Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Economic Crisis That Is Climate Change

I composed the following as an online response to an editorial published earlier in today’s Sudbury Star by Editor Brian MacLeod, “Bottom line trumps the environment”. MacLeod argues that voters are less interested in the environment than they are in the economy, and uses some recent polling to back up his claims that, despite making some small lifestyle changes, voters really don’t want to take personal action to address climate change.

Personally, I think he’s on to something, but I don’t agree with his rationale. I think that many Canadians are waiting for the government to show some leadership on greenhouse gas emissions, in part because they’re getting tired of shouldering most of the burden themselves. It’s not that we’re satisfied with baby steps; it’s more that we’re not willing to do more ourselves until everyone else steps up too.

MacLeod believes that governments usually act as followers of public opinion, and not leaders themselves. Although our current Conservative government hasn't shown much in the way of leadership on issues, that doesn't mean that we haven't seen other governments get out in front of issues in the past, or even today at the municipal or provincial level.

MacLeod also seems to be under the mistaken impression that the economy and the environment are two discrete issues, where one must always triumph over the other. It’s an outdated way of thinking, which, thankfully, more and more people are beginning to realize.

I’m reposting my comments here on my blog, to share with a larger audience.


In 2007, the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 4th Assessment Report to the United Nations and the world at large. In that report, the IPCC identified that climate change is happening, and that it is being caused by human activities which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Since the release of that Report, governments around the world have come together to take action to address the climate crisis. In Copenhagen in 2009, and then recently in Cancun in 2010, just about every world government committed to taking action to reduce emissions. So far, however, what has been lacking is a credible plan which will compel action.

In our country, Canadians and our government both understand the importance of reducing emissions. It’s the level and pace of action which has been problematic for many Canadians. An increasing number of Canadians are making greener decisions for themselves and their families every day. Could we all be doing more to reduce emissions? I know that I could be doing a whole lot more; likely others feel the same way. But if our government doesn’t want to take leadership to reduce emissions to address what it acknowledges as a crisis, it can be very discouraging to Canadians.

I don’t agree that governments can’t be on the leading edge of public policy. In fact, governments have an obligation to lead for the good of those governed. While its true that in a democracy, governments can sometimes pay a price for an unpopular, but necessary, decision, it’s not always the case. Witness the last provincial election in British Columbia, where Gordon Campbell’s Liberals were returned to power despite implementing an unpopular carbon tax, on which the populist provincial NDP tried to capitalize on by promising to repeal.

Both the BC Liberals and Brian MacLeod have hit the nail on the head, though. Real change is only going to happen when there is a cost involved which facilitates making green decisions easier for businesses, industries and private citizens.

In the past, industries were allowed to pollute rivers and streams with impunity – there was no cost associated with funnelling toxic run-off into our waterbodies. When governments took on a leadership role for the good of those governed, and instituted regulations which would cost industries real money to continue doing business as usual, real change happened. Industries stopped polluting, our waterbodies were gradually brought back from the brink, and private citizens were able to enjoy the natural environment again.

Today, we don’t regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which have been recognized as a pollutant for their contribution to global warming. The public remains somewhat confused about the need for governments to do so. There are many who would likely lead greener lifestyles when they see their government start to take climate change seriously, but there remain many who fail to see the connection between climate change and a healthy economy.

Polls such as those discussed in Brian’s article which pit environmental choices against economic ones offer a false choice for respondents. By way of example, if you were to ask me about what the most important issue of the day is, I’d likely respond “the economy” as so many others do, because I believe that our economy is at risk from climate change, and that our government needs to do more to protect the health of our economy. Others might answer “security” or “law and order” for the same reasons.

The climate crisis is not just an environmental issue. It will affect so many varied aspects of our lives. That’s why it is very important for our government to show leadership on managing this crisis. For example, we know that there is a need to put a price on carbon is the best vehicle for us to realize reductions in emissions. However, simply instituting a carbon tax will wreak economic havoc with businesses and citizens, as it will raise the price of consumer and industrial goods beyond the means of businesses and citizens to afford. While such a tax might generate new revenues for governments, surely any government that implemented it wouldn’t be governing for very long!

By reducing taxes on things which contribute to our environmental and economic health, and which promote innovation and job creation, governments can offset rising prices for industries and citizens. It only makes sense to tax goods and services which provide us with a benefit at a lower rate than those which contribute to a problem. Look no further to taxes on cigarettes as an example.

In BC, the carbon tax imposed by the Liberal government was revenue neutral, being offset by a reduction in personal income taxes, which put money back into the hands of citizens to spend as they would choose to. Many chose to spend that money on greener lifestyles, investing it in energy saving retrofits, or a transit pass and bike instead of a second car. By offsetting a carbon fee on some goods and services with a lower income tax, BC created many winners. Those who still pursued more carbon-intensive lifestyles were slightly penalized for the choices they made – choices which impact the economic health of all Canadians.

Climate change and the environment hasn’t really gone away as an issue. Instead, it’s evolved into a discussion about economics, social justice and security. We can’t afford to pretend that these issues exist in isolation of one another. They never did fit into these artificial silos which we had created, and that’s partly why we’ve got such a problem today.

No comments: