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Head in the sand, tar in every orifice: Climate change policy in Canada

Climate Impacts Day in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

May 5, 2012 was Climate Impacts Day, a global initiative to "connect the dots" between the extreme weather events that are becoming a regular occurrence in many parts of the world, and climate change. Sponsored by 350.org, the global organization founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben, it made connections between concerned citizens across the globe.

What are the insights that need to be shared? At the outset, it is very important to distinguish between weather and climate. Weather is what happens to us on a daily basis; climate is the trend-line of how weather is changing. A single category four hurricane, a sweeping weather system of tornadoes, a severe ice-storm, a season of droughts, a summer of record hot weather, a sudden emission of methane in the arctic, and a record diminution of arctic sea ice are all weather events. They do not -- by themselves -- constitute climate change.

-  But, when they keep occurring, with greater frequency and severity, over increasingly wider portions of the globe, and in conjunction with one another; and when that pattern extends over years and decades; and

-  When 97 per cent of climate change scientists (those who have academic credentials in the field and are actively investigating and publishing in the discipline; not those with self-appointed expertise) agree in the reality of anthropogenic (i.e., human induced) climate change; and

-  When the entire spectrum of relevant and reputable scientific bodies academies in the world have endorsed the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (one of the largest international scientific enterprises ever undertaken) whose report said, "It is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and it is very likely that this is predominantly caused by the increasing human interference with the atmosphere. These changes will transform the environmental conditions on Earth unless counter-measures are taken."

Then it is time to connect the dots. We have to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee.

On May 5th many people made the connection. In almost 1,100 centres throughout the world people gathered: in the Far East (38), Australia (45), New Zealand (18), Asia-Pacific (7), South America (25), Central America (78), United States (402), Canada (176), Europe (139), Russia (5), Africa (47), and the Middle East (89). The hundreds of thousands of people spanning the globe who participated are the tip of a proverbial iceberg of concern with respect to climate change and the environment.

A poll conducted a year ago by the Public Policy Forum and Sustainable Prosperity showed that 80 per cent of Canadians believe the science behind climate change. Even in Alberta, the epicentre of the Canadian fossil fuel industry, when Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith suggested at a debate during the provincial election last month that "There is still a debate in the scientific community (about climate change)" she was drowned out by a chorus of boos and catcalls from the hundreds of people who attended. Indeed, many political pundits believe her climate change denial was an important factor in the defeat of the Wildrose party.

If climate change continues unabated in Halifax, people standing here would be up to their necks in water.

On May 5th I had the opportunity to address the Climate Impacts Day rally in Halifax, Nova Scotia on behalf of Project Democracy. I pointed out that there was also a second set of dots to connect. The circumstances that have lead to climate change, and the current climate change denial movement, have not appeared from a political vacuum. There is a clear line of responsibility from the hyper-wealthy fossil fuel industry, their lobbyists, and the politicians that serve the interests of the petrochemical industry, directly to the reality of climate change. For instance in Canada, recent reports by the Vancouver Observer have documented the almost $500,000 that the Tea Party billionaires, Charles and David Koch, have poured into the right-wing Fraser Institute (ostensibly a 'think tank' but also a registered charity with the Canada Revenue Agency) apparently in pursuit of their petro-interests 

Inside Climate News has also recently reported on the massive investments of Koch Industries in the Canadian tar (or, if you like, bitumen) sands since 1959. They are involved in mining bitumen, in pipeline systems to collect and transport it, in exports to the U.S., in refining the bitumen, and in sales of a variety of products from jet fuel to asphalt. The Alberta tar sands are only one of a vast number of fossil fuel initiatives around the world, and the Koch Brothers are only one of a number of major petrochemical players mired in this tar pit. Statoil, Mocal Energy, Murphy Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, Devon Energy, ConocoPhillips, Petrobank Energy Resources, Husky Energy, MEG Energy, Imperial Oil, Nexen, Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Suncor Energy, Canadian Oil Sands, and Cenovus are all major participants. What do they all have in common? Aside from a vested interest in the consumption of fossil fuels, ForestEthics.org has also determined that they are all majority foreign-owned.

