Tzeporah Berman’s last Canadian project could have changed Canada’s climate politics. So why did it flop?

B.C. Environmental iconoclast Tzeporah Berman. Photo by Dina Goldstein

Canadians who care about climate change have good reason to be depressed about our history of climate change politics, which goes something like this: Jean Chrétien promises a lot, does little; Paul Martin promises more, does a bit, but not much; Stephen Harper promises nothing, and delivers.

What explains this pattern? The answer has a lot to do with a woman from Vancouver named Tzeporah Berman, and her spectacular failure to make a good idea succeed.

Tzeporah Berman is probably Canada’s third most famous environmentalist, trailing only grandfatherly CBC host David Suzuki and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. She made her name in the early 1990s during the Clayoquot Sound anti-logging protests in British Columbia. She was such an effective organizer and gadfly that the then Premier branded her “an enemy of the state.” She was instrumental in convincing 86 per cent of Canadians that logging in Clayoquot should be stopped. An irritated Crown prosecutor charged her with 857 counts of criminal aiding and abetting (all dismissed by a judge shortly thereafter). After a few years working for Greenpeace in Europe, Berman returned to B.C. to found ForestEthics, a group committed to pressuring businesses to reduce their impact on forests by alerting consumers to dubious corporate supply chains. For example, in 2005, she became appalled by the environmental impact of millions of Victoria’s Secret catalogues made from rare boreal forests—tiny pieces of lacy underwear printed on huge numbers of dead trees. Berman launched a campaign called Victoria’s Dirty Secret with a full page ad in the New York Times featuring a scantily clad blonde bombshell toting a chainsaw. Berman emerged, as usual, with concessions from a contrite corporate giant.

An epiphany in late 2007 convinced Berman to switch her focus from forestry to climate change. “I realized fighting for forests without taking on climate change was like repainting the Titanic after hitting the iceberg,” she said. Loggers were less of a threat to Canadian trees than rising temperatures and a resultant onslaught of ravenous pine beetles.

Berman watched Canada’s 2008 federal election in horror. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion proposed a carbon tax, the most fervent wish of climate change activists. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives savaged the “Green Shift” plan, and Dion’s salesmanship flopped. When Dion talked policy, Harper talked price. Dion reassured voters the plan was “revenue neutral,” discouraged pollution, gave tax breaks to low-income families, and so on, in an incomprehensible wonkish muddle. Harper said: Liberals want to tax everything, “screw everybody,” and raise gas prices. Harper won the debate.

While Dion flailed, the champions of environmentalism stood on the sidelines. Some of the larger non-governmental organizations issued press releases to tepidly commend the Green Shift platform, but nothing more. Said a former senior advisor to Dion: “We certainly expected more from environmentalists.”

Berman imagined an alternate future. Her diagnosis was simple: environmentalists were failing to organize themselves in a politically effective way. “We have never had a politically relevant infrastructure,” she says. “We need people who are trained as organizers, with coordinators in critical ridings. We need money for polling and focus groups. And we need volunteers trained to do electoral gruntwork.”

Canadians consistently prioritize climate change in poll after poll, but this concern has not been harvested and channeled in the right way and in the right electoral ridings to impact elections. Environmentalists have succeeded in raising awareness, but failed at changing votes. The best-resourced organizations spend much of their time and resources researching and writing policy reports, advising conscientious citizens on how to green their lifestyles, and jockeying for visibility in major news outlets. They are non-partisan, and don’t address Canadians as voters—which is why they are ineffective at affecting elections, and therefore politicians. So Berman decided to create a climate lobby with enough electoral muscle to force politicians to listen.

Her plan was simple but ambitious: pick 40 swing ridings with small margins of victory in the most recent federal election, and doggedly target them with polling, volunteers and advertising. Berman wanted a whole new political infrastructure to mobilize Canadians around climate change, built to reward green politicians and punish dirty ones. Organizers would be trained to make calls, knock on doors, produce intelligible materials and learn to talk to such constituencies as the God-fearing Tim Hortons-drinking suburban soccer moms.

In the United States, this kind of on-the-ground in-your face organizing is a proven model, for good (the League of Conservation Voters) and ill (the National Rifle Association).

