Nov 4, 2009

Why Canada is not (really) interested in fighting climate change

The release last week of the Pembina Institute/Suzuki Foundation study “Climate Leadership, Economic Propserity” on the economic impact of addressing Canadian carbon emission targets has sparked criticisms from both politicians and media. Reactions from western politicians as well as Federal Ministers were understandably negative. But so was the Globe and Mail in its editorial position. Why?

A couple of weeks ago, I was finally given a candid explanation by a senior federal government official (who shall remain nameless) as to why fighting climate change and reducing its impact is not a high priority for Canada. He listed a number of perceptions currently shared by many federal politicians:

The first perception is that global warming will not hurt us. Unlike for developing countries, the impact of climate change on Canada will not be very severe. The US will suffer slightly more that us. But on the whole, the impact of global warming on our landmass will not be devastating compared to some developing countries, and in fact may have some benefits for us. At least that is the shared view.

Rising water levels and coastline erosion will not have a major impact, because most of Canada's coastline is largely uninhabited. Some small fishing villages may suffer, but these have very small populations.

Forced migrations from more vulnerable developing countries will not hit us as hard as say Florida, Australia or Europe, because Canada is more difficult to reach.

There is even the sense that global warming might in fact benefit us. Rising temperature would increase the productive agricultural areas, and would allow the production of new crops which until now could not grow in the cold climate.

However, the economic cost to Canada of addressing climate change head-on will be very high. The recent economic growth of Western and Atlantic Canada is largely based on oil, gas and coal. Canada has become the largest provider of petroleum to the United States, surpassing Saudi Arabia. So shutting that industry down will cause serious harm to the Canadian economy and Canadian jobs. And that is a very price to pay, economically and politically, for any federal government looking for a majority.

Bottom line: the general perception is that living in a warmer climate and adapting to it will be far less costly to the economy or the job market than making major efforts to reduce carbon emissions and getting the country "off-oil". That is what my federal official said.

This is the most succinct explanation I’ve heard to date as to why the current federal government is seen to be dragging its feet in supporting climate change mitigation or any serious move to a sustainable society, domestically and internationally. The hurt of doing nothing is much less than the pain of going off-oil – at least in the way my friend and his colleagues see it.

Furthermore, a province like Ontario, which is not a petroleum or fossil fuel producing exporting province, is driven by a need to revitalize its manufacturing industry. It has chosen to do so by promoting a renewable energy industry. And that explains its strong support of renewable energy and conservation through such measures like the Green Energy Act.

Needless to say, I found that perspective to be somewhat discouraging. But I was grateful to my interlocutor for expressing his view so clearly so that even I could understand it.

What can be done?

Going back to the analysis underpinning our study “
Making it happen”, when faced with such a clear anti-global warming set of premises, it becomes easier to develop a strategy to shift these. We can analyze these perceptions and use them as a basis for defining our challenges. And we can formulate these challenge statements as following, for example, using the phrase “How might we…?”:

How might we show in a convincing way the scale of the long-term harm to Canada of rising temperature, e.g. invasive species such as the pine beetle, droughts in the prairies, or growing number of extreme climate events?

How might we demonstrate the increased vulnerability of Canadian agriculture to these warmer temperatures and increasing climate changes and their ecological effects?

How can we make it irresistible for Western and Atlantic provinces to go “off oil”, and develop an attractive business proposition that a non-petroleum economy would be far better for them in the long run?

It’s high time that these issues be brought into the open and debated fully and clearly.

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