Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Climate Change: Partisan Political Issue?

I’ve always been one to insist that climate change isn’t a partisan issue. I’ve always subscribed to the notion that finding solutions to address the impacts of climate change are not within the purview of any one political party, environmental organization, or economic think-tank. Solutions to address climate change, however, are clearly within the realm of politics and partisanship, and deserve considered debate and discussion prior to implementation. Often, people are confused by the non-partisan nature of climate change itself and the political solutions put forward by all who have an interest in addressing the problem.

At least that’s the way that I’ve always thought about the subject of climate change. Lately, though, I’m less certain. But let me come back to that, and first try to explain the distinction between the non-partisan issue of a changing climate, and the political solutions needed to address it.

Moving Forward Together

This discussion, I believe, is timely, particularly here in Sudbury, as this week the Nickel District Conservation Authority and the Social Planning Council, along with the City, will be co-hosting the “Moving Forward Together” conference on Climate Change Solutions. This will be a decidedly non-partisan event addressing the non-partisan issues facing Greater Sudbury regarding climate change. The starting point of this conference will be discussions regarding how climate change will affect people, organizations and businesses within our community. I note that there will not be any discussion regarding whether anthropogenic climate change is happening or not, as those participating in the conference see no need at all to answer that question, as climate science developed over decades has clearly answered it for us already. That answer being, of course, “Yes, it’s happening, and our industrial processes are the cause.”

I’ll come back to this starting point later. For now, though, suffice it to say that the starting point of the conference is to focus on solutions and strategies which can be implemented at a local level to mitigate against, and adapt to, a changing climate.

The topic of climate change, therefore, is likely to be “top of mind” in Greater Sudbury throughout the week, with a public evening session of the Moving Forward Together conference kicking things off at Tom Davies Square in Council Chambers. Two more days of the conference follow, open to registered participants (with the price of registration being a mere $25 for students and seniors, and just $35 for everyone else, which is incredibly reasonable for this two days worth of conference activity).

With the focus on finding solutions to climate change at the local level, and in the specific context of the City of Greater Sudbury, there would be, at first glance, a marked decrease in opportunities for partisan politics to intervene. After all, in Ontario at least, there are no political parties at the municipal level of government, which anyway would only be one partner in implementing any solutions to be discussed. Other partners will include public organizations, such as the Conservation Authority, Health Units, School Boards, etc., along with our very vibrant business community and industrial sector.

Here in Greater Sudbury, the mining sector plays a very important role in the business community. This is one sector which understands that business impacts of a changing climate, and which has a vested interest in decisions made at all levels of government in how best to deal with climate change. There is a belief out there that mining sector is somehow in denial about anthropogenic climate change, and aspire to see the status quo maintained. That’s not my own observation, and indeed the more that I hear about the mining sector’s desire to find appropriate solutions to address climate change, the more optimistic I become that eventually we here in Canada, and indeed throughout the world, are going to start to take meaningful action to address climate change.

That the mining industry is not in denial about climate change is important, particularly given that this sector of industry is a significant net contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and throughout the world. The mining industry’s issues, however, are illustrative of the notion that any proposed solution to climate change must perforce be political in nature. And that must include solutions at the local level.

Political Will and Partisan Politics

Finding the will to act on climate change will be an exercise in the use of political will. Individual actions can only go so far to mitigate against and adapt to climate change. For significant and meaningful action, we must look to decision makers in each and every capacity to lead, plan, and implement actions. Exercising political will, however, requires debate and discussion. It will be interesting to see what local solutions are proposed at the Moving Forward Together conference, and whether participants understand that all solutions will be political in nature, even though climate change itself is not a partisan issue (or so I have always thought).

Does the exercise of political will require partisanship? Clearly, the answer is “no”. Non-partisan, political decisions are made all of the time, especially at local levels. For example, the allocation of municipal resources for traffic calming on one street in preference to another is a political decision, but with non-partisan overtones. However, despite the absence of party affiliation at the municipal level of government in Ontario, sometimes municipal decisions can be truly identified as “partisan”. One needs to look no further than to discussions taking place in the City of Toronto regarding subways versus light surface rail to see partisan politics affecting decisions to be made at the municipal level.

For decisions makers at all levels of government, sometimes decisions are made simply because it’s the right thing to do, and not for political gain. Stephen Harper’s 2006 apology to First Nations attendees of residential schools comes to mind. Or perhaps the declaration of War against the Empire of Japan made by the U.S. Congress, endorsed by both parties after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. While I suppose it could be argued that even these decisions were made for partisan reasons, given their lack of opposition, at least within the decision-making bodies of Parliament and Congress, respectively, I believe that a strong case can be made that these were not partisan decisions.

The mistreatment of aboriginals through the residential schools is a fact of history, just as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour can not be disputed, along with the fact that our climate is changing as a result of human industrial activity. These facts are not in dispute (despite Canada’s choice to long ignore the very real problems and issues with residential schools; and despite suggestions that the U.S. might have had advanced warning of Pearl Harbour; and despite the amount of time it has taken for science to definitively conclude that human industrial processes are leading to climate change). And since we expect our decision makers to make decisions based on facts, and not fallacies or fantasies, clearly the starting point of the discussions needed to make those decisions can not be treated as political in nature, or partisan. The starting points are factual, and are not in dispute.

Or are they?