Berman also drew lessons from Australia’s 2007 election, in which an environmental group called the Climate Institute raised gobs of money to help defeat the incumbent, carbon-loving John Howard. To do this, they sponsored the political campaign of a grade 4 student, Jack Simmons, who took some time off school to run for Prime Minister. He coiffed his hair just so, donned his first suit, filmed some advertisements, and hit the road to meet voters. His novelty—and the free ice cream he gave out everywhere he went—attracted voters and media alike. Of course, he couldn’t get his name on the official ballot, or even vote himself. But it didn’t matter much, because he was the perfect spokesman for climate change politics, a vehicle for present concern for future consequences. “I can’t vote, but you can. Vote climate,” he squeaked. His ice cream truck carried a sign rating the party platforms, signaling clearly to voters that the ruling Liberal Party had an abysmal climate change record. All told, picking a cute kid to talk about environmental apocalypse was a slick move. It also helped that the cherubic set piece was backed by a savvy media campaign sitting on a war chest of a few hundred thousand dollars.

It was the kind of campaign Berman thought Canada desperately needed. In 2008, the Conservatives won 143 seats, the Liberals 77, the NDP 37. Even as a minority government, it looked like a solid Conservative victory.

Or was it? Guess how many votes separated the Conservatives from a Liberal-NDP coalition? 7,189. Yes, if a mere 7,189 Conservative voters had changed their minds in fifteen key ridings, a Liberal-NDP caucus would have had 129 seats, and the Conservatives 128. This calculation is part hocus-pocus—it assumes a coalition and 29 ridings with one-vote victories. The point is that winning margins in certain ridings are consistently small, and political organizers could target a relatively small number of voters to have a large electoral impact.

Berman vowed next time would be different. She founded a new advocacy group, PowerUp Canada, and set out looking for funding to enact her vision. She projected it would take $3.7 million across 40 ridings to prepare the ground for the next federal election. It was a big idea, big enough to transform Canadian environmental politics.

Perhaps at this point you are wondering why you have never heard of PowerUp Canada. That is, quite simply, because it was a dismal failure. Over time, as it failed to attract donors and support, its ambitions receded. Berman stopped talking about 40 ridings. They would target just 10. Later, they abandoned the federal scene altogether, and focused on promoting the carbon tax and renewable energy policy in the 2009 B.C. provincial election. After that, they settled for a blog, ZeroCarbonCanada.ca. Some high profile endorsers signed a pledge. A handful of people wrote policy-focused blog posts, but the grassroots never showed up. PowerUp Canada became exactly the kind of toothless think-tank it had criticized, and then it folded altogether shortly thereafter. What went wrong?

For starters, Berman’s timing was impeccably bad. She launched her fundraising drive as the markets crashed in 2008. But more than that, and more frustratingly, PowerUp received lukewarm support from Canada’s other established environmental groups. There was little willingness to pool resources around a new political campaign. As Berman says, “the sad fact of the matter is that we couldn’t get environmental groups to invest in it and set aside their own brands.” This is a troubling explanation, though unsurprising. Canada’s environmental NGOs compete for limited resources, defend issue turf and hoard donors. Most were cautious when faced with Berman’s ambition. They adopted a wait-and-see attitude, and as they watched PowerUp shriveled up and died.

Chris Hatch, PowerUp’s onetime organizational mastermind (and Berman’s husband—they met in 1993, protesting in the woods of B.C.), gives a more expansive diagnosis of the failure, and a damning one: “Environmental groups are staffed by do-gooders, and political operatives are a different breed of people. This means there are very few people in the environmental movement who have experience in politics, and those that do get a hard time from the rest.”  Asking environmentalists to electioneer is like asking stones to swim. The notable and major exception is the Green Party, though what Hatch and Berman have in mind is creating a political force with the flexibility to support any party at a given time.

Hatch observed that the environmental movement exists largely as a subset of the political left. “If becoming politically relevant means becoming relevant to parties across the spectrum, there is almost no interest,” Hatch says. “Every group says they want to be politically relevant, but they don’t take the necessary steps to achieve this.”

Pragmatism is a defining feature of Berman’s career—much to the chagrin of some of her purist colleagues. During her time at Forest Ethics, she engaged with major corporations and earned a reputation as a realist negotiator who helped businesses choose lesser evils. On the eve of the 2009 B.C. provincial election, Berman publicly criticized the NDP, and praised Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell for his carbon tax and renewable energy policies. Later, at the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen, Berman presented Campbell with an award.

