Saturday, November 04, 2006

We Don't Get It

Earlier this week the British government released a devastating analysis of the effects of global climate change. The report does not derive from the usual environmentalist perspective - Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank and current head of UK government Economic Services, wrote the report at the behest of the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer. (You can find the full report here.) His bottom line: climate change caused by soaring greenhouse gas emissions is going to:

- cost the world 7 trillion dollars
- displace 200 million people because of flood or drought
- make large areas of the planet uninhabitable
- hit developing countries first and hardest
- cause a worldwide drop in GDP of 5-20%
- cause an economic catastrophe greater than WWI, WWII and the Great Depression combined

Europe gets it. European countries have been leading the way for decades on alternative energy sources, better transit, urban planning for the carless, and on and on.

Canada and the US don't get it.

One small example of our disastrous public policy: It was reported today that the US has strong-armed international organizations into allowing US farmers to resume use of methyl bromide, a pesticide that is banned internationally because of its potent ozone-destroying effects.

Canada and the US are now both out of Kyoto. Our record is pitiful and our greenhouse gas emissions are soaring. Prime Minister Stephen Harper just cancelled a European summit because he feared his environmental record would be publicly criticized, even though British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel just reached out to the US and Canada on environmental issues in the most positive, friendly and diplomatic way possible. (The statement said things like, "there's a real opportunity to make progress" and "there are signs of hope here.")

Why don't we get it? I mean this as a personal question too. Why am I not outside right now carrying a placard to protest the Tory's "environmental inaction" legislation?

The number one reason has to be that we enjoy such low oil prices. Europe has paid over $2 a liter for gas for decades, and that changes everything. I keep saying this - all apologies to Joe Clark, who lost his prime ministership because he tried to institute an oil tax - but we must raise gas prices. This initiative has to come from the public. We can't expect another government to commit suicide by trying to do the right thing and institute a gas tax. We have to let them know that we want to pay a higher price at the pump.

Another reason is historical. Back in the 70s there was a huge movement to convince the public that nonrenewable resources were running out. Gaining popularity just when the oil cartel created a worldwide gas shortage, there was widespread panic at the belief that everything from oil to copper was going to be gone well before the end of the century. I still have my well-thumbed paperback copy of The Limits to Growth around somewhere. It didn't serve us well.

Also, we've been talking about this for so damn long and not getting anywhere. Oh, we've done lots of other good things. Canada has a brilliant recycling program that is reducing the cost of garbage disposal. But the average gas consumption of cars keeps going up in North America, consumer packaging keeps getting bigger, we keep buying bigger houses with bigger applicances, blah blah blah.

A big part of the problem is the enormous amount of misinformation we in North America receive through our media and the internet. It doesn't help to have conservative politicians say that climate change is bunk. I read a blog recently that argued that it doesn't matter what we in Canada do because of the enormous environmental disaster coming in China, where economic growth means more cars and industry, and where environmental regulations (according to the blog) are lax. In fact, environmental regulations in China are orders of magnitude better than ours. Their limits on car emissions are better even than California's. We can't pass the buck on this. It's us - North America - that's screwing the pooch. It's us - Canada and the US - that needs to get it together and start playing catch-up with the rest of the world.

See also: Earth Day



burlivespipe said...

Canada is cursed with abundance -- abundance of resources which to turn into commodities, abundance of land which we turn into an ever-stretching city or shopping mall-like highway (Greater Vancouver and Calgary, Kelowna etc), the belief that these abundances are there to turn into a wealth-creater. Instead of forcing municipalities to develop under the premise of density, we've permitted the push of populations in arable fields and mountain sides. Every year at every council meeting in every city, there will be someone who stands up and demands an end to these foolish expansions, and for more density and redevelopment. None of those politicians will take that talk to heart, nor listen to the scientists who condemn such unfettered development.
The price of oil/gas should reflect all the costs that are involved. Highways and bridges should feature tolls to help fund rapid transit. Because when a mountainside is paved over, a farm field is blacktopped, it is damaged for good.
As a Liberal, I sure hope we develop future-looking policies which deal with these calamities.

Listener said...

Why don't we get it? In Canada, where I am, in a small town, people rely on lotsa driving and love, or perhaps worship, big vehicles. They don't get it because of ego selfishness and lack of inquisitive minds. Leaders can only lead those who will follow.

I get it. I am thrifty by nature. My values are different. I am not the average.