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Moving at the Speed of Trust: A Conversation with Cat Abreu

CSI Climate Ventures Conversations are a chance to hear from leaders working for climate solutions. (Formerly Climate Ventures Mornings, we gave this event a new name to welcome speakers and attendees from coast to coast!)

On a cool September day in Toronto, with hazy skies from climate change-fuelled wildfires thousands of kilometers away, our Senior Programs Manager Shea Sinnott sat down for an online conversation with internationally-recognized climate justice campaigner Cat Abreu. Currently the Executive Director of Climate Action Network Canada — Reseau action climat Canada (CAN-Rac) and with over 15 years of experience in the climate movement, Cat has a reputation for being tenacious and steadfast in her work.

Over the hour-long conversation, Cat shared many thoughtful insights – too many to summarize here! We’ve highlighted a couple of key ideas that resonate with us in excerpts and clips below, but you can watch the full conversation here.

From climate change to climate justice: putting people at the centre of the work

A large part of our discussion focused on Cat’s perspective of the evolution of the climate movement in the last couple of decades. Cat noted the shift from older approaches to climate organizing – with their narrow focus on solely environmental impacts (see: saving polar bears) – to a contemporary focus on climate justice – with a focus on people and systemic injustice (see: naming and addressing the phenomenon of “climate refugees”).

Cat recalled her time at the Ecology Action Centre in the early 2010s and joked: “I had to ban all pictures of wind turbines because that was the only image we ever used for climate action: images that had no people in them, where people couldn’t see themselves in this huge change that we were so passionate about making in the world.”

Climate justice acknowledges that the same series of systemic inequities that have caused climate change also underpin other forms of oppression, like racism. “[Climate change] is both a result of those injustices and inequities, and it worsens those injustices and inequities.”

A climate justice approach contends that we can’t meaningfully address the climate crisis without taking this systems-based approach. And that making these connections and structuring our campaigns accordingly is both right and effective.

“The attempt to address all those injustices and inequities are the same fight,” explained Cat.

“It’s not that we work on human rights issues because it’s a nice thing to do and it strengthens our work on climate change, but because they are one and the same. If we’re going to solve the climate crisis, we need to fundamentally change the systems that are causing these injustices.

Today, the global climate movement is defined by campaigns that take this approach: “[Initiatives like] the Just Recovery, Green New Deal, and #KeepItInTheGround are all about people,” said Cat. “They’re about figuring out how we can transition into a climate-safe society in a way that [not only] takes care of people, [but] actually improves the lives of people.”

Moving at the Speed of Trust

In her work with Climate Action Network Canada — Reseau action climat Canada (CAN-Rac), Cat focuses on relationship-building with and between the 120 organizations across the country that make up CAN-Rac’s membership in order to promote the interests of the climate movement as a whole.

Cat’s motivations for working together are clear: “Very quickly when I got out of school and entered my career, I realized that when I was doing things alone, I wasn’t really making big changes happen. It wasn’t until I started working in coalitions that I was able to be a part of big changemaking. It really turned my life around.”

When our conversation turned to current events and all that the world has experienced in the last six months, Cat cited the often-repeated saying: “change happens in two ways: very slowly and incrementally, or suddenly, all at once.”

She brought a new perspective into the mix, reiterating the importance of strong partnerships and co-creation.

“The thing that people don’t say about change is that it always happens, no matter the speed, because of relationships of trust. People who trust each other come up with ideas and work together over time to spread those ideas, so in those moments of disruption, when change can happen all at once, the bedrock is already there and the relationships to get it over the line are already formed.

With an ongoing global pandemic, mounting calls for a just, green recovery, and our federal government announcing big plans in the Throne Speech, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the pace and scale of change afoot, to feel a sense of urgency to act. Yet, we cannot be too hasty or sacrifice a climate justice approach in favour of speed. Cat quoted Indigenous Climate Action Executive Director Eriel Deranger to drive this point home: “We need to get better at moving at the speed of trust.”

Our conversation with Cat made it clear that lasting change is driven by many, not one — and we must put care into building the relationships that will create a better future for all.

Our conversation with Cat covered a number of topics, and we’ve only highlighted a couple big ideas here! You can watch the full conversation here. Check out these links for ways you can learn more and take action:

If you want to hear more bold ideas from the world’s leading climate experts, tune in for our next Climate Ventures Conversations on November 5! We’ll be sitting down for a conversation with Marc Lee, Senior Economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. RSVP here!

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