The response from within the environmental movement was swift and vitriolic. After all, B.C.’s carbon emissions had risen in 2009, carbon tax or not. Campbell was building more highways for carbon-spewing cars for the 2010 Olympics, investing in more oil and gas extraction, and, expanding hydropower development. Campbell was no ecological saint, and didn’t his plan for more river hydropower disrupt the wildlife and forests Berman supposedly cared so much about? Berman was called a co-opted naïf, a shameless sellout, and worse.

“I am not saying that I agree with everything that the Liberal government is doing,” she said in an interview at the time. “I’m saying that we need to prioritize leadership on climate change, because we’re racing against the clock…the greatest threat to British Columbia’s biodiversity and wilderness today and our kids is climate change. I think that the time for purely oppositional politics is over. We need to look for climate leadership and support it when we see it…And there is no perfect party.”

She concluded with an uppercut to her critics: “I thought I was part of a movement, not a cult.”

Lacking the resources—and, increasingly, the goodwill of her former comrades-in-arms—to continue operating PowerUp Canada, Berman shuttered the group in summer 2010 and left for Amsterdam to work for Greenpeace International as their chief climate change campaigner. When she left, Canada arguably lost its most promising visionary for a new approach to climate change advocacy. It seems Canadian environmentalists weren’t ready to embrace Berman’s style of environmentalism, or her embrace of politics.

“Tzeporah raised a lot questions that haven’t been answered,” says a senior environmentalist from a respected climate think tank, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to comment. “When we talk about what’s the problem with climate change, why our government is so timid on this issue, fundamentally it is a lack of political will. We all know that what motivates politicians is votes. If you have the ability to move votes in ridings, if political candidates hear about the environment on people’s doorsteps, then you can be influential.” Some environmental problems do not require broad-based popular support, and savvy lobbying and media work can suffice to make a minor regulatory change. Climate change is not one of those problems.

Graham Saul, the Ottawa-based head of the Climate Action Network, a sprawling coalition of environmental NGOs, notes the same basic problem that Berman built PowerUp to address: “Canadian environmentalism has developed a base in places that are not political battlegrounds. These people are mostly urban, wealthy, and white—most of the voters in Canada’s swing ridings are not.”

Karel Mayrand, the Quebec director of the David Suzuki Foundation, echoes Saul’s observation. “Basically, we recruit at university campuses and at Starbucks.” He adds that the basic challenge with climate change politics is that its primary political constituency is the unborn, the people who will suffer the future (and worse) consequences of climate change. In the meantime, environmentalists struggle to figure out a way to build political clout.

The failure to do so is producing mounting disappointments and embarrassments. In December 2009, the David Suzuki Foundation persuaded 10,000 Canadians to contact the Prime Minister urging action on climate change, but to little effect: this convinced Harper to “take three days out of a busy schedule to go to Copenhagen to appear to do something,” says Mayrand, “though he did nothing.” Copenhagen was widely regarded as a failure; the following year’s summit in Cancun barely drew notice. In December 2011, Canada announced it would become the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. That decision took a lot of the shine off an admittedly timid global climate plan, agreed just days earlier at another UN summit in Durban, South Africa.

How do Canadian environmentalists plan to turn the tide? “We have no real game plan,” says Mayrand. “It really bothers me. We are weak.” He adds, “When environmentalists win a battle in Quebec, it’s because the artists or the unions join us.” If it were up to him, “my goal would be to reach out to the people in the suburbs, where elections are won and lost. We need to go to work on the ground to reach the people who don’t follow us yet. In the medium term, in a couple years, like bodybuilders, we will build our muscles.”

Desiree McGraw, co-founder of Climate Reality Canada, a group that trains speakers to deliver Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth talk, shares the feeling that something is amiss with the Canadian environmental movement. “We have failed to translate enormous concern for the environment into action,” she says. “We, as environmentalists, have to assume some responsibility for the fact that our climate change policy and our emissions are a mess. We have failed to hold our governments to account in a way that translates into Canadians making this vote-worthy.”

Last spring and summer I spoke to a number of other senior Canadian environmentalists, and all agreed that building some political infrastructure like what Berman had envisioned would be helpful. And yet none had any plans to do much about it. The lone exception was a commendable campaign during the fall 2011 provincial election in Ontario, which featured a young girl named Penelope campaigning in the mould of the young Jack Simmons in Australia.

What explains the seemingly gaping hole in environmental strategy Berman failed to correct? A want of imagination and ambition is certainly part of the problem, but there are significant financial, legal and regulatory hurdles as well.

