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Alberta's carbon tax: Science is political when it doesn't suit Wildrose agenda; politics is scientific when it does

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Don MacIntyre

Alberta has had a carbon tax for two days now and as Environment Minister Shannon Phillips observed at a news conference yesterday, notwithstanding the predictions of the two principal right-wing parties, the province remains standing.

In this regard, I suppose you could say, Alberta is like British Columbia, which is similarly still standing after having had a carbon tax for 3,108 days.

While Phillips was quite right to point out a lot of preposterous things are being said by the Opposition and its supporters about the likely impact of her NDP government's carbon levy, which took effect on New Year's Day, I'm not sure if her comment set quite the right tone to persuade voters who are still making up their minds about an issue that is subject to a lot of commentary verging on hysteria.

Well, we feel her pain. Anyway, she went on more diplomatically: "It's a large change with large rewards, and it is completely fair for ordinary Albertans to have questions."

Alberta and British Columbia may be subject to the same science, of course, but they are not necessarily subject to the same political science.

This much will be immediately measurable: The tax will add 4.5 cents per litre to the price of gasoline. We will just have to wait a while to understand the political effect. After all, a political cataclysm was foretold in Alberta as well when Canada's GST was brought in on the same day in 1991, by a Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, no less. Nowadays we Albertans pay it with barely a mutter of complaint.

However, the way the Alberta Opposition views science came through helpfully in a couple of comments made by Wildrose Party Electricity and Renewables Critic Don MacIntyre in his response to the minister's news conference. His remarks were strikingly juxtaposed in the Canadian Press coverage of the story.

Most Albertans continue to oppose the tax, the Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA claimed, arguing, in CP's words, "that the science isn't settled on whether humans are responsible for the majority of climate change."

Now, to take issue with such a statement is to risk setting off a chorus of climate change denial and conspiracy theorizing by the conservative base. Be that as it may, if nothing else it was a pretty clear indication Alberta's main Opposition party remains mired in climate change denial, a topic on which the science seems pretty settled even if the political science remains in an uproar here and in Saskatchewan.

Regardless, what's really striking is how MacIntyre's attitude to science quickly reversed course when the politics changed. A few lines later in the CP story, the Wildrose critic was taking issue with the argument the recent pipeline approvals made by the federal government to Alberta's benefit only happened because of the Alberta NDP's Climate Leadership Plan.

Hyperventilating that the policy is a "typical move on the part of a socialist government to tax its businesses into insolvency and its people into poverty," MacIntyre argued that pipelines used to get built when there were no carbon taxes and, in CP's paraphrase again, "pipeline approvals should be based on scientific merit by the National Energy Board rather than politics."

Let's think about this statement. MacIntyre is right, of course, that a lot of pipelines got built before there were environmental policies designed to mitigate their impact on global climate change. (And remember, he doesn't really seem to believe in climate change, notwithstanding his past work as an instructor and curriculum developer in the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology's Alternative Energy Program.)

Widespread public understanding of the science dealing with the environmental impact of resource extraction may very well be the reason the construction of pipelines has become such a political question.

From this, MacIntyre concluded, however, that democracy should have nothing to do with how we decide whether pipelines get built. We should leave it to the "experts" at the NEB, and trust them to base their decision on "scientific merit."

Now, I am sure there are a lot of people who might argue that if the NEB really based its decisions on science, no pipelines would ever get built -- because resource extraction has impacts beyond the mere question of whether pipelines are safer than rail cars to transport bitumen hither and yon from Alberta.

And there are plenty of Canadians who would argue the NEB, as currently structured, is inherently political, and there’s nothing either scientific or impartial about its activities.

If I may be so bold, what MacIntyre is really saying is that people outside Alberta shouldn't get any say in the question of whether pipelines get built through their provinces -- which is exactly the Harperite arrogance that got us into the situation Premier Rachel Notley has been trying to get us out of, apparently with some success.

Arguments like MacIntyre's, which insult the intelligence of voters -- including voters in other parts of Canada where there is a preponderance of public opinion against pipelines -- just make the problem of getting the social license needed to solve our province's economic problems more difficult.

Perhaps that's the intention, but more likely it's just that Alberta's conservative parties are so mired in their market fundamentalist ideology that, ironically, they have no time for the marketplace of ideas.

Oddly enough, we've tried rule by "experts" before in Alberta. It was called Social Credit, and it failed utterly as policy when it bumped up against Canada's democratic institutions in the 1930s.

Regardless of those lessons forgotten, this much should now be clear: To Alberta's Opposition, science is political when it doesn't suit their agenda, and politics is scientific when it does.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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