Decade-in-the-making do-nothing climate plan a national disgrace

The world broke a record recently, one for which Canadians ought to be proud given our contribution to the effort: the monthly global average concentration of carbon dioxide surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time since record keeping started. No doubt keenly aware of this momentous occasion, the Harper Government finally unveiled its long-promised plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

At a press conference in Winnipeg, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced a “fair and ambitious” emissions reduction target of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Yup, sounds ambitious — if you ignore the fact this pledge is even more pathetic than the Harper Government’s previous pledge to cut emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and well below the International Panel on Climate Change’s recommended cut of between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. In short, Canada’s plan is the weakest among the G7 (a.k.a., the wealthiest countries in the world, the ones most able to shoulder the financial costs of shifting to a greener, more sustainable economy) and lightyears behind our European friends whose reductions targets are almost three times greater than Canada’s. Even worse, Aglukkaq’s plan avoids regulations for Alberta’s tar sands.

On the environment, Prime Minister Harper is akin to Nero, fiddling while Rome burns. The planet is in crisis. The climate is already changing, perhaps irrevocably so. And yet, Canada, already late to the table, has arrived with what amounts to a back-of-the-napkin plan that does little to curb the runaway emissions from Alberta’s tar sands, or seriously confront the unacceptably high per capita carbon emissions we produce.

At her announcement, the Environment Minister invoked Canada’s cold, northern climate — no doubt some sort of Pavlovian ploy to shush those who say Canada is emitting too much carbon. Of course! CANADA COLD! FURNACES WARM! Except it doesn’t have to be this way, and our winters are no excuse.

In the aftermath of the 2008 economic collapse, countries, Canada included, rushed to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Most of the monies spent here and abroad were on infrastructure projects, a quick a dirty way to inject cash into the fledgling economy. Imagine, however, if our government had shown just the teeniest bit of ingenuity, creativity, vision: by all means, repair our aging infrastructure, but tie it to improved sustainability and efficiency metrics. Better insulating homes to lessen the energy losses during those — ding, ding — cold winters; more active and rapid transit options to encourage people to get out of cars and into buses or onto bicycles. Heck, make Canada a leader in wind power by investing in our small, but successful aerospace industry to pursue the research and development of made-in-Canada windmills.

Crazy. Crazy like James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the world’s best known climate scientist, who first testified to the US Congress in 1988 about the dangers of global warming. Hansen has been an outspoken critic of Canada’s abysmal record combating climate change, and has issued dire warnings for the entire planet should global temperatures rise above one degree celsius.

Many Canadians, however, may know Hansen best as the subject of then-Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s ridicule after Hansen argued the continued exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands would mean “game over” for the climate. Oliver, wary of those radicals and their science, accused Hansen of using exaggerated rhetoric. Something, of course, Harper and his band of ministerial cronies never do.

Science, of course, is on Hansen’s side: tar sands oil is even dirtier than other forms of oil, requiring three to four times more carbon emissions per barrel than conventional oil. Furthermore, it requires more chemical processing to meet acceptable fuel standards, and the open-pit mining methods used to collect the tar sands destroy forests and soil that naturally act as carbon sinks.

But by all means, burn baby burn. Why bother even trying if other countries, like China aren’t doing their part? Except, they are. Other countries are rapidly moving to transition their economies to more sustainable footings. Not simply out of necessity, but because it also makes good business sense. If indeed the climate is changing, the countries best able to adapt and prosper will be those who have harnessed their peoples’ ingenuity and innovation and see sustainability not as an impediment to growth, but an essential element of it. And yet Canada remains the laggard, the insolent child unwilling to give up his favourite toy.

It’s easy to imagine Harper himself uttering those famous words from that New Yorker cartoon: “Yes, the planet got destroyed, but for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.” Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the Earth, Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf, which has existed for at least 10,000 years, will likely disintegrate completely within the next few years. Another world record, shattered.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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