Clément Badra is the (French) Vice President of the Green Party of Canada’s Federal Council. Alongside Green MPs Mike Morrice and Elizabeth May, he attended COP26 in Glasgow in November of 2021. I asked him for his thoughts on the conference, the ability to make change “inside the system,” and the future of the Green Party of Canada. (Disclaimer: The interviewer is a member of the Green Party of Canada and involved in the Young Greens of Canada Council).
Hi, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by Global Green News. We’ve got a few questions about your experience in Glasgow for COP26, particularly about the people that you met, including the two Canadian MPs you went with, as well as some of the young folks, and some of the people from the Global South. One delegate for the Global Young Greens from India, Snidgha Tiwari, characterized COP26 as “bickering over punctuation while hundreds die.” Would you say this is an accurate characterization?
I definitely agree that there is a ton of conversation that should not be happening because of the urgency of the situation. We clearly need to go big and go fast. So in a way I would say, yes, because millions of people are threatened right now. But, what I would say is that I wouldn’t characterize it as bickering over punctuation because there are many concrete things that they are being talked about. Some countries are on the wrong side of history and some are on the right side — Canada has played both the good cop and the bad cop in negotiations at different times. It’s more than just bickering for the sake of bickering.
For example, this year most of the discussion was about Article 6, and financing mechanisms, and how to use market mechanisms while accounting for emissions. These are very concrete issues that we’re negotiating and talking about, but it’s also the heart of the issue. All of the negotiations that were happening before, yes it’s progress, but it’s easy to make progress when it’s not on contentious issues and subjects. This year we were focused on the issues that are tough to negotiate, because obviously lots of countries want to protect their status quo. Some countries you can’t really blame them, because they’re worried about the economy, which is not a great reason in my book, but in their view of the situation it’s understandable that they want to protect their economy. Add to it the historic responsibilities of countries from the global north and it makes for complicated negotiations.
The challenge is that we’re trying to negotiate change that encourages more altruistic behaviour, when we’re still in an economic system worldwide that doesn’t reward altruism, or empathy, or doing actions for other people rather than just yourself. Egotistical behaviour is much more rewarded financially on an individual and collective level. It definitely shouldn’t be happening that way because we should understand by now that we need to rethink our economic system and not keep going in this direction and not keep competing with each other because it’s not a viable option going forward. But in the context that we’re in, in that line of thinking, then it’s not hard to understand why some countries are reluctant.
It seems like the change that needs to be happening is at a scale beyond what can be done at COP26.
Yeah, that’s fair. Most people making the decisions today still think that we can manage to reach our Nationally Determined Contributions with the same economic system and the principle of constant growth. When it comes down to it, you can’t. We need this ideology to change and to see collaboration as a viable option. It’s a hard sell because you need to sell it to a lot of people when talking to your constituency as a country and it’s not the dominant discourse you hear a lot.
Was there any kind of representation of people thinking about changing economic systems at COP26? Was there, for example, a degrowth contingent?
I went to a few events on the side, and there people were talking about degrowth and the concept of changing the way we think about our economy. I can’t say that they were represented during negotiations. But in the huge world of people at COP, that subject was brought up a few times. How much has that trickled into the negotiations? I don’t know. But, for people working in this field that conversation has been happening. I was surprised actually, some pretty high level people in the urban planning and local economy field mentioned the idea of stopping constant growth and profit. There was representation of those ideas at the local level, which wasn’t the case five years ago.
Tiwari also asked “how useful are these discussions?” I wonder what your answer is.
With the understanding that things are not happening fast enough, I think these discussions are very useful, because without them we’d be in a much worse position than we are at the moment. Like if we had no COPs, no situations where everything could be finalized, with everyone around the table, we’d be in a much worse situation. There are a lot of conversations that happen in hallways that wouldn’t be possible on a Zoom call where you’re not able to interact in a more informal way. There are also leaders from developing countries that are not as willing to make important changes because they see the need for economic growth based on the same model that countries in the Global North have used in the past. And you have people from a ton of different backgrounds that can bring new ideas to these leaders and they can rightfully ask for more funding. It’s also a place where people meet and get connected and find things that they wouldn’t be finding otherwise. So for that I think it’s useful.
It’s also helpful for everyone who works on these issues around the world to meet up and see each other — NGOs and activists. So down the line I think it is useful. Although you have to consider the disgust people feel at the lack of results, it brings a lot of attention to the issue. We’re going to need to bring a lot of public attention to be able to make change, and this is a good stage for people to make public pledges. You’re much more likely to go through with a pledge that you made at COP than one you make elsewhere because of the public attention it receives. Despite all the negative things, there’s still some money that goes in the right direction.
It seems to me that you don’t feel so cynical about it, despite all its flaws.
