Canada must move beyond its habit of thinking small and realize that decisive action on climate change makes economic sense.

What could rival the drama of the Olympics? How about Canada’s Kyoto Games, a bout of high-stakes politicking leading to Canada’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to stabilize the output of harmful greenhouse gases? When Alberta Premier Ralph Klein recently said that Canada could “quit breathing” to meet its reductions, it not only underlined his government’s commitment to industry but, more importantly, offered some insight into a fundamental trans-Canada conflict.

Climate change is a contest unlike anything this country has ever seen, as public and private leaders stake out divergent positions on what could become the biggest issue of the twenty-first century. Not only is Canada’s environmental security at stake, says a growing consensus of scientists, but after a century of fossil-powered growth, others contend that we still can’t afford to build solutions.

Last month, Klein’s government sounded the alarm, predicting a regional economic catastrophe: Kyoto, it estimated, could destroy 70,000 jobs and lay waste to $50-billion in investment in the province. Canada’s most affluent jurisdiction, he argued, could fall victim to an international effort to save the planet. Estimates from the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters place the cost at 450,000 jobs. Ontario Premier Mike Harris claims, “Any job loss is unacceptable.”

Depending on who’s talking, the yet-undefined federal climate plan to reduce fossil-fuel emissions, boost energy efficiency and diversify national power supplies is either an essential opportunity or an economic apocalypse. With provinces the primary custodians of Canada’s raw energy resources — a sector that, worldwide, contributed to two-thirds of all increases in greenhouse-gas emissions since 1980 — climate change offers the kind of epic battle that accompanied the national energy program in the 1970s.

The field for this grand game is the vast expanse of Canada itself, from our melting Arctic to our smog-addled cities to our world-class hydrocarbon reserves. Alberta’s hardball bargaining is testament to the sheer size of Canada’s oil and gas sector, which provided $26-billion to our gross domestic product in 1998.

And as Ontario’s government aligns with Kyoto opponents, there’s enough untapped rancour brewing to make national unity look like a family quarrel. It was only a few years ago that Klein quipped that climate change could cost Alberta “trillions” of dollars. Other more recent studies chart long-term economic savings. Coming from a government that is advocating coal as a solution to growing power demand, it’s hard to believe Klein factored in the considerable economic benefits expected to accrue from a more efficient, cleaner and sustainable energy sector.

Alberta has the distinction of having a government that is clearly less enthusiastic about the Kyoto Protocol than several of Canada’s top oil and gas executives, most notably Suncor and, to a lesser degree, Shell. (Several of Alberta’s cabinet ministers have even dabbled in oil and gas ventures — including Gary Marr during his tenure as environment minister.)

Other provinces, such as Ontario, have almost as much vested interest in the energy status quo: The former Ontario Hydro, for example, is Canada’s single largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions, much of it coal-fired pollution that has been climbing steadily since 1997.

Premier Klein may not realize it, but Alberta harbours a rich collection of post-Kyoto projects. From Calgary’s wind-powered public transit to Edmonton’s bio-gas composting program, the Premier’s backyard is rife with climate-friendly solutions. Even the massive oil-sands projects — one of the largest and dirtiest industrial developments on the continent — have deployed world-class energy-efficient technologies that reduce the massive impact of mining crude oil from Canada’s boreal forest.

For all the talk of economic failure, few Kyoto opponents have projected beyond 2010. Much of the doom is short-term, fixed to tightly wound private investment cycles and electoral terms. The real challenge of Kyoto is, perhaps, to move Canada beyond its frustrating habit of thinking small — the habit of a resource nation accustomed to royalty windfalls and quick profits.

Over the long term, decisive action on climate change makes sense. Canada could save $2.2-billion annually in health and environmental damage by reducing fossil-fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions, according to a study done for the David Suzuki Foundation. Over decades, improved air quality alone would reduce crop damage — a big problem in southern Ontario — decrease hospital admissions and improve economic productivity. The upside to being a nation of energy hogs is that we could make many improvements quickly. Federal funding on public transit could be reinstated, for example.

Naysayers abound, despite compelling evidence that Kyoto offers as much opportunity as challenge. For example: The Canadian Chamber of Commerce contends that making immediate progress on greenhouse-gas reductions is “not realistic,” favouring instead what could be lengthy national consultation projects. And, in the case of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, voluntary standards are touted, a direct import of the Bush greenhouse plan. Yet the lesson of the oil sands, now estimated to be worth $51-billion, is that Canadian energy policy is incoherent, as new fossil mega-projects move us away from a viable long-term plan on climate change. That is, if the federal government ever comes up with one.

The issues that face Canada are substantial. The long-term shift to a sustainable economy will require more than a few windmills, as Canada has relied on combustion — wood, coal, oil, natural gas — since its early colonial days. We have known little else.

The fact that two-thirds of all Canadians live in places subject to unhealthy levels of air pollution is reason enough to act, regardless of Kyoto. That Premier Klein suggested Canadians “quit breathing” shows how little some people understand this fundamental and complex issue. Kyoto isn’t so much a contest over resources — or even the science of climate change — but of values. Corporations and governments have no qualms about cutting jobs, but bridle at an economic challenge that doesn’t promise them a short-term payoff. When our conventional oil and gas resources run out some time this century, where will our leaders be?

Gordon Laird is the author of Power: Journeys Across an Energy Nation,published by Penguin Books Canada. This article was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen. Posted on rabble news with permission.

Excerpts from Power:
Part One:Uranium City
Part Two:A Crisis of Accountability
Part Three:Twilight on Fission Avenue