1982 research, which concluded that “mitigation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” But because Thomas isn’t a climate scientist, Exxon argues that his statements reflect opinion rather than agreed-upon facts.

They’re “not going to concede anything about climate change unless they have a gun to their head, metaphorically,” Burch-Smith said about Exxon.

Scholars agree that Janki’s lawsuits are creating innovative precedents for challenging the major contributors to climate change. Joana Setzer, an assistant professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, credits the case for advancing human-rights-based climate litigation, uniquely challenging the permitting of new oil reserves based on the harms of the resulting emissions. “If the case is successful, it could inspire similar lawsuits in other countries,” she says. “It’s a real human rights case.”

Exxon contends that it “has complied with all applicable laws at every step of the exploration, appraisal, development and production stages” in response to questions about the suit.

In September 2021, Exxon joined the government as a codefendant, which suggests it wasn’t content to let the case play out without its influence. The multinational argues that the plaintiffs have “misconceived” the Environmental Protection Act, noting that the government approved the environmental impact assessments necessary for drilling to proceed. Exxon also says the plaintiffs “mischaracterized” the constitutional provision on which Janki and Burch-Smith have built their case. Although that provision requires the state to “secure sustainable development and use of natural resources,” it goes on to say that it must do this “while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

The government’s response follows a similar argument. It affirms that it approved Exxon’s environmental impact assessment and cites the same constitutional provision noted by Exxon. Preventing Guyana from developing its petroleum resources, the government argues, would bring “unwarranted economic and social costs.” Bharrat Jagdeo, once the country’s president and now its vice president, has argued that Guyana should pump its oil quickly, while it still has the chance. (He has emerged as a leader of a group of government officials in places like Suriname and Ghana who are making the same case.) Jagdeo, President Irfaan Ali, and other government officials declined repeated requests for interviews.



The government and Exxon’s economic prosperity argument was dealt a blow in October 2021. The Biden administration, following a new US directive to “promote ending international financing of 
carbon-intensive fossil fuel-based energy,” blocked a $180 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to a private Guyanese company that was meant to support the expansion of Exxon’s onshore facilities.

If economic prosperity is the goal, the oil project is not off to a good start. Despite three years of production, Guyana remains a struggling nation with one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. The lure of a windfall from oil is understandably tempting. And money from oil has flowed into the country, but measuring its impact is difficult. The World Bank says that “extraordinary economic growth of 20–40 percent over the last two years brought GDP per capita to over $9,300 in 2021, from about $6,600 in 2019.” But GDP remains a questionable metric, in that it entirely ignores very real environmental costs, and those per capita figures merely divide a national value by the population—with no consideration for unequal distribution of the gains.

Photograph of a sea wall east of Georgetown Guyana.

Part of the sea wall that was built to protect the areas east of Georgetown, Guyana. PHOTOGRAPH: TOM VIERUS

Exxon spokesperson Meghan MacDonald emphasized the company’s efforts to add to Guyana’s workforce, noting that there are more than 4,400 Guyanese workers supporting Exxon Mobil’s activities there. “In frontier countries around the world, it takes some time to develop the workforce to handle the operations in a complex, highly volatile work environment,” MacDonald said. It’s widely known, though, that the oil and gas industry is increasingly automated and less reliant on workers—something that Exxon itself acknowledged in a statement on its website that has since been deleted.

By the end of 2021, Exxon and its partners had taken in six times more revenue from its oil operations in Guyana than the government had—$3.6 billion to the government’s $607 million—according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Due to the lopsided contract, the group estimates that by 2027, Guyana will carry a liability of more than $34 billion owed to Exxon and its partners to cover their development and related costs. “There isn’t going to be a vast amount of wealth,” Janki says. “There is going to be, most likely, an enormous bill that the Guyanese people will be saddled with.”

If the court agrees with Janki that this oil operation is incompatible with the right to a healthy environment, then the government has to decide whether to stop the activity or somehow find a way to make it not violate the constitution. That may be an impossible feat, as the government might have to prove that oil production would not result in a worsening of global warming. The government may also be obliged to forgo any new authorizations for oil operations or revoke Exxon’s existing licenses. Oil drilling in Guyana could even be ended entirely if it is impossible for the government to issue permits without violating the law.

