Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Green Voices in the Mainstream Media Wilderness: Ignoring a Green Perspective on the Economics of Climate Change

So, U.S. President Barack Obama has finally started to talk about climate change. After a year-long presidential election campaign in which the words “climate change” were barely mumbled by either the Republican or Democratic candidates, in Obama’s inaugural address given on January 21st, he had some powerful words to share with the American people – and by extension, the world – on the subject of climate change. While what, if anything, Obama now intends to do about the global climate crisis, after years of inaction on the part of the United States, and after scuttling any real progress which could have been made at the international Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, Obama had this to say about climate change (as reported in the Huffington Post):

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

In Canada, conversations in the mainstream media around Obama’s pronouncements have largely focussed on how this might impact the pace of resource extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands, and whether this may be a signal from the President that he will not approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project. The entire substance of Obama’s pronouncement on climate change here appears to be viewed through a lens of resource-based economic development, which, for me, and most Canadians, is a really strange way of looking at the world, given that Obama is talking about new jobs, sustainable energy, and the perils we face from rising and acidifying oceans, extreme weather events and the future world which we will be leaving behind for our children.

Nevertheless, politicians and pundits are reacting predictably, and the mainstream media is giving Canadians only a small slice of an overall narrative. Alternatives voices to this narrative remain active in the world of social media (thanks for reading, by the way!), but even when warming weather trends are discussed, or opponents to pipelines are interviewed, the idea that human-produced greenhouse gases are altering planetary climate to the detriment of our economy just isn’t in the picture.

Right-Wing Pundits

Right-wing media pundits predictably try to frame the Canadian “debate” around the notion that there are some alarmist and emotional environmentalists (who clearly don’t understand economic realities or scientific facts) who want to shut down the tar sands for, well, whatever bizarre reason they might have. Of course, I find this line of reasoning from right-wingers interesting, because it is becoming increasingly clear that those who identify with the Conservative Party of Canada (but not necessarily small-c “conservatives”) clearly do not understand either basic economics or the idea that decision-making should be based on factual evidence. If they did understand, they would be taking the climate crisis far more seriously, for the threat that a warming planet poses to our economy, if for no other reason.

Small-c “conservatives” understand that if climate change unfolds in a manner which scientific experts are telling us it will, the impact on Canada’s economy is expected to be staggering: upwards of $5 billion a year annually, and between $21 and $43 billion by the 2050s, according to a 2011 report from Canada’s National Round Table on Energy and Environment (“Climate change will cost Canada $5 billion yearly by 2020, reports says”, the Toronto Star, September 29, 2011. After this report was published, the large “C” Conservative government decided to terminate the roundtable, ostensibly because it continued to argue for a “job-killing” carbon tax. Of course, NRTEE did nothing of the sort. NRTEE was, however, guilty of providing inconvenient facts which raised questions about the Conservative government’s handling of the economy in the face of a crisis which the government refuses to recognize.

Left-Wing Pundits

What about left-wing politicians and pundits, though? The right-wing often views climate change as a left-wing issue (erroneously, in my opinion), because the Conservative Party in Canada (and like-minded provincial political parties) kow-tow to the oil industry; they’re intent on giving as much of our natural resources away as quickly as possible, to generate a buck today instead of saving for tomorrow. The left-wing has often taken what can be called a more socially-minded “go slow” approach to resource extraction; one which focuses on revenue sharing over a longer term, rather than runaway resource depletion.

Tom Mulcair, before becoming Leader of the NDP, wrote about the Tar Sands and resource extraction in Policy Options Magazine (“Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Country”). Shortly after Mulcair’s musings appeared in print, I wrote about his piece in my blog, and praised him for his “excellent article” and wrote that “It’s clear that Mulcair understands the need of putting sustainability at the head of decision-making processes.” (“Tom Mulcair and the Tar Sands: One Step Forward, One Step Back”, Sudbury Steve May, March 21 2012). Since then, and after taking a beating in the neo-liberal mainstream media over making comments about “Dutch Disease”, Mulcair and the NDP have largely backed away from discussing climate change in public.

