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Ottawa Life article on the environment

Posted 1/22/2008 by Grant Mitchell

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This article was published in the Ottawa Life Magazine, February 4, 2008
Senator Grant Mitchell

Leadership is the one issue that the Conservatives will try to make the ballot question in the pending federal election.  They will not, however, be able to claim any leadership on the climate change crisis. Yet, this issue requires advanced leadership of historic proportions and, if the polls are accurate, climate change should be the ballot question. 

However, this Conservative government will not be remembered for anything remotely positive about its leadership.  Rather, its legacy will be for the more uninspired tactics it employs; the bullying, controlling and muzzling we have seen over the last two years – more frequently over the last two months.  Bullying and controlling reflect insecurity and incompetence. Strong leaders do not bully because they have the confidence to lead by persuading, and inspiring. They are not controlling because they understand that the scope and talent required to govern a country surpass the scope and talent of any single individual.

Great leaders are often defined by historic challenges. Churchill might have been little more than a footnote in history but for the Second World War. The climate change crisis is historic. Science and casual observation of climate related events have long since established this, but for the cynics.

For the cynics, and there are many in this Conservative government, the British High Commissioner to Canada made a very compelling point. Despite the unprecedented level of scientific consensus about climate change, let us agree for the sake of argument that there is only a 50/50 chance that it is occurring and that it is related to human activity. If there were a 50/50 chance of a terrorist attack, would we expect our government to do little or nothing about it?

Rather than embracing the climate change crisis as an issue that could define his leadership, Harper has cut and run, leaving a litany of excuses with very little action.

Harper started with the mantra that the Liberals had done nothing for 13 years. His odd response to this observation was to do nothing himself, except cancel the climate change programs of the previous Liberal government, arguing that they were inefficient. In her appearance before the Senate Environment Committee, the then environment minister admitted that she had never done a review of these programs, begging the question of how she could have known they were inefficient. (In fact, the Treasury Board had done a review and had established that they were very efficient.)

As political pressure has grown, Harper has tried to spin himself some climate change credibility by reintroducing a gutted version of the Liberal programs. His current environment minister has continuously promised a comprehensive program, but he has announced no such thing. Their recently announced response to the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act of 2007 (Bill C-288) is a direct refusal to comply with our Kyoto obligations despite the fact that Parliament has directed them to do so.

In fact, the Liberal Green Plan introduced by Stéphane Dion just 8 months after he was appointed Environment Minister was designed to reduce GHGs by 270 mega tonnes (1 mt =1.0 million tonnes) per year, 2008 through 2012, which would have met Canada’s Kyoto obligation. Even third party environmentalists conceded that the program could reduce GHGs by at least 2/3 of that amount, and Mr. Dion would have had another 3 years to address the Kyoto obligations further.

Mr. Dion did this in a political context much more difficult than today’s. The environment was not at the top of Canadians’ concerns, and Mr. Dion’s efforts were on behalf of a minority government facing an opposition led by Harper who had declared Kyoto a socialist plot to ruin western economies. The failure of the Harper government to do anything at all is even more glaring now, in light of the mounting evidence that the issue is Canadians’ top concern.

Harper also has argued that addressing climate change will wreak havoc on the economy. Interestingly, the Conservatives do not conclude that spending billions to buy tanks, helicopters and military transport planes will in any way harm the economy. In fact, it will probably stimulate the economy. Canadians’ massive economic response to the demands of the Second World War did not damage the economy. The effort established a modern, industrialized economy for generations to come.

It follows that the kind of investment required to deal with climate change such as new technologies, industrial projects and research and development will also stimulate the economy. Witness other major environmental efforts, like dealing with the impact of CFCs on the ozone layer, and with acid rain. Both came with dire warnings of economic disaster, lost jobs, an “acid rain recession”, or industries going under. None of this ever happened. Experience shows that major environmental initiatives are generally accomplished with much less cost and in much less time than originally anticipated.

It is very instructive to note that Harper never presents any examples of strong environmental policy or business initiatives hurting an economy or a business. The reverse is often very true:  Environmental damage clearly hurts businesses and economies.

Industry witnesses at the Senate Environment Committee in the spring of 2007 provided reassuring testimony on achieving emission reductions.  The Forest Products Association of Canada reported that its membership has already reduced its carbon footprint to 44% below 1990 levels, seven times Canada’s Kyoto target of 6% below 1990 levels. The Canadian Chemical Producers’ Association reported a reduction to 56% below 1990 levels, nine times Kyoto targets. The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters reported a reduction to 7.4% below 1990 levels while increasing productivity by almost 50%.

Continuing as we are will be far more likely to damage our economy than pursuing GHG emission reductions. As the world grasps the implications of climate change, it will restructure its demand for GHG producing products. Legislation in the US, recently authorized by President Bush, forbids US government agencies from buying “dirty” oil and oil sands oil is considered by the legislation to be “dirty”. Even if the Conservatives do not believe that climate change is occurring, the world is beginning to believe it is and markets will adjust accordingly. There is opportunity in these markets and danger in ignoring them.

Harper ignores the evidence that addressing climate change will not be as financially onerous as he would have us believe. Industry witnesses before the Senate Environment Committee placed the cost of meeting our Kyoto targets to the end of 2012 at $30.0 billion, or $6.0 billion per year, a figure agreed to by a Conservative Senator in the spring debate on Bill C-288. This is less than one-half of one per cent of Canada’s annual $1.4 trillion GDP. The 2% reduction in the GST totals about $12.0 per year. Moreover, there is nothing to say that that $30.0 billion represents “cost” on the economy. It more likely represents investment that will stimulate the economy. Hard to see how dealing with climate change will wreak havoc on the economy.

At the Ugandan Commonwealth and the Bali climate change conferences, Harper launched a new argument: that there is no point in Canada implementing mandatory emission reductions unless the large emitting nations, especially India, China and the US, do so too. This has a misleading ring of authenticity. If Harper were serious, he would be exerting obvious (he would want credit for it) pressure, particularly on the US, to accept mandatory emissions reductions. But, there is no news of him launching a serious diplomatic campaign on the US. There is no evidence of senior officials negotiating coordinated programs. Harper has not met with the US president to gain his agreement with mandatory emissions targets. We might not have been able to win the First and Second World Wars without the US, but starting three years before them in each case made victory more likely once the US became involved.

Why are the Conservatives doing nothing appreciable to address climate change? Because these hard right, republican Conservatives do not see government as having much of a legitimate role and simply cannot comprehend that they have a responsibility to lead Canadians to confront climate change. Perhaps, they believe that if people think climate change is an issue, then people should themselves do something about it. This is like saying that if people thought it was important to win the Second World War, then people should do it, as if that could be accomplished without government inspiring and leading collective action.

Canada has a tradition of government working with business, researchers and others to tackle great challenges, from building the railroad to developing the oil sands. It is widely thought that the technologies exist to solve GHG emissions, but that many are not commercial. Imagine a federal government that could create business, government, and research institution partnerships to identify, say five, technologies with break-through potential and then focus on making them viable. Carbon capture and storage comes to mind.

Liberal governments have understood the important role of government in providing leadership in society to meet great challenges. The Conservatives do not. Stéphane Dion is the first Canadian political leader with the commitment and credibility to address climate change effectively and with the chance to become Prime Minister.  There is a very clear value choice in the next federal election and much at stake in the choice that Canadians will make.

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