“Were the court to agree that this development is in violation of the Guyanese constitution, that is obviously an extraordinarily significant finding, and it would have enormous impacts on any future development of oil in Guyana,” says Muffett of the Center for International Environmental Law. “Losing access to Guyana as a result of the groundbreaking legal action there would be yet another signal that the company’s core business model is fundamentally incompatible with confronting the climate crisis. Given the huge prominence of Guyana in Exxon’s portfolio, investors are likely to listen.”

Seated at a table at the Marriott Hotel in June, Burch-Smith talked about the case with me. The American hotel chain, where rooms cost upwards of $300 a night, has recently supplanted the Pegasus as the “place to be” in Georgetown. Burch-Smith spoke quietly, careful not to be overheard by the people at nearby tables and frolicking loudly in the pool. Many of them had Texas accents. He surmised that more Americans will be coming to the country as Exxon’s operations continue to expand.

“The fundamental problem is that the only way you’re going to slow climate change is to stop burning oil.” Exxon can’t challenge that, Burch-Smith almost whispers.

“This isn’t a story of powerlessness; it’s a story of power,” Janki says.

WIN OR LOSE, Janki’s efforts and the case are already having an impact. Under a blazing midday sun in June, on the eve of the court hearing, roughly 25 men and women gathered outside of Exxon’s onshore base in Georgetown to protest the company’s operations—a rare, but increasingly frequent, occurrence. The protesters fanned out along the edge of the congested four-lane highway, holding white placards with handwritten messages: “Slavery was abolished centuries ago.” “Stop raping our country.” “Exxon make mo money than God & Guyana gets nothing.”

In July, 23 years after Janki wrote it into Guyana’s constitution, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment as a fundamental human right guaranteed to all. That has expanded the opportunity for people in any UN member nation to follow Janki’s lead and challenge fossil fuel operations in court by making the case that they are incompatible with these newly enshrined rights.

In September, Exxon reported a 42-gallon oil spill from a production rig, stretching 13 miles across the Atlantic. It was minor and, the company says, was isolated the following day. But such spills are common in offshore oil production, and fears of a spill large enough to have a catastrophic effect on the marine ecosystem loom large here. “If something should go wrong out there, it definitely would affect not just livelihoods but the entire economy,” warns Sopheia Edghill, a marine conservationist at the University of Guyana.

During the hearing, the judge announced his retirement from the court, and he has yet to be replaced. Janki was also recently faced with another challenge. Burch-Smith withdrew as her co-counsel, citing “some differences in certain technical aspects.” But for Janki, there is no withdrawal. She will continue arguing the case on behalf of Thomas and DeFreitas, and she has a new legal partner to help her. The case will move forward when a new judge is assigned. And if it fails to stop Exxon, she has filed three other cases against the government and Exxon. “This isn’t a story of powerlessness; it’s a story of power,” Janki says. “This is the biggest climate change case in the world.”

This article appears in the February 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

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The climate crisis: “Yes, we should be scared.”

What will it take for popular opinion to catch up with the terrifying science? We talk to Canada’s top climate change experts.

By John GeddesJuly 11, 2019

From sea to sea to sea, Canadians face destructive and mercurial weather, including storm surges like this one clobbering P.E.I.’s Oyster Bed Bridge (Don Jardine)

This article is part of a special climate change issue in advance of the federal election. This collection of stories offers a comprehensive look at where Canada currently stands, what could be done to address the issue and what the consequences might be if this country continues with half measures. Learn more about why we’re doing this.

At first there’s only the blue of the sea divided from the green of the countryside by an emblematic stripe of red sand beach. Then, right on cue, a lobster boat moseys into the frame, heading homeward to nearby Savage Harbour, P.E.I., with the morning’s haul. It’s just Prince Edward Island doing its job—delivering the sweet illusion that here, at least, everything remains just the way it’s always been.