Although his article was written almost a year ago, Mulcair has offered little more in the way of specifics with regards to what his concept of “sustainable development” would truly entail – and how it would be an economic benefit for Canadians. In short, he has allowed the right-wing to continue to portray taking action on the climate crisis as a threat to the health of Canada’s economy, even though he clearly knows better. Lamely, all Mulcair and the NDP seem to have offered Canadians on this topic throughout 2012 has been to fight denials made by Conservative MP’s and their lap-dog media pundits that they would introduce a “job-killing carbon tax” if they ever formed government. Rather than using the Conservative mudslinging as an attempt to engage in a mature discussion about carbon pricing and the economic impacts of climate change, Mulcair and the NDP instead continue to engage at the Conservative’s level – by slinging mud of their own right back at them.

The NDP – Can’t Commit to Action

NDP supporters who once believed that their Party was serious about wanting to tackle the climate crisis must be cringing, as it is becoming increasingly clear that Mulcair is willing to sacrifice good public policy options at the altar of “electability”, where the less said about much of anything, the better. Although the NDP continues to champion a Cap and Trade carbon pricing mechanism, discussion about how such a scheme could work isn’t happening in public, and NDP MP’s appear reluctant to draw attention to it (maybe because it’s an overly bureaucratic way of reducing emissions, particularly in comparison to, say, a straightforward revenue neutral carbon tax). Of course, this level of engagement on the issue of climate change is of no help to Canadians who are clearly growing frustrated with the lack of solutions on offer from our so-called leaders.

Keep in mind that while the federal NDP has never formed a government, the NDP has found itself in power provincially. There are currently NDP governments in Nova Scotia and Manitoba, and those governments, along with former NDP governments in British Columbia and Ontario, have consistently failed to take any action at all on carbon pricing, despite NDP member-approved policies which call for action. Only Liberal governments in Quebec and British Columbia have actually taken the idea of carbon pricing seriously, with the B.C. carbon tax being hailed throughout the world as a model for other jurisdictions, national and subnational, to use to reduce emissions and shift tax burdens. Yet the NDP, in the provincial election campaign of 2009, cynically ran on a platform to “Axe the Tax”. Had they formed government, it’s clear that the international successes which B.C. has been lauded with thanks to its carbon tax would not have happened. It is unclear today whether BC NDP Leader Adrian Dix will once again lead his Party in a campaign to axe the tax – a slogan that always finds resonance with voters, even those who enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy and the public services provided by their government. For the NDP, though, obtaining and keeping power is always more important than good public policy.

The Liberals – Who Knows?

The Liberals seem to have even less to offer Canadians than the NDP. A blogpost from Liberal Environment Critic Kirsty Duncan has been making the rounds on the internet lately. Some have suggested that her blog, and remarks made by Leader-in-Waiting Justin Trudeau, shows that the Liberals are serious about wanting to take action on climate change. While Duncan’s blog presents the facts around the issue of climate change, it reads like a laundry list of what we already know about the crisis. Very little is offered in the way of what Canada should do about it, and what is on offer is the usual sort of platitudes about getting serious about developing an action plan. Good, I suppose, for what it is, but so general as to be of little utility. Kind of like the Liberal Party’s position on just about every other issue of importance to Canadians.

Trudeau’s recent musings in particular demonstrate to me that the Liberals will continue to try to convince Canadians that we can have it both ways: A booming oil-based runaway-extractive economy which mines what NASA scientist James Hansen has referred to as the “carbon bomb”, as quickly as possible, while still reducing emissions. For all that Duncan criticizes the Conservative government for not having a “plan”, it’s clear that the Liberals themselves don’t have a plan either, and that they never had a plan even when in power under Jean Chretien, other than to fool Canadians into thinking that we were going to live up to our international commitments under Kyoto to reduce emissions. And fool Canadians the Liberals did. I guess if it worked once, Liberals like Trudeau think that they can do so again.

The Mainstream Media

Given the circumstances which Canada’s old-line political parties find themselves in, it’s no wonder that the mainstream media, beholden as it is to its profit-obsessed neo-liberal interests, has failed so miserably at presenting alternative views related to climate change. The media continues to position taking action on climate change as being an adversarial position to economic growth. That’s their narrative, and they’re sticking to it. Not even the Official Opposition dares question this media-driven paradigm which defies the facts and sound long-term economic planning. Where in the mainstream is the “green” point of view on climate change? And, for that matter, the Green point of view?

