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Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has recently been complaining about the hesitation other provinces are showing toward the proposed Energy East pipeline, which is intended to help open markets and sustain development of the bitumen sands. The premier has touted billions of dollars in supposed revenues for other provinces, and rejected the idea that any part of Canada's federation can veto energy development by any other part.
What all of his comments have in common is failure to appreciate the nature and importance of the climate problem we face, and the consequences that carries for Canadian infrastructure planning.
The seriousness of climate change is now the subject of solid scientific understanding and international political consensus. The harmful impacts of climate change are already visible all over the world. We need to think seriously about what Canada's response to this should be.
When you learn unequivocally that your choices are imposing serious harm on other people, the appropriate response is not to start haggling over the hypothetical future profits from persisting in the harmful activity. People with some measure of empathy and fellow-feeling, when confronted with convincing evidence of such harm, are bound to begin taking action to curtail their harmful behaviour.
At the very least, this has to mean avoiding major new development of the bitumen sands. That should be the focus of any new Canadian Energy Strategy.
Dealing with climate change is a global challenge, and building a global consensus behind the necessary level of action requires countries to consider their histories. Canada is an excessively wasteful user of energy per capita; our greenhouse gas pollution continues to rise, driven by growth in the bitumen sands; and Canada has already reached a high standard of living.
If rich states like Canada with long and ignoble records of damaging the climate won't take aggressive action to end emissions growth and begin a long and deep decline, what hope do we have that states like Brazil, India, and China will choose to pursue low-carbon economic development?
States which have done the most to cause the problem, and which have benefitted most from fossil fuel use, must lead sharp global emissions cuts, for both practical and ethical reasons.
Premier Wall's analysis is based on the faulty assumption that it is legitimate to keep exploiting the bitumen sands, regardless of the harms this imposes on others. To that end, he is proposing a massive new pipeline that will help to perpetuate Canadian and international fossil fuel dependence into the decades ahead.
Instead of investing billions more in stranded assets which will need to be shut down early to control climate change, it is smarter ethically and financially to build appropriate low-carbon energy infrastructure in the first place.
Premier Wall's suggestion that the rest of Canada should be grateful for economic activity associated with the bitumen sands ignores how this is a singularly harmful and destructive resource to extract, and how people all over the world are paying the price of climate change in extreme weather, threats to agriculture, and rising sea levels.
To be an ethical, productive, and prosperous part of human civilization going forward, Canada needs to abandon major new fossil fuel projects, develop a credible plan to decommission the tar sands, and begin building a low-carbon energy system which can sustain us forever.
Milan Ilnyckyj is a board member for Toronto350.org and PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Toronto.
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