Swapping her Suits for Boots: A Q&A with Tzeporah Berman

The veteran environmentalist opened up to Asparagus about the Trans Mountain pipeline, fashion pollution, and going back to jail.

Protect the Inlet activists blockaded the tanker terminal on Burnaby Mountain on August 14, 2018. Four were arrested. (Photo: Protect the Inlet, via Flickr)

Tzeporah Berman first gained public notice a quarter century ago, as a spokesperson for protestors blockading the clearcut logging of old-growth rainforests in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound. In the intervening years she’s worn many hats: campaigner, author, negotiator, NGO founder, co-director of Greenpeace’s Global Climate and Energy Program, and government advisor.

Today, she’s a director at Stand.earth, and makes the news most often for her work with Protect the Inlet, the Indigenous-led campaign against the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Trans Mountain transports bitumen from Alberta’s tar/oil sands to the BC coast, and earlier this year the Canadian government agreed to purchase the existing pipeline and proposed expansion project from Texas oil giant Kinder Morgan. Berman recently chatted with with Asparagus founder Jessie Johnston about opposing the pipeline, the next generation of activists, and what gives her hope. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Jessie Johnston: In case someone reading this interview doesn’t already have a settled opinion about the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, why are you opposed to it?
Tzeporah Berman: I’m not opposed to the project for one reason, but because it poses so many threats: to our health, to our coast, to our commitment as a nation to reconciliation [with Indigenous peoples], and our capacity to build a resilient economy that addresses the threat of climate change.

The growth of [extraction activities in] the tar sands is the single biggest reason Canada is not doing its fair share addressing climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands are growing so fast that even though individuals are doing their bit — making houses more efficient, driving less, phasing out coal plants — those reductions are all wiped out.

I started spending time in Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray, in the heart of the oil sands. When you’re there, you realize the impacts of the growth of the oil sands: on our water, our air, biodiversity and wildlife, forest loss. It is the single largest industrial project on Earth. We have the largest toxic sludge ponds on the planet, and studies show they’re leaking millions of litres of toxins into our rivers.

Whether you care about whales, or Indigenous rights, or climate change, or drinking water, there are so many reasons to oppose this project. It’s a really bad project.

The pipeline [expansion] represents 890,000 barrels per day of bitumen transported from the tar sands. It would mean a seven-fold increase in oil tankers on our coast, right through Burrard Inlet, which is a very crowded and narrow passageway. The Tsleil-Waututh Nation are vehemently opposed to this project because those tankers go right through their home. And they have already seen a devastation of the inlet where they live from the existing tanker traffic.

There are reasons at every point along the route, from the source to the pipeline itself, going through the territory of 87 Indigenous nations who haven’t signed deals supporting the project. When you get to the end, there’s concerns from the City of Burnaby and the City of Vancouver, because the expansion of the tanker terminals means huge safety and fire hazards. And I haven’t even gotten into the effect of the tanker noise on orca whales, which scientists have said would devastate the population because it’s already so small and threatened.

I think that’s why the campaign is so strong. Whether you care about whales, or Indigenous rights, or climate change, or drinking water, there are so many reasons to oppose this project. It’s a really bad project.

Tzeporah Berman has campaigned for a range of environmental causes since getting her start at the Clayoquot Sound logging protests in the early ’90s. (Photo by Jaime Kowal)

How did you react when you heard the Trudeau government was going to buy the pipeline?
I was really shocked. I’m not naive, I have been doing this work for over 25 years. The Trudeau government is trying to walk that line that Liberal [Party of Canada] governments do. They want to be known for being strong on Indigenous rights and climate change, but also they want to be seen as making compromises.

But investors started pulling out, Kinder Morgan itself started pulling out, and saying this pipeline is too risky, too many people are opposed to it. I think Kinder Morgan was pulling out in part because, since they planned this project, the world has changed. China instituted a policy to ban the fossil fuel car. So has India, so have many countries. When that happened, oil-demand projections globally went down.

So the business case for this pipeline is very weak, it’s a poor investment. It’s one thing to make some kind of tortured political compromise. It’s a whole other thing to use $12 billion of taxpayers’ money on a bad bet.

You knocked on doors for Trudeau, you advised the Clark and Notley governments in BC and Alberta. None of those governments ended up following the path you would have set out. What’s your current thinking about working with governments?
[Laughing] It’s hard work and I might not be cut out for it?

I’m kidding. You know, the issues we are facing are urgent. If we’re going to ensure that our kids, and their kids, have the capacity to become whatever they want to become instead of just battling floods and droughts, then we need to do everything we can. And that means we need to use every tool in our toolbox.

It’s one thing to make some kind of tortured political compromise. It’s a whole other thing to use $12 billion of taxpayers’ money on a bad bet.

So, I tried to design policy with governments who said they wanted to do it. And we had some successes. I think the Alberta climate plan — its phase-out of coal, its focus on renewables, the carbon tax — it’s historic. And it’s also insufficient.