Taking in the postcard scene is Adam Fenech, director of the University of Prince Edward Island Climate Lab, in shorts and sunglasses, nursing his Tim Hortons. He recognizes the boat as belonging to Roy Coffin, a fisherman who has agreed to meet us here. No hurry, naturally. The island lulls more than a million visitors a year into briefly believing that their smartphone alerts matter less than the timeless rhythms of fishing, farming and another summer run of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical in Charlottetown.

READ MORE: Wait! There’s good news. A carbon-free world is possible by 2050.

Yet Fenech is here precisely to obsess over change. Since he took up his post at UPEI seven years ago, after a long career studying climate in the federal government, he has drawn increasing attention to our tiniest province as a sort of laboratory for what the planet’s warming, rising oceans portend.

For instance, the sea ice, which has always buffered P.E.I.’s soft sandstone against rough winter weather, has shifted to arriving months later, and lasting not as long, thus exposing the coast more often to the full brunt of seasonal storms. Fenech’s team guides camera-equipped drones over the island’s perimeter, meticulously monitoring the vulnerable shorelines being chomped away by the waves.

At the very spot he’s standing, enough dry land has been lost to erase cherished cottage lots. Red boulders were recently dumped along the shore as a bulwark against further theft of vacation property. Fenech nods toward the red dirt road that skirts the beach. “That road has been wiped out once, wiped out twice, then a few more times—we better do something about that,” he says. “Nature is convincing people who haven’t thought about climate change that they need to plan for the future.”

Coffin, 55, doesn’t need persuading. Having tied up his boat, he drives over our way for a matter-of-fact chat out the window of his pickup about the unease fishermen feel about changing waters. They all recognize it, Coffin says, and he gladly co-operates with Fenech’s researchers. “With today’s technology,” he adds, “it would be negligent for us to not look into what’s going on, to just say, ‘It’s cyclic.’ ”

He knows it’s not. Coffin has been fishing full-time for 25 years. Sure, the island has been enjoying bumper lobster harvests. In fact, Fenech predicted as much a few years ago: the crustaceans favour warmer waters, up to a point. But he warns that still more warming—which is inexorably happening—will likely push their prime habitat further north.

OUR EDITORIAL: Enough with the climate change half-measures. Canada has real solutions to consider.

Variations on that story abound in P.E.I., and elsewhere in Canada, too. A notch warmer isn’t unwelcome, but where does it all end? Tourists have flocked here in record numbers during recent hotter, drier summers. The changing growing season is better for certain crops, like vinifera grapes that didn’t used to thrive on the island.

Still, farmers are worried. Rising average temperatures and less rain in July and August aren’t ideal for P.E.I.’s famous potatoes, and the need to conserve groundwater makes irrigating an untenable solution. At the same time, wetter falls have made harvesting harder, at times impossible, as heavy machines bog down in soggy fields.

Alanna Mitchell on The Big Story podcastWhat does the world look like after we solve climate change?

Ray Keenan, 69, is a big-time potato grower who carries himself with an air of pragmatism. “Climate change were two words that came into our vocabulary in the last few years that could be not very well understood,” Keenan says. “We can’t change the weather, but we can change the way we deal with the weather.” So he welcomes Fenech’s students flying their drones over his farm and studying how his fields respond to heavier autumn rains. “We had acres we could not harvest last fall because they were too wet,” he says. “Never were before—never happened.”

The island’s historic lighthouses have become almost literal beacons of climate change danger. Fenech says 28 of them, perched on crumbling shores, are at risk. The lighthouse at Wood Islands had to be moved in 2009, the one at Cape Bear in 2014. A recent federal report projects up to a one-metre rise in sea levels this century, which Fenech says would make many P.E.I. roads, bridges, causeways and buildings just as vulnerable. A two-metre rise—not at all far-fetched unless the world somehow comes to grips with climate change—slices P.E.I. into three islands.

RELATED: Itemizing the daunting downsides of climate change

Still, all the islanders Fenech introduced me to were can-do sorts, talking up possible adaptations. He is much the same. Fenech grew up in Toronto, studied and built his climatologist credentials there, moving only in middle age to accept his current university post. Clearly besotted with P.E.I., he says he’s here to stay.