Green Voices in the Media Wilderness

Despite receiving a significant percentage of the vote-share in the past several Canadian elections, and electing Party Leader Elizabeth May to parliament in 2011, and despite ideologically-linked Green parties having significant influence on governments throughout the world, Canada’s mainstream media continues to treat green political ideology as a non-existent. Greens and their political analysis, position and policies, are an afterthought at best, or grossly misrepresented at worst – not necessarily out of malice, but often simply due to a lack of understanding of green politics and ideology.

The Green point of view on climate change doesn’t start with the climate crisis posing a threat to Canada’s runaway resource-extractive economy because reducing greenhouse gas emissions will slow down oil sector growth. Instead, the Green point of view is informed by the science of climate change and the economic analyses which strongly suggest that inaction on reducing emissions will surely lead to future costs which we cannot afford to pay (refer back to that $5 billion annually, and up to $43 billion by the 2050’s, projected by NRTEE). Greens know that unless we can hold warming at 2 degrees Celsius by significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, we risk running up against environmental tipping points leading to runaway warming. From there, Greens proceed to make the connection to the idea that Canada’s economy is going to be negatively impacted in a warming world, and understand that 2 degrees of warming is not something which we should be aspiring to, but instead is something which we might have to be forced to live with, even in a best-case scenario. Simply put, Greens understand that the costs of doing nothing are far greater than the costs of taking action.

Now, believe it or not, that appears to be a bit of a radical notion to the other political parties, and to the mainstream media. Even though individual MP’s in other parties might understand this fact from an intellectual perspective, their own point of view is often tempered by notions that they can’t say so publicly for fear of being “unelectable” because they might find themselves at odds with the mainstream media narrative. When message management becomes the first priority for our elected officials, it’s fair to say that there’s something grossly wrong with the priorities.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May recently wrote (again) about the 2 degrees Celsius threshold for warming (“Why a two degree Celsius increase in the global average temperature is a big deal”), interestingly on the same day as President Obama was giving his inaugural address and on the very same day that Environment Canada publicly changed its benchmarking for determining “normal” weather in an increasingly warming world (see: “Dramatic temperature increases could threaten Canadian health, infrastructure”, The Globe and Mail, January 21 2013). Yet, May’s point of view, which clearly connected the dots between warming weather, fighting climate change and the economic importance of holding warming at 2 degrees Celsius or less received no attention in the mainstream media. Pundit after pundit pontificated about the pace of runaway resource extraction, but nothing was said about the pace runaway climate change.

Honest Political Discourse

Look, this discussion is one which the mainstream media will continue to ignore as long as old-line politicians keep saying the same things over and over again. The NDP, Liberals and Conservatives want Canadians to believe that we can continue to develop the tar sands and prevent the world from experiencing the worst from global warming. They disagree only on the pace of development, not on whether it might just be a good idea to start thinking about leaving some of those resources in the ground. Pace is important, sure; but how about being honest with Canadians about the consequences of tar sands development?

Until a level of honesty is injected into the political discourse, the mainstream media will continue to ignore the fact that there is an alternative point of view. However, discussions are clearly taking place in the realm of social media. You can read about it on rabble, or at the Huffington Post. It’s just that as far as mainstream media outlets like CTV, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and the CBC are concerned, the point of view isn’t one worth exploring. Of course, the usual series of media pundits trotted out by these news organizations tend to be affiliated with one of the three old-line political parties, so the opinions on offer go far towards reinforcing the idea that those are the only valid opinions on the topic.

Make the Damn Connections, Please!

As an aside, and for the purposes of illustration, I had the pleasure of watching CBC’s “The National” last night. The lead story had to do with the cold temperature being experienced across Canada. The second story of the night was also weather-related, and had to do with Environment Canada’s recent changes to benchmarking. CBC clearly reported that the world is warming, and Canada, in particular, had experienced a rise in annual temperatures of 3.2 degrees Celsius in the past 60 years. And that was interesting, sure, but what about context? No explanation was offered by the CBC as to why the world was warming. I initially thought that maybe the lack of explanation was because one wasn’t needed. We all know that our industrial society is responsible, right? Well, no, actually we don’t all know that. There are far too many who like to pretend that climate change isn’t happening, and our media seems keen on avoiding any conversation about it which doesn’t conform to the “resource extraction” lens.

