Musicians in Canada join the fight for climate justice

New groups like Music Declares Emergency and Climate Live are inspiring urgent climate action and a more sustainable music scene


Brighid Fry has grown up in the climate movement. 

A constant presence by the side of her mother Kim Fry, who worked for Greenpeace and other climate activist groups, she’s been going to climate protests since she was a baby.

“I remember being three or four and people would ask me ‘are you going to be a climate activist like your mom?’ And I’d be like, ‘no, I’m going to become a famous rock star. And then when I speak about climate stuff, people will listen,’” recalls the 18-year-old musician, who plays in the Toronto folk-rock duo Moscow Apartment with Pascale Padilla. 

“That’s such an obnoxious thing for a three or four-year-old to say, but it’s true – when musicians talk, people do care and they do really listen.”

Musicians are speaking up a lot more lately.  Artists are taking up the climate cause – organizing collectively to try to inspire urgent climate action and mobilizing their fans to influence policy change and look inwards towards a more sustainable music industry. 

Last month, Canada launched a chapter of Music Declares Emergency (MDE), a global movement of people in the music industry working together “towards a carbon neutral future.” More than 200 artists have signed on in this country – including Tegan & Sara, LAL, Sarah Harmer, Caribou and members of Broken Social Scene and Tokyo Police Club – and this week they’ll host some of their first public-facing events. 

Fry is one of the main organizers bringing MDE to Canada, and she’s also the driving force behind the Canadian chapter of Climate Live – a youth-driven initiative born out of Fridays For Future, the international movement of school climate strikes inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. 

This Saturday (April 24), at climatelive.org/stream, Climate Live is putting on 24 straight hours of livestreamed concerts across the world that aim to mobilize support before this November’s COP26 United Nations climate conference. The Canadian concert will feature Moscow Apartment, the Weather Station, Luna Li, Scott Helman, Barenaked Ladies, Leah & Peter from July Talk and others, and it will be hosted by Canadian NPR host Raina Douris.

“Musicians are in such a unique situation to get people to care because they have a direct line to people’s feelings and their emotions,” says Fry. 

They are hoping to raise awareness and create a groundswell of support, but tying it to COP26 gives the event some specific action points. Climate groups are urging Canada to provide a much more ambitious climate plan and a full framework of how to reach its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Canada is the only one of 32 wealthy countries whose greenhouse gas emissions have gone up. And despite a new pan-Canadian framework on “clean growth,” Canada remains behind on climate goals while providing subsidies for the oil and gas industries. 

At the MDE launch event last month, Catherine Abreu, the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, said there’s a collective goal to get Canada to pass Bill C-12, its first ever piece of climate accountability legislation. 

“We need to be brave enough to have a real conversation about oil and gas in this country,” said Abreu, who’s also one of the featured speakers at this Saturday’s concert. 

Climate Live will host another concert in October closer to COP26 (hopefully in-person if it’s safe), but in the meantime, this week is filled with events. Internationally, as part of a campaign called Turn Up The Volume, MDE has been hosting a full week of virtual concerts, DJ nights and workshops, including a push to expand the musical scope beyond folk and indie rock (traditionally the genres that have been the most vocal about climate change) to include classical and metal. 

The Canadian chapter will also host its first public discussion since the March launch on April 21. The event, No Fashion On A Dead Planet, which aims to influence musicians to think about the environmental impact of the clothing they sell to fans. They’ll be launching a Canadian version of the No Music On A Dead Planet t-shirt campaign, which Adam Kreeft of Merch Tent says will use a sustainable supply chain, print on organic cotton milled, cut and printed in Toronto, sold with limited pre-orders to control waste and shipped with compostable mailers – practices he hopes will become the new normal in music.

Climate Live is also working on a panel discussion for May about greening music festivals – addressing the emissions put out by big, often wasteful musical gatherings. That’s just one of the aspects of the music industry Climate Live and MDE will be addressing over the next few months, and they’re aiming to get major labels to sign on in Canada.  

Build back better

Though live music is on hold right now, it’s the perfect time for the music industry to address its own environmental impact. The music industry will have to be rebuilt, so why not build back better?

“What I see around me is a feeling of looking back at the before-time as being a time of excess and a time of misplaced value,” says Tamara Lindeman, the Toronto singer/songwriter behind the Weather Station.

“The culture of touring was very out of control. I say that with the greatest respect and love for live music – I just hope that we can take it more seriously, see it as a gift and privilege and do it sparingly and with intention. I hope that people in the music industry can stop putting so much pressure on artists to tour incessantly, and that concert-goers can be a bit less blasé about the luxury of having an artist from New Zealand come to your town and play just down the street.

“Through this crisis, we’ve had a moment where we’ve actually valued recorded music again and we’ve gotten excited about artists having important conversations,” she continues. “I hope we can carry that forward into the future.”

Lindeman has become more and more vocal about the urgency of climate change over the last few years. Her 2021 album, Ignorance, seems to have struck an emotional nerve in the zeitgeist for her resonant personal expression of climate anxiety – though, she says in a Zoom interview, it’s less about her climate anxiety than “what happens when you face climate reality,” which includes anger and love and sadness. 

“I’ve appreciated seeing the music world in Canada get on board with this more and more,” Lindeman says. “Back when I first went down my climate rabbit hole, I was emailing a lot of artists to try to get them to sign onto something like a manifesto. There was a lot of trepidation. I think musicians felt it kind of taboo to talk about because of the [environmentally unfriendly] lifestyle of touring. Now, it feels like that taboo is lifting, which is good because I don’t think it was getting us anywhere.”

Though changing your behaviour is a positive thing, affecting environmental change is not just an individual lifestyle action, Lindeman stresses. 

“As long as the underlying infrastructure pollutes – which it does – and as long as it is upheld societally by a network of financing, subsidies, insurance, political protection, and social licence – we are in immense danger,” Lindeman says. “Especially given the time frame required to halve our emissions and then end them entirely.”

That’s where the collective weight of a musician, their platform and the fans they inspire can really make a difference – they can use their voices to shift culture, challenge climate silence and give people the tools to take boots-on-the-ground action.

Music and environmentalism have gone hand in hand for decades – Greenpeace, Fry reminds me, was launched with a 1970 concert by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Phil Ochs – but the climate crisis is such a big and existential issue, that social movements often vary when it comes to concrete solutions. There’s a danger of empty platitudes and tree-hugging naturism or greenwashing.

But troups such as Climate Live and Music Declares Canada give musicians a space to discuss and enact actual points of action. The new climate movement is more intersectional and intergenerational, it looks at systemic forces as much as drilled-in personal responsibility credos (reduce, reuse, recycle) and it includes explicitly Indigenous and other BIPOC voices, because marginalized people are often the ones that feel the effects of climate change the most. Some new climate justice movements, like Climate Live, are being led by youths, a generation that feels the existential terror of the climate crisis most deeply.

“We know that it’s going to keep getting worse if we don’t do anything about it,” says Fry. “Not to be dark and gloomy, but there’s real, first-hand dread – what if we only have 50 years left on this planet? We have to do whatever we can and use whatever skill sets we have to really make change.”

Read more

More than 200 musicians declare a climate emergency in Canada

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