There’s another level to his patter, though, like a treacherous current beneath gentle waves. It surfaces when he widens his field of vision from P.E.I. to polar sea ice receding, ice over Greenland melting. More destructive hurricanes, more intense forest fires. Punishing drought this spring in India, another heat wave baking Europe.

Asked what message he aims to convey, he laughs and says, “I really am a positive person, but I have been called Dr. Doom recently.” He adds that “every single scientific journal” he’s assigned his students to read lately points to a coming climate catastrophe, generally by around the year 2050.

All of the troubling developments he rattles off were predicted by researchers in his field, he says, although they’re often coming to pass sooner than expected. “All of these things point in the ‘I told you so’ direction,” he says. “But we don’t like to be right.”

The climate change debate is often cast as a clash between alarmist experts and skeptical average folks. That’s not how it feels in P.E.I., where local experience and peer-reviewed research are mutually reinforcing. But is that convergence unique to a low sandstone island exposed to the elements, or is the perspective an early indicator of how public awareness might scale up all over?

With climate change emerging as a possible defining issue for this fall’s federal election campaign, Maclean’s sought out some of the most committed experts—a climate modeller, a doctor, an economist, even an election strategist. They’re all desperately hoping that a willingness to face this challenge—the attitude Fenech claims he finds all over P.E.I.—is about to spread across the country.

READ MORE: Trudeau should try walking the walk on climate change

For the basics on how we really understand climate change, Greg Flato, a senior scientist at the federal Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria, is a good guy to ask. Flato, 58, started out more than a quarter-century ago studying Arctic ice. His initial interest was in what he calls “operational issues,” like shipping in far northern sea lanes.

But worry about global warming was taking hold back then. In 1988, NASA climatologist James Hansen delivered his wake-up-call testimony on the greenhouse effect to a U.S. senate committee. By the early 1990s, Flato was helping build the Canadian government’s model for simulating past climate variations and projecting future change, then one of only a handful like it scattered around North American and European research institutes.

In those pioneering years, he says, the models were only about the atmosphere. A typical experiment might try to test how much the planet would warm if carbon dioxide levels, mainly from burning fossil fuels, doubled over a given period. That now looks simplistic. The models have grown progressively more elaborate. Crucially, they allow for the capacity of oceans to sequester carbon.

Then there’s Flato’s specialty, ice. Models must account for how, as polar ice recedes, darker seas and land masses are exposed, which amplifies warming. Flato says the mechanism is familiar to any Canadian who’s watched backyard snow shrink in spring. “The snow starts to melt, exposing dark ground underneath it, that dark ground underneath it absorbs sunlight, warms up, causes more snow to melt, which exposes more dark ground, which causes more warming, which causes more melting,” he explains.

Today’s climate models—including the huge program Flato’s centre puts through its paces on a federal supercomputer just outside Montreal—encompass the atmosphere and oceans, land masses and living systems. Flato is a vice-chair of Working Group 1 of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group tasked with assessing the physical science behind the IPCC’s authoritative findings.

READ MORE: Drake’s climate change problem

That includes the IPCC’s latest report, released last October. In case you missed it, a brief review: terrifying. It warns that unless humanity cuts back drastically on burning fossil fuels—what’s being called “deep decarbonization”—coasts will be inundated, forest fires will grow more insatiable, droughts and the resulting hunger will spread dangerously, coral reefs will fade to white, and much more.

All this will happen by 2040, which is, when you think about it, tomorrow. Some warming is already irreversible. To avoid far worse, serious steps must be taken—fast. For example, the IPCC says coal-fired generation needs to all but cease by mid-century; it now accounts for about 40 per cent of the world’s electricity.

Despite all this, Flato resists being prodded by a reporter into apocalyptic talk, maintaining a contemplative tone. Skeptics scoff at models like his. Some vilify the IPCC as a sort of leftist scheme. Others might claim to accept the science, yet wave off pleas for deep decarbonization as crazy talk.

Flato knows all this, but the closest he comes to agitated is to muse on inadequate public education, saying, “I don’t think we—and I don’t even know who the ‘we’ is, whether it’s the scientific community, the scientific community plus the media, the scientific community plus the educational system—but we somehow have not done a very good job of educating the general public.”

