A Climate Scientist Gets Elected. My Risk Pays Off.

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Sun, 06/02/2013 - 12:52
Andrew Weaver canvases in the rain in Victoria, BC

When, on the night of Tuesday 14th May, the results came in for the 2013 election in British Columbia in Canada, it marked the end of what seemed like a very long journey for me.

Around six months earlier, I started documenting University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver's run for election to the provincial legislature. Initially, Weaver's vocal criticism of Canada's record on climate change was what piqued my interest in his campaign.

You don't often get scientists going into politics and here was a world renowned climatologist, someone who has worked as a policy adviser at the international level, choosing to trade his cushy, tenured professorial post for a lower paid, and no doubt less respected job in provincial politics. The kicker was that Weaver was running for a "fringe" party, the BC Green Party that had never won a seat in the provincial legislature.

In the Victoria riding that Weaver chose to run in, Oak Bay-Gordon Head, the previous BC Green candidate garnered a mere 9% of the vote in the last provincial election. There were plenty who would tell you that Weaver, a political neophyte, up against a sitting cabinet minister, Ida Chong, and a rising BC NDP party, represented by Jessica van der Veen, was unlikely to pull it off.

However, if Weaver won, it would be history in the making, and it could usher in a new era in British Columbian politics.

First steps

Back then, I only knew Weaver from his various appearances in press and media. I hadn't even attended one of his talks in person. But from my first speculative telephone call to his university office in early October he struck me as being a great subject for a documentary: he was articulate, passionate, and accessible. Friends who had heard him speak were full of admiration for him.

Like Weaver, I'm concerned about what kind of future we are bestowing upon our children and grandchildren. Who better to draw a roadmap of where the planet is heading than one of the longest-serving members of the Nobel-Peace-prize-winning IPCC?

At a time when a re-elected President Obama was calling for a "national conversation" about climate change south of the border, I was curious to see how much traction issues around climate change and turning the province into a fossil-fuel gateway to Asia would find in the upcoming drama of BC's election. Following Weaver's run seemed like a good way to do that.

I explained to Weaver I wanted to put together a teaser video to raise funds to make an hour-long documentary. Weaver gave me almost two full days of his time. On a soggy Fall day, prior to his nomination as a candidate, we drove around the riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head in his little car ("a bucket on wheels," he calls it), toured the labs at UVic, and learned about his Victoria Island schools weather station project which he and colleague Ed Wiebe built "off the side of their desks" into a network of 142 stations.

I quickly realised Weaver doesn't do things by halves.

Of course, I interviewed Weaver at length about climate change. He also explained why he eventually succumbed to BC Green Party leader Jane Sterk's wooing, to take on the role of candidate and deputy leader. Not having to adhere to a party whip was a big part of it: he was more interested in "good policy" than partisan politics, he said.

He was, also, clearly inspired by Elizabeth May's success at the federal level. May blazed a trail by becoming the first Green Party MP elected in Canada in 2011, and has been a thorn in the side of Stephen Harper's federal government in Ottawa ever since (Macleans voted the lone Green "parliamentarian of the year").

After that first meeting, I felt Weaver had a good chance of winning the seat and even if he didn't win, the run itself would make a good story. A month later, I travelled across from Vancouver for the Victoria federal by-election, to film the Greens narrowly miss beating the NDP to win a second federal seat. It was a roller-coaster night of emotions for the Greens, and great material for me.

Every other time I made the trip from Vancouver to Victoria the sense that the provincial Greens would make a breakthrough on 14th May got stronger. The round trip on ferry and transit takes around ten hours, but it seemed worth it. The project had legs.

Unfortunately, the response I was getting from commissioning editors was that the documentary was too political, too risky.

I weighed up my options. I decided to take on the risk myself. It's not something I chose lightly. Having already self-funded a documentary, You Never Bike Alone, some seven years ago I know how exhausting it can be. But, I reasoned a good project like this will eventually pay off (and not just financially). I also thought it would be fun following the Weaver cavalcade (I wasn't wrong there). I booked accommodation in Victoria and continued shooting.

The campaign

British Columbia has a history of environmental leadership. This is the province that spawned Greenpeace and introduced North America's first real carbon tax in 2008. Elizabeth May made history here. So it was no surprise that climate change was an ever-present issue in this election, even if the debate around emissions was less than frank and open.

Premier Christy Clark, campaigning for her political life, rarely acknowledged the elephant in the room, as she pushed her plans for building a number of energy-intensive liquid natural gas plants in the province. Clark promised a bonanza of LNG wealth that would secure a debt-free future for the province's next generation, a vision critics dismissed as hype. Weaver, raising the spectre of the carbon bubble in financial markets, painted the LNG legacy as an albatross of debt for the province, a "pipe dream".

Climate activists were encouraged by the fact that BC NDP leader Adrian Dix, who went into the campaign leading by as much as 17%, raised the climate change rhetoric. Oil pipelines to the BC coast from the tarsands of Alberta, were front and centre, but the rhetoric wasn't always backed by the conviction of strong policies. Dix's apparent vacillation on the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline into Metro Vancouver may even have cost the NDP the election - a stunning final result that few pundits and pollsters, if any, were expecting.

Climate change kept knocking as the Keeling Curve passed the disconcerting milestone of 400ppm of CO2 just days before the election day ("E day" in campaign parlance). Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, ongoing drought in the Southern US and even less impactful, local events such as a storm surge in December that washed away part of Vancouver's seawall, also made it difficult to sweep climate issues under the proverbial campaign carpet. A record-breaking heat wave in BC in early May came on cue.

Then on "E day," Andrew Weaver won his seat to become the first Green MLA in Canada. Weaver took the lead as the first polls started coming in and didn't look back. The promise of the last few months, the arguments and concerns raised on the campaign trail, ideas that will run through Running On Climate, were validated by the voters of Oak Bay-Gordon Head.

A story takes shape

So what now? I have to shape and edit hours and hours of footage that I have shot and probably shoot some more. I'm looking forward to it. It's a process that I liken to a sculptor chipping away at a large block of marble to manifest a previously unseen shape within.

However, it does take time and having hit the wall with other avenues of completion financing, we are planning on launching a crowd-funding campaign to get the film completed.

If you want to see an entertaining documentary that looks at the positive impact that a few individuals can have in forging the future of this planet, please consider supporting us.

The campaign details have not been set yet, but please join our mailing list, like our Facebook page, or follow our Twitter feed to be kept posted. Every subscribe/like/follow/vote counts!

Robert Alstead is the director of Running On Climate. This blog post originally appeared on www.runningonclimate.com