Climate Before All Else: Getting the Environment on the Political Agenda

In 2006 Canada’s newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that the world should think of Canada as an ‘energy superpower’. He then set out to make this a reality by developing our own weapon of mass destruction. No, it is not a nuclear or biological weapon. Our weapon is not one of immediate devastation, but perhaps that makes it more insidious. Our weapon, is the great Albertan oil patch.

The simple truth is that exploitation of the Albertan oil sands is game over for the battle against climate change. This is the stance taken by Professor James Hansen, one of the world’s most prestigious climatologists and previous head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and he has the facts to back it up. I could go into a long explanation of why this is the case and why the extraction of tar sands oil is carbon intensive in itself, but there is only one statistic that is really needed to get the point across. Using information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world can afford to release approximately 800 billion tonnes of CO2 if it is to remain under 2 degrees of global warming. As of 2011 approximately 531billion tonnes have already been released, leaving us with a budget of 270 billion tonnes left to emit. According to Scientific American if all the bitumen in Alberta’s oil sands could be burned it would represent 240 billion tonnes, or 89% of the emissions which the entire world can afford to release. If 2 degrees is a real goal, there is no question, most of this carbon must stay in the ground.

So, presuming that the international community is nice enough not to impose their will on our nation, Canada, and by proxy Canadians, have the world’s carbon future in our hands. As an aside, it should be noted that many other countries have the resources to tip the world over the carbon cliff as well, but no one says that we shouldn’t care about Russia’s nuclear weapons just because the United States also has some. With this in mind I’d like to turn the question to what we as Canadians can do about disarmament. Unfortunately, it does not appear that Canadian politicians are jumping at the chance to take on this problem.

As indicated by his previously mentioned 2006 speech, Prime Minister Harper has taken the exact opposite approach. He has consistently fought for the oil sands at every opportunity he receives and has weakened international climate treaties along the way. The Liberals, fresh off two crushing defeats, seem to have decided that carbon reduction is no longer what Canada needs. Their website simply mentions a “clean environment” and a commitment to clean energy; certainly nothing to draw in a single-issue climate voter. This is especially true after their supposed savoir, Justin Trudeau, came out with this nearly unbelievable quote during his first visit to the Washington as Liberal leader:

“I’m seen as a strong, young progressive with an environmental background. The fact that I’d be talking positively about the project I think got people thinking about the fact that perhaps it’s not as bad as it’s been caricatured.”

I am unsure who holds the perception that dropping out of an Environmental Masters degree and chairing the vaguely environmentally related Katimavik program counts as an ‘environmental background’ but I imagine they are the same people who see Canada’s favourite son as having a long career in professional boxing.

This leaves us with the NDP and their leader Tom Mulcair, who famously accused the oil sands of contributing to Canada’s “dutch disease” and stating that they hurt Canadian manufacturing. In the NDP policy book they call for “Establishing binding targets and clear standards to cut greenhouse gas emissions” and “Creating a revenue-generating carbon market to ensure industry reduces greenhouse gas emissions”. Both promising signs. However, at a lunch sponsored by Suncor Energy Inc. and Enbridge, Mulcair was quoted stating “The NDP will be a partner with the development of energy resources” as well as stating his support for pipelines provided they stay in Canada. So it is certainly not a given that they would spend the political capital necessary on this issue either.

Of course there are many Canadians who believe that the only real option to ensure strong environmental protection is the Green Party. But with just under 4% of the national vote in the 2011 election, the question is less whether they would be good for the environment and rather if they’ll ever receive the opportunity to act.

So what can be done if we cannot be certain that any of our elected representation can be trusted to disarm Canada’s weapon of mass destruction? I think the answer can be found in a story that a former professor of mine Keith Stewart told at Earth Day Canada’s Beyond Green conference. It in fact was the story of how he became disillusioned with politics and policy, but it comes with a take away message that can be empowering. The story is a simple one. Early in his career Professor Stewart was working for a politician and wrote up a factual and complete explanation of climate change as well as the benefits that would accompany a shift towards sustainability. Yet after presenting his boss with the report the only response he received was ‘You’re providing me with a solution, but I don’t think I have a problem. Show me how I will lose 4 seats, then we’ll talk.’ And I believe in the end that is what we need to do. We need to show politicians that failure to take climate change and the problem of the oil sands seriously will lose them seats. Polls show that a only 2% of Canadians don’t believe in climate change so it is up to the 98% of us who do, to start acting like it and take the issue as seriously as it deserves. Write letters to the editor, write your MP, write your MPP, call everyone, engage in every environmental conversation you can find.

The 2014 Federal Election has to be the climate change election and the only way to make that a reality is to force our issue to the front of the line. No movement has been successful by simply waiting until the right politician comes along and solves it, politicians are not builders of our democratic country they are the tools and we as environmentalists have to learn how to use them.