From her home in Nunavik, Watt-Cloutier emphasizes the human impacts of global warming (Photograph by Isabelle Dubois)

Sheila Watt-Cloutier agrees that educating the public has far lagged mounting evidence of the danger at hand. She can’t be faulted for not trying. Back in the mid-1990s, around the time Flato’s modelling was taking off, Watt-Cloutier was starting a long run as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council. At first, she campaigned to ban persistent pollutants like PCBs, which had found their way into the traditional Inuit diet.

But she soon turned to global warming, an even more fundamental threat to the old ways based on hunting on the sea ice (now alarmingly diminished) and a landscape defined by permafrost (not so perma, it turns out). She called her 2015 book, a combination of memoir and manifesto, The Right to Be Cold—the title capturing her argument that combatting climate change should be recast as a human rights imperative.

Watt-Cloutier is in demand. She recently addressed a hipster crowd in Paris on climate change before a techno concert. When she spoke to me by phone, though, it was from her two-bedroom house in Kuujjuaq, in Quebec’s far north, near where she was born in 1953 into a family that still travelled by dogsled. Asked about the place, she emails a phone picture taken from her front window. The black spruces and tamaracks along the Kuujjuaq River are lusher than when she was a kid. “The roots are able to go deeper,” she explains, “because of the permafrost melting.”

Stories about the Arctic have disproportionately dominated the climate change conversation. Warming is happening faster there, and the immediate implications are more apparent. It’s amplified Watt-Cloutier’s voice. Yet she has misgivings about the way her home latitudes have been used, especially those iconic images of polar bears on precarious-looking floes. “It’s really raw, deep human issues that we’re dealing with here,” she says. “It’s not just about polar bears, it’s not just about the ice, although those are really important, of course.”

RELATED: An environmental plan that takes people at their wallet, not their word

She contends that focusing on how climate change threatens the Inuit way of life now is a better way of hammering home the warning that it will menace the rest of us later. Or sooner. Recent years of awful forest fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornados seem to be doing what polar bear images couldn’t for public opinion. “They’re starting to see a human, personal connection to the breakdown of the cooling system, which is the Arctic’s ice and Greenland’s ice sheet,” Watt-Cloutier says.

Connections don’t get more human and personal than at a kid’s birthday party. Dr. Courtney Howard will never forget her daughter’s first. It was during 2014’s “Summer of Smoke” in Yellowknife, where she is an emergency doctor, when a staggering 3.4 million hectares of forest burned across the Northwest Territories.

Howard and her husband, a pediatrician, had planned the party for kids and parents in a park. When the day rolled around, however, the Air Quality Health Index, a 1-10 scale, rated Yellowknife’s air at 10, the level deemed a “high health risk” by the federal government.

They went ahead and threw the party outside anyway, despite the smoke and fine particulate. “We’d been inside for almost a month and a half by that point,” Howard says, adding that “cabin fever” brought on by weeks of avoiding the smoky air outside had grown oppressive. Not that she took the decision lightly. Over eight years practising in Yellowknife, Howard, 40, who grew up in Vancouver, has made the health hazards brought by climate change her cause.

She has researched the risks associated with forest fires made more frequent and ferocious by hotter, drier weather. She credits Indigenous patients and advisers to her hospital with teaching her about how warming means declining caribou herds to hunt, less reliable winter ice roads to drive on. She mentions that Yellowknife’s annual Snowking Winter Festival, which runs through March, had to be cancelled mid-month this year when the king’s snow castle melted.

RELATED: Extreme weather may finally make climate change a ballot-box issue

Howard was the lead author of a 2018 climate change briefing for Canadian policy-makers produced by The Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal. As president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, she aims to leverage the credibility edge that health professionals enjoy over, say, politicians and economists.

The bedside manner she brings to the issue isn’t exactly calming. “Essentially,” she says, “the message from the health community is climate change is the greatest health issue of our time.” That’s not just about Canada, of course. Like every expert I interviewed, Howard eventually gets around to pointing out that the implications for the developing world are far more extreme.