I had an expectation that they were going to acknowledge the math; that if we’re going to reduce emissions and meet our climate targets, that means you have to reduce the production of fossil fuel. The industry believes it’s going to be able to dramatically reduce emissions and increase production. The fact is, there are technologies like carbon capture and storage which do dramatically reduce emissions, but they’re extremely expensive. Governments and companies have spent billions trying to figure out how to make those technologies market-ready. And it hasn’t worked. It’s extremely expensive and we don’t have time.

We already have technologies for electrification of transport, for production of renewable energy. We should be focusing on those, and planning for a decline in [fossil fuel] production and a just transition for workers. Instead, it seems the Alberta government and the Trudeau government have been captured by the oil industry.

The administrations we currently have are not going to be ambitious enough to ensure our safety.

So, I decided a year ago I had to part ways with the inside processes trying to develop legislation and policy. Because it seems the administrations we currently have are not going to be ambitious enough to ensure our safety. I decided it was time to swap my suits for boots, and go back to the blockades. In the end, it’s about power and leverage. What our decision-makers do will be a result of whether or not there are consequences for their inaction. So that means public organizing.

You spent time in jail for your role in the Clayoquot Sound protests. Do you think you’ll get arrested over Trans Mountain?
I expect I will. I’m not looking forward to it, I have to say; I don’t like jail. For me, this is a last resort. I’ve spent five years lobbying governments, working inside governments, playing within the process. And it’s failed. There are moments in history when democracy does fail, when our governments are captured by one single influence. This is one of those moments.

If construction starts in earnest, I am going to be blockading the pipeline along with many others. And anyone who blockades will go to jail. So I talked with my children about it, and that’s what I’ll be doing.

What do your kids have to say?
My boys are older, they’re teenagers now. They’re proud and worried. And they’re frustrated. I worry that the government breaking promises — on reconciliation, on climate change — will foster more apathy and disengagement from our youth. I think that is one of the worst consequences of what the Trudeau government is doing.

So many people are against this pipeline, but not everyone is willing or able to be arrested. What other impactful actions they can take?
There’s so much people can do. Protect the Inlet, court defence, and environmental groups like 350, Stand.earth, West Coast Environmental Law, need support. People can organize a fundraiser with their family, with their school, with their community. They can organize a letter-writing campaign to their MP or the Prime Minister.

There are moments in history when democracy does fail, when our governments are captured by one single influence. This is one of those moments.

Come to Burnaby Mountain and volunteer at the camp. When I started doing work on environmental issues, I was an academic. I’d never done a protest in my life, and I wasn’t comfortable with it. But I was worried about the pace of logging in our old-growth rainforest. I volunteered for the Friends of Clayoquot Sound, and there were some days when all I did was cook in the protest camp. I once did an entire week of licking envelopes. The most important thing is to think hard about what your skills are, what you’re willing to give and do, and make a plan.

A new group of activists are gaining experience and profile through this campaign. Who are the new leaders we should be keeping our eyes on?
I have met so many amazing young people in the last six months in the Kinder Morgan campaign. I really enjoy working with Cedar George Parker from the Tsleil-Waututh, who has been a real leader and works with Protect the Inlet. Eriel Deranger is not one of the youth, but I would say she’s a real leader in this country and beyond. She just started an organization called Indigenous Climate Action, doing trainings, and providing resources and organizing for Indigenous people on climate change.

More recently I’ve been inspired by a group of youth coordinated by Jacqueline Lee-Tam, who organized many of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council to speak against the Kinder Morgan pipeline. Sophie Harrison is a campaigner at Dogwood. I’ve known Sophie since she was a kid, and I think she’s doing amazing work. I could go on.

If you google “Tzeporah Berman” today, all the headlines are pipeline-related. What other issues are you currently passionate about?
What you get from Google is what I do media on. But I help coordinate all of Stand.earth’s campaigns, and I’m volunteering on others.

We found that Levi’s was claiming to be green, but was powered by coal. One pair of Levi’s takes 20 pounds of coal.

Of the campaigns at Stand, the most exciting right now is the fashion campaign. The fashion industry is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. You hear a lot of companies going on about their climate plans, but only talking about emissions from the transport of their products, or their stores. They weren’t talking about production, which causes more than 80% of the industry’s emissions. The fashion industry is so big, and growing so much, that new coal plants are being built in Asia just to make the clothing we’re wearing.

We found that Levi’s was claiming to be green, but in fact was powered by coal. One pair of Levi’s takes 20 pounds of coal. So we released a report called Too Dirty to Wear, and also protested in front of Levi’s. And Levi’s came out with a new climate plan! It looks like they are now the first fashion company in the world — I think as a direct result of our campaign — to commit to addressing climate emissions.

It’s easy to despair right now. What gives you hope?
I really do believe that action is the antidote to despair. When I’m at my lowest point, if I can find one thing to do that will make a difference, it can lift me up. This work gives me hope and it keeps me going.

I really do believe that action is the antidote to despair.

There’s no question in my mind that we’re living the tipping point moment where we re-envision industrial society. We had more investment in renewable energy than in oil, coal, and nuclear combined in the last year. So we’re living that moment where the world is shifting.

I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to re-envision the world and create the world we want to live in. And that’s a pretty exciting time to be living.

Correction: This interview originally included the claim that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would transport 890 million barrels of bitumen per day. The correct figure is 890,000 barrels.

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