Indeed, while 73 per cent of Canadians believe that climate change is a serious problem, and 73 per cent also said that they would be willing to pay more for more renewable energy to be produced, the choice is largely out of their hands. ForestEthics.org has determined that an astonishing 71 per cent of tar sands production is owned by foreign interests. This revelation certainly puts paid to the government's fixation on foreign interests and environmental charities. The shoe is rather on the other foot.

Mounting evidence indicates that not only is climate change occurring, but its pace is accelerating. For instance, there is recent evidence that methane emissions in the Arctic are rapidly increasing, a very troubling finding given that methane is 30-100 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. There is consequently a fear that it could lead to a runaway climatic change that would be impossible to halt. The Arctic Methane Emergency Group has recently issued a declaration of emergency that says:

"We declare there now exists an extremely high international security risk from abrupt and runaway global warming being triggered by the end-summer collapse of Arctic sea ice towards a fraction of the current record and release of huge quantities of methane gas from the seabed. Such global warming would lead at first to worldwide crop failures but ultimately and inexorably to the collapse of civilization as we know it. This colossal threat demands an immediate emergency scale response to cool the Arctic and save the sea ice."

In the face of this, the continuing denial and lack of action on the part of the Harper Government borders on the terrifying.

The environmental audit released this week by federal environment and sustainable development commissioner, Scott Vaughan, is a damning indictment of the Conservatives government's policies and practices. The already absurdly low and inadequate greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets of the Harper Conservatives of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (compared with the Kyoto Protocol targets which mandated 6 per cent reductions below 1990 levels) will not be met. The Harper Government's own documents estimate that GHG levels will be 7.4 per cent above 2005 levels with existing policies -- and those policies are incomplete themselves. There is a lack of critical cost-effective analyses, and regulations for key sectors such as the oil and gas sector are completely lacking. Commissioner Vaughn's assessment that Stephen Harper's government is "unlikely" to be able to meet its own climate-change goals is surely the understatement of the day. This isn't just sticking your head in the sand -- it's plugging every orifice with tar.

Faced with such important environmental imperatives, what has been the response of the Harper Conservatives? More than 150 pages of the government's budget implementation Act (Bill C-38) deal with environmental issues. What do they propose? The Environmental Assessment Act is being gutted; limiting its jurisdiction, eliminating its "triggers", greatly restricting who can participate, shortening its timelines, restricting its use, narrowing its terms, and giving final decision on assessments to the federal cabinet. Similarly, for hearings conducted by the National Energy Board, the final decision will also be done by the federal cabinet. The Fisheries Act, hitherto one of Canada's strongest pieces of legislation, is being stripped of its requirements to protect fish habitat, the focus instead being on supporting commercial, recreational, or aboriginal fisheries. Species at risk in Canada will see reduced protection as companies will no longer be required to renew permits on projects that threaten critical habitat of species listed under the Species at Risk Act. Canada's responsibilities under the Kyoto Protocol that mandated accountability and reporting on its climate change policies and results will be formally repealed, and the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy will be abolished. Every one of these is a step backward and weakens Canada's ability to regulate or monitor important areas of environmental responsibility.

There is a pattern to these dots. It's a pattern of avarice, irresponsibility, and contempt. A pattern of denial in the face of facts; of dissimulation rather than dialogue. A pattern of propaganda in the place of science; of self interest trumping accountability. Together they form a troubling picture of a government decoupled from its responsibilities as a steward of the public interest, and a servant of the public good. Climate change is not a theory. It is not a political whimsy that can be 'spun' according to ideology. It is observable fact. It threatens the future welfare of the planet and all of its inhabitants. A government that ignores this -- indeed endeavours to obfuscate, mislead, dissimulate, and whitewash -- is not worthy of the trust that it has received from the electorate. 

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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