She’s worked with Médecins Sans Frontières on the danger climate change brings to countries already strained by political instability and poverty. “When you look at the increased potential for drought and for famine, and you know when people are hungry or their kids are hungry they’ll do almost anything, so they may move, and other people might not like that, there’s potential for conflict and essentially failed states.”

Her prescription? “We need to acknowledge that we can’t adapt to where we’re going,” she says, her voice getting more insistent the longer she stays on the phone outside the ER in Yellowknife, “and therefore we need to mitigate urgently.”

Adaptation means trying to adjust to change, like dumping a load of boulders along a P.E.I. beach. Mitigation means trying to slow the change itself, mainly by reducing the fossil-fuel burning that pumps heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fiercest battles on climate change in Canada have been about taxing carbon, and no Canadian political strategist carries more scars from those fights than Andrew Bevan.

Back in 2008, Bevan was Stéphane Dion’s chief of staff when the then-Liberal leader ran on his “Green Shift” platform—a daring pitch to offset a new carbon tax with equal tax cuts and credits—in that year’s campaign to oust Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservatives. A decade later, Bevan was Kathleen Wynne’s chief of staff when the then-Liberal premier of Ontario ran for re-election, defending her cap-and-trade policy for pricing carbon against Conservative Doug Ford’s vow to scrap it.

Harper labelled the Green Shift “Dion’s tax on everything.” Ford slammed Wynne’s carbon-pricing system as “a tax grab that made everything more expensive.” Dion and Wynne both lost badly. Bevan says pricing carbon wasn’t the definitive factor in either election. No doubt he’s got a point. Still, those outcomes—reinforced by a string of other provincial elections recently won by anti-carbon-tax Conservatives—sure don’t make it look like an easy sell on the hustings.

Over a morning cup of tea in a downtown Toronto restaurant, Bevan mulls over the gap between the expert consensus that carbon taxes make sense, and the uncertainty of political pros about how to sell the idea. Between Dion and Wynne, he was executive director of an environmental think tank at the University of Ottawa. “I spent almost three years, purposely and with intent, trying to figure out, firstly, what the right policy frameworks are, and, secondly, what the right communication frame was,” Bevan says. “The first is easier than the second.”

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s cold, hard climate change calculus

Taxing carbon pushes industry and individuals to figure out the cheapest ways to burn less fossil fuel, or switch to renewable alternatives. How high must the tax be to do the trick? The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates $102 per tonne of emissions would achieve the cuts Canada committed to at the UN’s Paris climate conference in 2015. Right now, Ottawa’s controversial carbon tax stands at $20 per tonne, and is slated to climb to $50 by 2022.

And Environment Minister Catherine McKenna recently said the Liberals don’t plan to push it higher, signalling that they’re worried about what voters will tolerate. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer promises to scrap the tax and substitute his own suspiciously vague plan to require big industrial emitters to invest unspecified amounts in green innovation if their emissions exceed unquantified levels.

It has the makings of a defensive, evasive, unedifying campaign clash. Bevan is no stranger to tactical, measured messaging. On climate change, though, he wonders if a less conventional approach might be needed from parties and governments that genuinely favour action. “Most of those people—most of us—have been trying to propose sensible solutions in a pragmatic way,” he says. “Maybe there’s a mistake in saying, ‘Look, we can get this right if we do X, Y and Z.’ Maybe you actually do have to instill some more fear and panic.”

All the noisy, divisive attention lavished on carbon taxes drives Mark Jaccard up the wall. It’s not that the Simon Fraser University professor doesn’t think they can work. Jaccard, 63, even helped design British Columbia’s widely praised carbon tax, brought in by then-premier Gordon Campbell in 2008. It’s often held up internationally as proof carbon taxes can cut emissions without crimping economic growth.

But Jaccard emphasizes that Campbell’s far less celebrated regulations on generating electricity delivered three times the emissions cuts of his carbon tax. And that former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty’s phase-out of coal generation delivered Canada’s biggest cuts to date. And that California is leading the way with regulations that require more zero-emissions vehicles and more renewable power.

