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Since the federal government approved construction of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, I’ve gotten into five heated debates in the contemporary intellectual battlefield that is social media over the merits and drawbacks of its approval. Distant acquaintances whose pockets will be lined by the pipeline are ecstatic about the news, while those of us in opposition have to rely on every diplomatic fibre in our bodies to keep our comments from collapsing into a series of profanities. While in all likelihood, this pipeline will never be built, its approval underscores a broader societal debate about all pipelines, and fossil fuels in general.
There is no question that the oil and gas sector holds a large share of Canada’s GDP. However, recent developments in the global energy sector indicate that it doesn’t have to be that way.
We are currently seeing two of our biggest trading partners move away from fossil fuels as the U.S. moves aggressively to combat climate change, and China takes the global lead in renewable energy investment. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in March that the diversion of billions of dollars from fossil fuels to renewable energy would reduce expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3 per cent-3.0 per cent by only 0.06 per cent. This is without accounting for the economic benefits of reduced greenhouse gas emissions such as decreased burden on health care, less need for disaster management and increased agricultural productivity, among other elements.
In some cases, renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels. Add that to the enormous loss Canada will suffer in the inevitable event of a marine oil spill and the disastrous global economic impact of climate change, and one is forced to wonder if increased investment in fossil fuels is a wise economic decision at all.
However, pretending for a moment that the pipeline was Canada’s best option from an economic perspective, its approval still stands in flagrant disregard of the reality we face as a planet. It follows closely on the heels of the UN IPCC report, in which it was made blatantly clear that climate change is a real and present threat, whose impacts will be felt worldwide in almost every aspect of our daily lives. Global reliance on fossil fuels was pinpointed as the single largest contributor to climate change.
Approving construction of a crude oil pipeline through one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems only months after the release of that report expresses a fatal shortsightedness that boggles the mind. By approving the Northern Gateway, Harper has told the world that Canada’s economy is more important than the biosphere, effectively giving the middle finger to every other nation’s attempts to meaningfully combat climate change. He is signalling to the world that not only is Canada not innovative or forward-seeking, but will defend and endorse an old-guard approach to development against the wishes of millions of his own citizens, and against all scientific evidence to the contrary.
One Facebook “friend” wrote that the pipeline’s approval was “a great day for Canada.” It is this type of thinking that has gotten society into the mess we find ourselves in today.
No country is an isolated system in which the policies it makes only affect its citizens. The physical and social world we live in is vastly interconnected, with the decisions we make carrying impacts far beyond the reaches of our daily lives.
As a society, we need to re-frame the debate over fossil fuels. It is not merely local, political and economic, but global, philosophical and moral.
Approving a pipeline because it provides 30,000 Canadians with jobs is implicitly denying millions of people worldwide the right to survive as the effects of climate change take hold in their countries. Viewing the natural world as a set of resources to be exploited rather than something with its own inherent value is a sign of our collective philosophical failure as a society.
We need to change the discourse of the debate to a worldview that no longer pits economy against the environment as though the two were mutually exclusive. The economy only exists as an extension of the environment, and will cease to exist if we don’t take care of the latter. Policy that favours short-term economic growth over our long-term ability to survive on this planet is not merely a case of missing the forest for the trees, but of cutting down the forest and then wondering where the shade went.
Hilary Angus is a spoken word artist, writer and nature enthusiast currently based out of Montreal.
Photo: flickr/Rod Raglin