Image: Peter Blanchard/Flickr

I live in one of the few Ottawa neighbourhoods which real estate specialists qualify as “walkable.”  

That means I can get myself to shops, restaurants and other services on foot. I can even walk to an Ontario provincial office to get a car registration or driver’s licence.  

It is a rare privilege to be able to use nothing more than one’s own human power to carry out the daily tasks of life. 

Most people in Canada’s capital, as in virtually all other cities and towns throughout this continent, have no choice but to use some form of motorized transportation to carry out the slightest task — from buying a litre of milk, to mailing a parcel, to seeing a dentist, to attending a live theatre performance or grabbing a drink at a bar. 

For me, all of the above are easily accessible by foot. I can go to the fish market, the butcher, the baker, a small grocery store, a playhouse or one of many restaurants or bars without worrying about parking or traffic.  

But there is a fly in that lovely ointment — an annoying bug that has grown bigger and peskier over the years. That fly, or, rather, those flies, are idling vehicles. One cannot take even a short stroll in my part of town without running a gauntlet of heedless folks sitting in large trucks or SUVs (or occasionally simple cars) with their engines running full blast. 

There were always some drivers who thought they might avoid a ticket if they sat with their engines on in a no-parking zone, or who wanted to listen to the radio and keep their vehicles warm while waiting for passengers. Idling is as old as the automobile. Like second-hand smoke, it was not considered to be harmful, until recently. 

But the advent of the mobile phone has made this noxious practice ubiquitous. 

Take a stroll along Wellington West in Ottawa, through a pleasant neighbourhood of food shops, coffee shops, restaurants and small boutiques, and every third or fourth parked car you pass will have its engine running, with a driver or passenger inside intensely focused on a handheld device.  

And woe betide the busybody who dares knock on any idler’s window to gently request they turn off their polluting internal combustion engines. I know one person who got her ribs broken when she tried. 

Indifferent both to global warming and local pollution

These idlers don’t seem to have read any of the massive literature on global warming, including the most recent report from the United Nations body known as the World Meteorological Agency (WMO). Less than a week ago, the agency warned that increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other related pollutants mean “the future of mankind is at stake.” 

Since 1990, the WMO reports, there has been a 43 per cent increase in the warming effect on the climate by greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide. 

“There is no sign of a slowdown, let alone a decline, in greenhouse gases concentration in the atmosphere despite all the commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” the WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas warns.   

 “It is worth recalling that the last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of carbon dioxide was 3-5 million years ago. Back then, the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” Taalas adds.

And those happy-go-lucky folks checking their social media, while their vehicles spew noxious emissions, almost certainly haven’t seen another far less reported-on study that establishes a link between particulate matter from car and truck emissions and brain cancer. A researcher at McGill University in Montreal conducted that study, which was not widely reported in Canada’s mainstream media. 

The blithely indifferent idlers might have noticed that Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission just issued a report which argues that carbon taxes are the most effective means for reducing emissions. The independent economic and environmental organization pointed out, however, that Canada’s carbon taxes will have to go up to a much higher level than currently planned if they are to be effective

If that story penetrated idlers’ consciousnesses, they could probably take comfort from the fact that the Canadian politicians in power, in the provinces and in Ottawa, are either hostile to the very idea of carbon taxes or are skittish about pushing that envelope too far. 

Federal Liberals have become hyper-cautious on climate change

In the immediate wake of the federal election, environmental scientists and activists took comfort from the fact that close to two thirds of voters opted for parties that favour serious measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

In the weeks since the election, however, the loud and aggressive voices of western alienation have taken centre stage. When the new environment minister — onetime NDP activist and environmental entrepreneur, Jonathan Wilkinson — responded to the Ecofiscal and WMO reports, he made a point of tempering his comments with a deferential nod to Canadians who make their living from fossil fuels. Those folks, Wilkinson averred, are feeling “anxious and concerned.”

The environment minister went on to pooh-pooh the United Nations’ conclusion that Canada will fall short of its Paris emissions reduction target by at least 15 per cent. The new minister mumbled something about federal plans to invest in public transit and electric cars, and to plant two billion trees over the next decade. At this stage, all three of those plans are not much more than election promises. 

Given the magnitude and gravity of the problem, vehicle idlers — or frequent flyers, or fireplace burners, or others who make personal choices not helpful to the health of the planet — could tell themselves nothing they, as individuals, do would make any real difference either way.

There is a similar argument to the effect that Canada’s total emissions are only a small fraction of the global total, so why should we make big sacrifices?

We do know, of course, that despite our small-ish population, Canada is in the top 10 for total emissions, while, on a per capita basis, we are one of the biggest emitters of all, surpassed by only a very few countries. 

The Ecofiscal Commission points out that even at the high carbon tax rate it proposes, gasoline would be cheaper here than in France, a country whose total emissions, with close to twice our population, are significantly lower than ours. 

If, as a country, we aspire to a global leadership role we are going to have to step up our game on greenhouse gas emissions reductions. 

To achieve that, it might not be going too far to suggest that all of us will have to start considering our own choices. That includes those sitting in their idling vehicles on Wellington West in Ottawa.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Peter Blanchard/Flickr​

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...