In all this, his point is that carbon taxes, even if they make more sense from the perspective of pure economic theory, are not essential. As well, they’re an easy target for the politicians he accuses of “climate-insincere lying.” (He specifically asks for that phrase to be quoted.)

RELATED: Bill McKibben on how we might avert climate change suicide

Jaccard is far more enthusiastic about McKenna’s outward-looking strategy for getting rid of coal. Most Canadians, who can’t have missed all the war of words over carbon taxes, haven’t even heard of the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Launched by Canada and Britain in 2017, the alliance now has 30 countries signed up to phase out coal power. “It’s the answer,” Jaccard says, “to the Conservative who says, ‘We’re only a small part of the solution, so we shouldn’t do anything.’ ”

He’s referring to the familiar argument—among Scheer’s top talking points—that since Canada accounts for less than two per cent of global carbon emissions, what we do domestically hardly counts. Jaccard argues any serious policy should be sold to Canadian voters on its chances of influencing international action. “I don’t hear enough in our discourse, whether it’s from Elizabeth May or the NDP or the Liberals or environmental advocates, of being clear with Canadians: we are doing this because it has the highest chance of global spillover,” he says.

Once those spillovers start becoming clearer, Jaccard thinks what must be done, while still daunting, won’t look so intimidatingly complicated. (He makes that case in his upcoming book, A Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success, slated for publication late this year by Cambridge University Press.) “We need to get to an era where the production of electricity is at very low emissions, and we’re not using gasoline in our cars and diesel in our trucks,” he sums up. “If I go even a little further, I’d say and not natural gas in our buildings. And then we’re there.”

But “there” can seem a long way off.

After driving me around P.E.I. to meet locals concerned about the shoreline, the soil and the sea, Fenech circles back to his cluttered professor’s office. He opens a presentation on his desktop computer screen. I take notes. P.E.I.’s shores eroded 28 cm a year on average from 1968 to 2010. Some 1,000 homes and 126 bridges are at risk.

It’s late in the day, and we’ve gotten a lot of sun. Seeing my attention waning, he pulls out his phone, finds something, and hands it to me. I expect more data, maybe an aerial drone photo. But it’s his three adult children, 19, 23 and 27, dressed up and smiling. They’ve got a lot more decades of climate change to live through. “Now, the positive side of me says humans will always adapt,” Fenech says. But for once he doesn’t sound so positive.

Politicians habitually mention how they’re doing it all for their kids. It’s not something policy wonks often bring up. Except on climate change. Howard, of course, has the story about her daughter’s first birthday. Watt-Cloutier states, rather abruptly while explaining her advocacy strategy, “I’m a mother and a grandmother,” evidently feeling that needs saying, and perhaps it does.

READ MORE: Andrew Scheer’s cold, hard climate change calculus

In interviews on this topic, I’ve come to await the moment. Occasionally a nudge is needed, but not more than that. Bevan has a reticent quality, so I ask outright if fatherhood comes into his thinking on climate change. “I know my kids are fearful; I talk with them about it,” he says. “It doesn’t mean I panic, because you have to get this right, here and globally. But, boy oh boy, yes, we should be scared.”

Flato brings a modeller’s long view to contemplating his 22-year-old son’s future. “He will potentially see the year 2100. He would be 103 years old, but by 2100 maybe that’s not so unusual,” he says. “Even if he doesn’t live to be 100, he will live to see near the end of the 21st century. And when I look at the projected changes in climate associated with high-emissions scenarios, that is worrisome. It’s a world that looks very different from the world that I grew up in.”

The official campaign running up to the federal vote scheduled for Oct. 21 will last a mere 50 days at most. The next fixed election date will be set for just four years later. Any parent’s hopes—for decades of security at a minimum, maybe a century—extend way beyond those compressed political timelines. Unless we slow down to squint into the distance—something like the mental downshifting P.E.I. induces—solving climate change will remain beyond us. It’s not hard to find teachers with vital lessons to offer on this extreme challenge from every angle, but there’s no sign yet that we’re ready to pass the test.

This article appears in print in the August 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘Yes, we should be scared.’” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.