I’m not cynical. That’s not usually what the conversation is around COP. I know people have covered the negative side of it enough, so I want to focus on what’s positive, and why it could be useful. There’s a lot you could say about what’s wrong with COP, and rightfully so. But I don’t think that helps engage people and get the public to pay attention. If you say “it’s bullshit” people are not gonna look closely, as opposed to saying “well, it’s not perfect, but there are some things worth looking into there.”
This is with a bit of hindsight, though. When you were boarding the plane home from Scotland, how did you feel then?
I was both frustrated, because I know we should be doing more, but energized, because I could see how many smart, well-meaning people were working on this. That includes people in decision-making positions, who seemed to be making an effort. For example, Stephen Guilbeualt gets criticized a lot for going to the Liberals, but he’s in a position where he has more leverage as a leading negotiator for Canada than he would have in activist positions. Those kinds of people being in the right place at this moment is what keeps me energized. Seeing so many people around me doing the work keeps me from getting too frustrated.
Is there any moment from the conference that changed how you think about the climate movement and your place in it?
It wasn’t one moment, but a bunch of interactions that pushed me in the same direction. I’m always trying to see how I can best use what I know to be as helpful as I can be for this movement. I’ve noticed in interactions I’ve had with people I’m usually a lot less pissed off by some of the behaviour I see from leaders than others are. Mostly because I’m a very privileged person, so it’s easier for me to try and step back and see the issue from the other side. If you want to change things you sort of have to see how the other side thinks. I think I’m able to take the time to understand why the people who are slowing things down are slowing things down. Because I’ve spent the last few years working on political and environmental issues, including some time working in the House of Commons, I’ve developed an understanding of how change happens in such a huge and rigid structure as the Government of Canada. Even if we passed all the right laws tomorrow, between today and the implementation of those laws it might take eight years. You need to develop capacity on the ground, you need to develop the right structures. Without the right inspectors to make sure the law is followed, then the law is pointless.
I think understanding the complexity of the change we need to make is what I can bring to the table. I think you need to look like you understand how things work. The critique we get a lot as young people is that we’re just angry and we don’t know what we’re talking about. In a few conversations at COP people were getting mad — and rightfully so — but I was always trying to be a calming presence. I don’t think being mad is going to help all the time. I love what someone like Greta Thunberg is doing because they’re bringing a lot of attention to the issue, but they’re also making a lot of people not want to look into it. A lot of older people are going to be pushed away by that kind of behaviour, and I think if we want to act fast we need to get as many people on board as possible.
Given your position of privilege, you can take a step back because you don’t feel as existentially threatened by climate change as some of the young delegates from the Global South.
Yeah. And they should stay pissed off and they keep their energy — Their willingness not to give up — because they’re a lot better at this than I am. Even if I wanted to do that I don’t think it’s part of my character, but you need those kinds of actions and behaviours to mobilize people. Those actions help people like me who might be in a better position to take that message to the people who need to hear it. Guilbeault wouldn’t be Minister of the Environment if not for the climate movement over the past five years. They allowed him to be in a position — whether they like it or not, because they’re pissed at him now — where he understands the issue better than any previous Minister of the Environment. They don’t consider it a win because they think he sold out, but I think if there’s one person you want inside the system to push your message, it’s someone who’s been part of your movement for years. I don’t think you change overnight because you become a minister.
It seems like, when you think about these things in systemic terms, personalities don’t matter. Your personality changes when you become part of the system. So when Guilbeault goes from being in the climate movement to a Liberal minister, people assume he’s no longer the same person because his role in the system is different. What you’re saying is that having good people in positions of power, even if those positions are corrupting, can still be productive.
Yeah. I think you need to believe that, because otherwise, how are we going to build a legitimate and altruistic system if anytime someone gains power they become bad? Even if we’re in a very democratic system, we need leadership, and it’s better if that leader is someone trustworthy. The same way that a few bad people can move the system in the wrong direction, the right people in the right places can move the system in a very good direction. We cant forget that at the end of the day these are people with all of their biases that make decisions, and the biases go both ways
Speaking of people within the system, you were in Glasgow with two Green MPs, Mike Morrice and Elizabeth May. Is there anything you learned from them, or anything they learned from you as a young person?
I’m not quite sure what I could teach them as a young person. Mike is pretty young and is in constant contact with young people in the climate movement. What I’ve seen from them, though, is that literally every Green MP at the federal level is individually an amazing person. I’ve had the chance to meet Elizabeth before, as well as Paul Manly and Jenica Atwin. The three of them are pretty special. Mike is right up there: doing an insane amount of work and having so much energy. That’s been confirmed for me again after Galsgow. Every Green MP elected you know they’ll be doing amazing work for their constituency. They also showed that a small group of people can actually make a difference. I’ve seen what they’ve done in the House of Commons as a three-MP caucus, and the amount of work they do. If every MP from every party was doing as much work as the three Green MPs used to do — wow, the House of Commons would be amazing. So, a small number can make a difference for sure. I saw them interacting with a bunch of stakeholders, from the private sector and NGOs, as well as representatives of the federal government. And because they’re so articulate, they’re listened to. So that’s one thing I learned: no matter how small the number, it’s worth putting in the effort. Elizabeth May is like a walking encyclopedia. Anytime she meets someone she has a story explaining the history of this or that NGO or how a governmental department got to be the way it is.