Sowing the Seeds of Confusion

With regards to anthropogenic climate change, clearly there are individuals and organizations which do not accept human activity is leading to a changing climate, despite the overwhelming science. Often, these individuals and organizations have a vested interest in manipulating discussions regarding solutions to climate change, although in some cases it’s clear that wilful ignorance is at work. Why dispute the indisputable facts of climate change, though, if really the matters for debate should be occurring at the “So what are we going to do about it?” stage?

That’s easy: to accept anthropogenic climate change as a fact requires that we also accept that we probably should, as a society, address the impacts of climate change. And right now, many of those discussions, which have been going on for decades, are leading to the overwhelming conclusion that we can no longer continue to treat our atmosphere as an open sewer, and that the time is coming that we need to put a price on carbon emissions in order to reduce those emissions. There are businesses and organizations throughout the world who perceive this solution as a threat to their economic vitality. Therefore, rather than engage in discussions on how best to price carbon, there’s more of a pay-off for these businesses to confuse regular citizens and decision makers about the facts.

Sowing confusion about scientific conclusions is really pretty easy when you get down to it. Scientific arguments are based on data, and usually postulated by specialists who seem to be speaking a different language from you or me most of the time (and most of the time they are using a different language – the language of math and statistics – to prove their hypotheses). The very nature of scientific investigation itself leaves significant room for non-fact-based critiques. Unlike with Pearl Harbour, which everyone knows happened because we could see it with our own eyes on the film footage which was shot during and after the raid, understanding the facts of science requires a considerably higher level of engagement. And when it comes to the science of climate change, to suggest that “it’s complicated” is a significant understatement.

However, so it understanding nuclear fission, however we derive the benefits and experience the harmful side effects from that scientific “fact” every day. Science also postulates a “Theory of Gravity”, which is something that we rely on when doing everything from flying in aircraft to, well, just walking to work. Yet some would suggest that since gravity is just a theory, we should not rely on it as an explanation for how the world works.

Just because you or I might not understand how or why something complicated works doesn’t mean that it should be disregarded. The science behind climate change is no different. Yet, there are too many who have bought into the unsubstantiated and non-fact-based notion that somehow the science behind climate change can not be trusted.

Many of the high-priced climate change deniers are the same bunch of people who for years tried to sow confusion regarding whether smoking actually caused cancer. They experienced a certain degree of success with this campaign, at least up until a strong majority of decision-makers decided that they could no longer overlook the proven scientific link between tobacco and cancer. The campaign of confusion worked well right up until it didn’t.

Climate Change as a Partisan Issue

In Canada, and especially in the United States, this debate regarding the factual starting point of the discussion has become a partisan issue. This is clearly manifest in the U.S., where one political party (the Republican Party) has questioned the science of climate change, and many of its elected members in Congress have outright claimed that they do not believe human industrial processes are changing our climate, despite all of the scientific evidence to the contrary.

I, like many Canadians (and I’m sure a significant number of Americans), have trouble relating to this point of view. For me, it’s like saying that the attack on Pearl Harbour didn’t happen. For us, this sort of nonsense belongs in the realm of fantasy, along with a belief in elves and gnomes, or that the Apollo moon landings were filmed in a studio in Burbank, California. Yet elected Republican decision makers hold these views. What about here in Canada?

As far as I understand it, our government has time and again acknowledged that climate change is happening, and that we are the cause of it. That includes Stephen Harper, who said as much in Berlin back in 2007, when he referred to climate change as a “growing menace” and “the most important public policy challenge of our time”. In 2002, Harper referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a “money-sucking socialist scheme”. Note that Harper accepts the notion that climate change is happening (fact) but does not agree with one of the solutions on how best to address it (partisan).

There are others elected decision-makers in Canada, however, who would suggest that climate change is, in fact, a partisan issue. Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith has come out of the closet on climate change, and declared that she believes that the jury is still out on the science of climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Smith and her Wildrose Alliance are currently positioning themselves to lead the Province of Alberta, in which is located the single dirtiest industrial project in the history of Canada, that being the Alberta Tar Sands. Certainly this is cause for concern.

Although I continue to believe that climate change is not a partisan issue, clearly it is to some. As with smoking, however, there will come a time when the denial campaign will peter out, and a broad consensus that there is a problem will be reached. Canadians thought that we had achieved that consensus back in 2006, when the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the 2006 4th Assessment Report, for which they shared the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, however, money has poured into the denial industry, and politicians have been purchased through astroturf movements like the Tea Party.

Moving Inevitably Towards Action

As with the pro-tobacco lobby, however, the climate change denial efforts are doomed to fail. Unfortunately, it may take an increasing loss of life and damage to property from severe weather events before climate change truly becomes a non-partisan issue. But that day is coming.

The majority of Canadians have already moved on, and have entered the debate about how best to address climate change. Those Sudburians participating in the Moving Forward Together conference later this week have made up their minds about where to begin the discussion, and are eager to find solutions which are locally implementable. As with putting a price on carbon, even local solutions may require political decisions. Those decisions will require leadership and vision, as well as local buy-in (but not unanimous support).

Those decisions, which will be made in the near future, will be the points of reference for future generations to measure whether our response to the crisis was successful or not. History will condemn us for our inaction up to this point. It is my hope, however, that history will ultimately come to praise the bold and brave political decisions yet to be made to address the climate crisis.

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