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Earth Day should help to focus B.C. election debate on key climate issues

My latest column on B.C. politics looks at two things rabble.ca will soon be focusing on: Earth Day and the B.C. election. Next week, we kick off a full week of Earth Day related coverage (April 16-22); and, for the next month, we will be reporting on the B.C. election campaign, paying particular attention to the ways in which the May 14 provincial vote will impact federal politics and hot button issues like the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. 

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This year Earth Day lands in the middle of the provincial election campaign. This is good timing, given the global climate emergency and B.C.'s alarming and increasing reliance on fossil fuel exports.

 Protests will be held in various locations around B.C. on April 22, along with a host of other Earth Day related activities. Other events will happen throughout the rest of the week, including an annual parade and celebration on Vancouver's Commercial Drive which will take place on Saturday, April 20. Many of these actions will focus attention on the tar sands pipelines -- both Enbridge's Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion proposal.

Both of these mega projects seek to massively expand the amount of tar sands bitumen crossing British Columbia for export and they have emerged as a major point of contention between the people of B.C. and the Big Oil-friendly Harper government in Ottawa.

The Earth Day spotlight on these issues won’t help the beleaguered Christy Clark and her B.C. Liberals, who are trailing badly in the polls. But then Clark has abandoned any pretence of courting voters concerned about the environment. Instead, she's going all out on pro-business rhetoric, playing up the old trope of the NDP as tax-happy socialists.

This is the only explanation for the Liberals' shift on B.C.'s once-upon-a-time-much-vaunted carbon tax. Last week Clark told the media that, if re-elected, her government would freeze the tax, which is set at an already quite minimal $30 per ton of fossil fuel.

"We believe in making life more affordable for British Columbians," Clark recently stated. "[The NDP] aren’t committed to that. We believe in lower taxes wherever we can make that happen, recognizing that government is a real problem in affordability for people."

Clark did nothing to indicate she agreed with the rationale for the tax in the first place – to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to mitigate climate change. In fact, the B.C. Liberal leader’s rhetoric sounds a lot like the NDP's 2009 campaign opposing the carbon tax altogether.

This time around, the NDP looks set, along with the Green Party, to play the role of defending the carbon tax. So far, NDP leader Adrian Dix hasn’t announced specifics, other than to explain that he would direct carbon tax revenues towards spending on transit.

That's where this discussion should be headed. Rather than throwing the carbon tax under the bus with anti-tax rhetoric that plays perfectly into the ideological assumptions of neoliberalism, we should be throwing the carbon tax and its revenues into buses. It’s time to start talking more seriously about increasing tax revenue in general, in order to aggressively fund and expand public transport.

Just as important as taxes on fossil fuels, I would argue, are general taxation levels on corporations and high income earners. A vigorous, progressive tax system is a necessary reform to curb the vast inequality that has grown in recent decades. It’s also the best mechanism for generating the revenue necessary to develop a public transit infrastructure that could finally wean our society off of its destructive addiction to car culture.

If we actually taxed the rich at higher levels, we could afford comprehensive, free public transit systems in all major urban centres. Redirecting the billions of direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuel industries towards transit and green technologies would also help.

In other words, we need to do much, much more than preserve and expand the carbon tax.

Systemic change to our transportation system is a necessary complement to all efforts to stop tar sands pipelines.

As Pablo Solon, the former Bolivian ambassador to the UN and a leading voice in the fight against climate change, put it recently: “To stop climate change we need to change ourselves. We need to stop thinking growth and ‘development’ and push instead for the redistribution of wealth.”

This year’s Earth Day is a chance to think about changing both our provincial government and ourselves. Turfing out the B.C. Liberals is just one small step on a long journey.

 

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