I also had the pleasure of watching Don Martin’s Power Play on CTV last night. Don interviewed a member of a Georgian Bay stewardship group about concerns with the water levels in the Great Lakes. The Georgian Bay resident talked about the economic impacts of lower water levels to shipping, and how less shipping might lead to a direct impact on the economic health of the Great Lakes region. When it came time for a discussion about reasons for low water levels, the Georgian Bay steward pointed to climate change as one of the reasons, making the connection between the impacts of global warming and the health of our economy. Afterwards, Don interviewed the Finance Minister of the Province of Alberta, and talked about the need for provincial government spending cuts, because oil revenues were down. The solution both Don and the Finance Minister landed on was the need to get those oil revenues back up into healthy fiscal territory. No connection was made about the implications of continuing to burn fossil fuels and the health of the economy. Don might have offered something about how burning oil, which contributes to warming, might actually continue to exacerbate the problem with low water levels in the Great Lakes, and damage the economy of Ontario and Great Lakes States. But..No. As long as the government can continue to figure out a way to have Albertans avoid paying a sales tax, that’s really all that’s important. Right?

Real Solutions for the 21st Century

My point is, of course, that it isn’t right. It’s clear to me, and to many Canadians, that our economic system is failing us. We need to start having conversations about this increasingly problematic notion of “economic growth” on which we have invested so much of our hope for the future. We are living now in a time where the sort of exponential growth required to fuel a “healthy” economy just isn’t going to happen any longer. Just as Environment Canada was forced to rethink its benchmarks for “normal” weather in a warming world, so too must economists and politicians begin to rethink what a healthy economy means at a time when the concept of perpetual growth has been shown to be unsustainable.

Our economy, fuelled largely by non-renewables, is now butting up against the limits of a finite planet. While there remain plenty of fossil fuel resources in the ground for our exploitation, we know that relying on these resources is going to become increasingly expensive in terms of production (there’s a reason that the term “fracking” has entered into our vocabulary recently, and it has nothing to do with Battlestar Galactica). And we know if we continue rely on fossil fuels to power our economy, we are sure to warm the planet beyond 2 degrees Celsius and suffer the consequences of runaway warming. And that makes a reliance on fossil fuels unsustainable and dangerous to our long-term economic health.

Towards Sustainability

President Obama, if we are to believe him from the words he spoke in his inaugural address, seems to understand this. We can’t continue along with “business as usual” because we’re deep into a new normal now. There’s nothing “usual” about paying $1.30 for gasoline at the pump. There’s nothing “usual” about warming the planet between 2 and 5 degrees in a matter of decades. There’s nothing “usual”, sensible or sane about handing our children a planet unprepared and ill equipped to meet the challenges they will face, because we have decided to mortgage their future for our own short-term benefit.

Credit Obama at least for having the audacity to finally talk about climate change after years of silence. But he now needs to back up his words with actions. The very first thing he can do is acknowledge that the economic risks of runaway climate change will be exacerbated by runaway tar sands resource development. Obama must formally kill the Keystone XL pipeline, and by doing so, slow the pace of production of the world’s dirtiest oil. That decision will not impact current levels of resource extraction, but it will certainly slow the pace of expansion, which is needed until real economic measures, such as carbon pricing, better balance the playing field for renewables.

Right now, fossil fuel production receives incredible public subsidies, which make their use for energy production more attractive than renewables like wind and solar. The elimination of direct government subsidies to fossil fuel companies would be a good start (estimated in Canada to be worth about $1.2 billion annually). A good follow-up would be imposing a price on greenhouse gas emissions, ending the pollution subsidy which producers and consumers have enjoyed for far too long. Getting the price of energy right after all of the decades of passing pollution costs onto our children will be a good start towards creating a more sustainable economy.

Climate Change – A Non-Partisan Crisis

In Canada, our politicians, be they Conservatives, Liberals or NDP, seem to want to avoid these discussions at all costs. Only the Green Party is willing to engage Canadians in real discussions about economic sustainability. For the good of Canada, I sincerely wish that the voice of the Green Party was not a lone voice in the media wilderness – the stakes are too high. The climate crisis isn’t a partisan issue. I wish that the other political parties would stop treating it as such.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

No comments: