Federal Green Party leader and lifelong environmental activist Elizabeth May spoke to a full house at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University Tuesday night.  

May, 68, was invited to speak by the Environmental Law Students’ Society and she admitted to feeling “more emotional than I expected” at finding herself not only back in her home province — she grew up in Cape Breton — but back in the same lecture hall where she took courses in constitutional law and contracts. 

“In 1980 I was admitted to law school as a mature student with a CV that described me as an anti-spray activist, a waitress, and a cook,” May told the crowd. 

She’s travelled a long way since. The author of several books, May has represented the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding in British Columbia since 2011. In November she returned to lead the Green Party for a second time. In 1986, after a stint as executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada, May’s Dalhousie connections got her a job working as a senior climate policy advisor to federal Environment Minister Tom McMillan in the Mulroney government. 

“You know, I’m not a Tory, don’t you know?” she recalled telling her boss. “Tom said, ‘Well, you aren’t anything else either, are you?’ And I said, no, I’m not anything else. I’m not partisan.” 

Last night, speaking off the cuff, May was very much her feisty self. The topic of her talk was “Why do some global environmental treaties work, and others fail?” May discussed her experience as part of the Canadian team that helped negotiate the 1987 Montreal protocol to protect the ozone layer from the pollution created by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals present in aerosol sprays, foams, and refrigerants. 

May told the crowd of university students and baby boomers the lessons she learned then can apply to many situations today. 

“We had a wonderful miracle product, benign, non-toxic. Until CFCs floated into the stratosphere and began mixing with UV light that broke them down into chlorine molecules that began gobbling through the ozone layer very quickly,” May said.

“The predictable reaction from industry, stage 1, was ‘it’s not happening. There’s no threat to the ozone layer’ is where DuPont started out. Stage 2, ‘well, ok. It looks like the ozone layer is getting thinner but nothing to do with our product.’ Stage 3, ‘well, it might be due to our product.’ And finally, ‘Yes, it’s our product but it will collapse our economy if we want to do anything about it.’” 

“It’s a tough choice. It’s the same choice governments face today over the climate crisis. Do we save life on Earth or do we save the economy? Tough choice,” May said sarcastically. 

Still time to slow the pace of climate change

It was during the Montreal protocol negotiations in 1987 that industrialized countries realized CFCs were a bigger problem for them than for poor nations in the global south, May recalled. Southern nations needed CFCs to protect the food supply from rotting in the heat.

According to May, this is where the principle of “a common but differentiated response” emerged to tackling to an environmental problem. Countries would share the goal of protecting the ozone layer but developed nations would “go first” and cut emissions by 50%. Southern nations would follow and cut emissions by 15%. 

Fast forward to 2023 when scientists are reporting the ozone layer is in the process of repairing itself and should eventually recover to protect us from damaging radiation.

May argues the Montreal environmental treaty is a success story compared to subsequent global negotiations aimed at slowing climate change (ex: Paris, Kyoto, Copenhagen), which she said have failed. The key reason Montreal was effective, according to the Green Party leader, was because it contained an enforcement mechanism to impose trade sanctions on any country that broke the agreement by continuing to manufacture CFCs. 

In May’s view, a huge change took place in the decade between 1987 in Montreal and 1997 in Kyoto when the Chretien government threatened to walk away if trade sanctions were included in the agreement on climate change. She blames the rise of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which questioned and eventually convinced world leaders they couldn’t sign environmental treaties if they obstructed international trade. That wasn’t and still isn’t true, claims the environmental lawyer and federal Green Party. But the problem is most subsequent environmental accords and treaties have lacked enforceable measures to make them accountable. 

“Really what happened from the late 1990s is if you were negotiating a trade deal, you were allowed to have the tools that worked — you got the hammers and the buzzsaws. But if you were negotiating an environmental treaty, you got those red plastic scissors used to cut construction paper in Sunday school,” May said. 

May believes without trade sanctions to back up agreements on environmental goals the only result is “global shaming” of the sort dished out by the UN’s Secretary-General António Guterres at the last summit. (And Canada should be ashamed, May adds, because instead of reducing emissions to hit targets set under the Paris Accord, emissions continue to go up).  

In Copenhagen, Guterres warned world leaders, “we are on a highway to climate hell.” May told law students on Tuesday she believes there is still time to slow the pace of climate change and increase biodiversity, but it will require more sophisticated “tools” than goals and targets to make that happen. 

A not-so-happy homecoming 

May was asked by a member of the audience if Premier Tim Houston’s goal to double Nova Scotia’s population to two million people by 2060 was incompatible with environmental responsibility.

“Not if there’s a plan to handle it,” she replied, “and not if that growth is accompanied by people cutting back on consumption and reducing waste. Not everybody needs to live in a house the size of John Risley’s.” 

That tongue-in-cheek comment drew a laugh but May became deadly serious when she voiced dismay over certain environmental actions taken by the Houston government.  

“I’m standing in my home province knowing that we are opening a coal mine and knowing that we have allowed the province of Nova Scotia to be pulled into binding arbitration by a pulp and paper company run by the family of an Indonesian billionaire. The name is Paper Excellence. They took over Northern Pulp, they are trying to get it reopened. The provincial government is in a secret, binding arbitration with them that doesn’t allow the Pictou Landing First Nation in the room. Just saying, there are many things to talk about.” 

In the end, May said if there was one message she hoped law students and citizens took away from her talk last night it was that action to save the planet and transform the economy requires political will.  

“Environmental treaties need real tools to enforce them,” May said. “Give us the hammers and buzzsaws and let the trade guys have the red plastic scissors for a change.”  

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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