Your point about what small groups of people can do is interesting. Again, it seems like from the outside there’s this cynical impression that all a caucus can do is either form a government or swing a minority government. But in reality, an individual MP does important work, even if they’re in a caucus that isn’t big enough to form government or swing a minority. It’s ironic, but it seems like the closer you get to politics, the less cynical you are about them.
Because it’s impossible to see the kind of work that’s being done from afar. I was cynical too, before I was involved. Two examples come to mind: Some of the amendments Jenica Atwin made to bills were very important in making sure the right language was used to set precedent for future legislation. They put in a few words that actually made a difference that you’re going to see going forward in new bills that will be more inclusive. When you’re able to open someone’s eyes it can help down the line with decisions that you might not even see. Jenica is more than well-versed on Indigenous issues, so she’s able to bring a perspective and be listened to by the Minister of Indigenous Affairs. Whether you like him or not, you can tell that he was really listening to the conversation and took something from it. So that stuff always matters.
You mentioned Guilbeault, and you mentioned Jenica Atwin a few times as well. She also joined the Liberal Party. Do you feel that, for her ability to influence climate policy, the switch from the Greens to the Liberals was beneficial?
Guilbeault is a public figure, and if shit hits the fan with him, people are going to know. He has a platform to talk about what went wrong. Just like in France a few years ago: When the French Minister of the Environment Nicolas Hulot left Macron’s cabinet quickly and said “this is bullshit I can’t do my job.” If Guilbeault does something similar, that’s gonna hurt Trudeau. Jenica doesn’t have that kind of leverage, but she can do background work and maybe convince some MPs of things. From a personal standpoint, because I was there when everything was happening, I can’t blame her for making that decision. It was really tough on her. I know her personally and she’s a great human being, so she’s not going to cut corners on her values. We need empathic people with critical thinking in politics and that’s what she brings.
Moving to Canada’s role in the global Green movement: Global Greens delegate Ayah Abdouny made a reference to the “political strength” of Green parties in Europe and South America. How does the Canadian Green Party fit in this global ecosystem? What can they learn from other Green parties, and in what ways can they be a model for others?
There are a few provincial parties that are doing absolutely insane amounts of work. They’re holding their own and proving that Green parties can have a place in Canadian politics. I don’t think the federal party has been able to do that yet. I totally think it’s possible. I actually think it’s a necessity if we want to have an environmental movement in Canadian politics. I’m not a hugely partisan person, but the NDP is still protecting the idea of building pipelines and exploiting natural resources in the West, because they want to get reelected in Alberta. That’s not coherent with the message they send in Eastern Canada. Can you count on a party like that to push a climate agenda? I have serious doubts. I’m all for as much collaboration as possible, but the discourse is not showing me that I can trust the NDP. So, I think it’s a role the Green Party should be taking on, and showing that we can do politics differently. We’re the only party that has, in its constitution, that the leader of the caucus cannot whip the vote of every MP in one direction. We should learn from what Green Parties are doing in Europe and New Zealand, for sure. What they’ve done is absolutely amazing. What we can do right now is, first of all, help our two MPs play as much of a role as they can. Mike [Morrice] has spoken in the house for his constituency, in the time he’s been there, almost as much as the previous MP has in the two terms he was elected before. That’s the kind of change that we can bring: Showing that we can care for our constituency, that it’s not just a political game but actually about representing the people that elect you.
It’s also about showing youth that we can do politics differently. That’s something we talk about a lot as Greens, but have not really acted on as a federal party the way we should. We’ve pretty much failed the past two years in getting young people involved in the Green party, and getting them interested in politics and showing them what kind of leverage they can have. It’s not just about being there for every election cycle and then disappearing. Those are the kind of things we should be working on, and the message we should be trying to get across. There is the willingness: When you look at what activists want in the climate movement, and what the Green Party is pushing for, the correlation is mind-boggling. I remember seeing activist groups and NGOs lobby MPs, and most of the meetings they have with Green MPs, the MPs would go even further in their demands than some of the NGOs. It’s a clear sign that they know and understand what they’re talking about on environmental issues and climate change. Which is not the case at all with many politicians. They actually understand what’s happening and it’s not just talking points.
Thank you for your time, Clement.