Professional political organizing is expensive. As one veteran political organizer from Ontario estimated, a local campaign intending to “move a few hundred votes” in a relatively compact urban riding can cost upwards of $25,000 over the course of a few months. Leaflets, staffing, databasing and, yes, robocalling (at 2 cents per call) cost money. And that doesn’t include the capacity to “buy eyeballs,” through television or newspaper advertising.

Even with a treasure chest on hand, there are limits on how to spend money in politics. Most Canadian environmental organizations are charities, and charities must abide by rules: they are legally bound to restrict “advocacy” to 10 percent of their spending, and strictly barred from any partisan activities. This is why the Pembina Institute, though it craves a national carbon tax, could offer only vague support for the ideas in the 2008 Liberal “Green Shift” platform, and certainly couldn’t instruct voters to support the Liberals. It’s also why the David Suzuki Foundation can ask people to call the Prime Minister demanding leadership in UN talks at Copenhagen, but falls silent during elections. A group like Greenpeace does not register as a charity precisely for the political latitude this affords.

There are further legal limits to what “third parties” (that is, groups not registered as official political parties) can do during elections. During a federal election, a third party is not allowed to spend more than $150,000 nationally and no more than $3,000 per riding on “election advertising”—a loosely defined term. There are also restrictions on spending during provincial elections, though these tend to be far less strict.  Of course, organizing, advertising, and door-to-door campaigning can happen outside of the election cycle (and they do), but the bottom line is that Tzeporah Berman could not buy an election, even if she wanted to.

The regulations exist for good reason: they are intended to stop deep-pocketed groups and individuals from exercising undue influence. In theory, this is a good thing. In practice, it means burnt-out activist volunteers lurch from one campaign to the next, while corporate giants smoothly and continuously leverage political power in less overt ways.

Perhaps the greatest barrier of all lies in the nature of the Canadian political system, which, by design, is insulated from grassroots lobbying. Even if a determined environmental group could muster the clout to swing a few dozen ridings and elect suitably carbon unfriendly Parliamentarians—itself a herculean task—ultimately most political power would remain with the Prime Minister. Leverage over local candidates translates into remarkably little influence over the all-important Prime Minister’s Office. This equation changes somewhat in minority Parliaments, but only to a degree. In this respect Canada differs markedly from our Southern neighbour, where grassroots organizing proliferates precisely because individual members of Congress wield far more power and independence than Canadian MPs.

Finally, Canadian environmentalists simply don’t agree that climate change should be their top priority, and different environmental priorities conflict. To take the most obvious example: nuclear power is carbon free, but nuclear waste is toxic. What’s the virtuous environmentalist to think? People like Tzeporah Berman argue that climate change is the mother of all environmental problems, worthy of prioritization, focus, and pragmatic sacrifice. Some of them, notably British firebrand George Monbiot, are willing to hold their noses and accept nuclear as a necessary evil. But far more disagree. What is the way forward? An expansive environmental agenda remains contradictory. Rallying environmentalists around climate change is like rallying the righteous with realpolitik.

Of course, even if Berman created her green political machine, it may still fail spectacularly. It would still face the entrenched political and economic interests of Canada’s growing fossil fuel juggernaut.  Perhaps Canadians cannot be persuaded to care enough about climate change to put their votes where polls say their hearts are. The consequences may still seem too remote, the sacrifices too large. Perhaps we need an environmental catastrophe of sufficient calamity at home to capture our attention—the rampaging pine beetle and the melting of the far North being inadequate, obviously—like a ragtag flotillas carrying climate refugees reaching our shores.

Then again, according to the most recent serious poll on Canadians and climate change by Sustainable Prosperity, 80 percent of Canadians believe climate change is real, 73 percent think it is a “serious” problem, 65 percent think the federal government has “a great deal of responsibility” addressing it, and 55 percent support a carbon tax, and the majority are willing to pay $50 each month in increased energy expenses. This should not be a lost cause. But without political influence—at the ballot box, in the House of Commons, and at the climate negotiation table—failure is likely.

Rick Smith, head of Environmental Defense Canada and one of Berman’s former co-conspirators, acknowledged the many explanations that might explain the failure of PowerUp, but added: “Those are all excuses. We desperately need more organizations working in a politically relevant way, period. We’re activists. If something doesn’t work, we have to try to find another way around. It couldn’t be clearer that climate change is the challenge of our generation. We need to find another way to win.”