Jul 19, 2012

How governments stop sustainable development

On July 10 earlier this month, an unprecedented march took place on Parliament Hill.  Between 500 and 1000 scientists protested in white lab coats against cuts to a number of scientific programs in the federal government.  The protest was presented as a funeral march dubbed “Death of evidence”.  It received wide media coverage locally and nationally.

It used to be generally accepted that governments need scientific evidence to support policy decisions.  They need to know how much coal, uranium or oil we have in the ground to plan future energy policies.  They need to monitor the health of our rivers and lakes to see what long-term impacts certain man-made stressors will have on their viability.  And they need to keep track of how our atmosphere is changing to make sure that the health of Canadians is protected.  A good example of that was when it was first noted that the ozone layer was becoming dangerously thin, allowing more harmful cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation to penetrate our atmosphere.  This led to the 1989 Montreal Protocol which banned the use of chemicals such as chlorinated fluorocarbons used in refrigerators that attack the ozone layer.  Another example was the successful identification of the acid rain threat, largely produced from coal burning power plants in Canada and the US, which was killing life in our lakes.  This led to a successful air quality agreement between Canada and the US in 1991 to reduce sulfur emissions in the atmosphere.  This resulted in a measurable reduction in the acidification levels of our lakes.  These policy actions would clearly not have happened without supporting scientific evidence.

The recent cuts by the federal government to a number of research centers and programs that collect baseline data on the environment has been criticized nationally and internationally. These actions are cutting off vital scientific information that provide the critical data on which policy decisions can be made such as acid rain or ozone depletion.  It so happens that many of these cuts are focused around the environment.  The result is to choke off ongoing reliable information related to climate change, atmospheric pollution and water ecosystems. In other words, the current federal government is eliminating scientific evidence that would help us determine how we are harming the environment and accelerating global warming, so we don’t have to worry about it.  To borrow from Al Gore, they are destroying the evidence that would point to the problem or to the “inconvenient truth”.  That’s definitely one way of slowing down or stopping the transition to a sustainable society.  And that’s what inspired the “Death of Evidence” protest .

Two other recent examples come from the increasingly polarized US political arena.  A recent US Geological Survey study showed that the eastern US ocean coast is more vulnerable to rising ocean levels from climate change than other areas.  This caused obvious concern in businesses located on the seashore in North Carolina.  But their concern was not from the potential risk from rising ocean levels to their businesses.  It was prompted by the additional costs that would inevitably arise from the anticipated new state government zoning regulations to restrict growth of their coastal businesses.  This is based of course on the false belief that climate change is hogwash and increased ocean level due to climate change is total fiction.  So they successfully lobbied the state legislature to prohibit any future ocean level projection that would include climate change as an explaining factor.  Henceforth, all future ocean-level studies have to be based on purely historical data.  Outcry over the proposed legislation resulted in minor changes.  The new version now places a 4-year moratorium before planners can draw on the most up-to-date climate science. But that is a second way of denying “inconvenient truths” – you simply legislate against it.

Another example is a piece of legislation passed by the Alabama Legislature that forbids any policy regulation or funding that would support the UN agenda 21 passed in 1992 at the first Rio conference.  The concern here is that Agenda 21 acknowledges that commercial use of private property can sometime result in harm to the environment, and that these harmful uses should be controlled.  And our good Republican friends believe that private property rights are absolutely sacred and cannot be influenced without “due process”.  The actual law specifies  that
The State of Alabama […] may not adopt or implement policy recommendations that deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to "Agenda 21," adopted by the United Nations in 1992 at its Conference on Environment and Development.” 

With regards UN accredited environmental NGOs and inter-governmental organizations (e.g. ICLEI) that lobby or try to influence private property usage, the state “may not enter into any agreement, expend any sum of money, or receive funds contracting services, or giving financial aid to or from those non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations as defined in Agenda 21.”

What Alabama says is that initiatives attempting to restrict the use of private property especially if they originate from a non-elected body such as the UN are in fact anti-constitutional and should be banned.  Here is a third way of stopping change – you legislate against some of the basic principles that support a new economic order, e.g. that land should be used sustainably, essential to the transition to a sustainable society.

As we said in our original “Making it happen” report, government leadership is one of the essential components to making the transition to a sustainable society.  What we are seeing in these three recent and disturbing examples is active government action to impede this transition.  

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