Monday, June 13, 2011

Creating a Culture of Conservation

Two important issues have been emerging over the past several decades which are going to inform the events of this century. The first has to do with the way in which greenhouse gas emissions from industrial processes are warming our planet, and the change that global warming will bring to our climate. The second relates to the first: the era of inexpensive fossil fuel energy is over, and adapting to this changed circumstance is necessary. How we adapt to the end of inexpensive fossil fuel energy will greatly impact the extent of the global climate crisis.

Together, the issues of climate change and the end of inexpensive energy mean that we need to begin to think about ways of decarbonising our society. Indeed, we should have begun moving in this direction years ago, but other forces have been at work which have impeded action towards a low-carbon future. While these forces continue to have an impact on action (a lack of political will; a well-funded climate change denial industry; over-stating global oil reserves for economic gain), an increasing number of Canadians are beginning to realize that the path forward leads to moving away from our addiction to fossil fuels.

The issues facing us are undeniable. Where there is still considerable debate is found with regards to what the best actions are to address these issues. For me, it’s important that proposals for action meet the goal of moving us towards creating the culture of conservation which our society must build if we are going to stave off the more significant anticipated impacts of a changing climate, while simultaneously promoting social justice.

National governments appear largely content to follow a “do nothing” approach, leaving actions to communities or individuals. Often times, political decision makers believe that government interference in markets will lead to economic destabilization, but they fail to understand that the costs of pollution are not currently being paid for by industrial polluters. Therefore, in our current economic system, we are subsidizing industrial pollution through personal income and property taxes, which go towards paying healthcare bills and for the costs of environmental clean-ups, while giving the polluters a free ride.

As with free speech, there must be limits placed on industrial processes which are socially irresponsible. Just as shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is socially unacceptable, so too should be processes which contribute to atmospheric pollution and which increase the costs of health care.

Decision-makers at all levels of government are currently grappling with how best to move forward with the knowledge that climate change is happening, and human industrial processes are responsible. As well, we are seeing energy prices continue to rise, and we are feeling the impacts, not only when we go to fill up our cars or pay our home heating bills, but also at the grocery store, due to the increased costs of transporting food.

Decision-makers, however, are reluctant to propose initiatives which are too bold, and subject to public resistance. Given that we elect our decision-makers for only short periods of time, ideas which are proposed at all levels of government tend to call for incremental action at best. Oftentimes, policy which is proposed that may be popular, will take us backwards, instead of moving us to the low-carbon future which we must start to create.

A lack of action, or action which moves us backwards, is a sure recipe for economic instability. If we are to continue to invest in extracting increasingly expensive fossil fuels from the depths of our oceans, or convert bitumen from the tar sands into fuel for our economy, we can expect a few outcomes: Fuel prices will continue to climb until tempered by a job-killing recession, and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise, surpassing 450 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere, where we run the risk of triggering runaway climate change associated with tipping points where warming is above 2 degrees Celsius.

Think about what that might mean for humanity. And then, what it might mean for you and your family.

In a warming world, increasing food scarcity is a certainty. We’ve already begun seeing the impacts of high food prices, which in part have been responsible for the political instability and uprisings we’ve been seeing in the Middle East and North Africa. Food scarcity will continue to contribute to governmental instability, particularly in the tropical and sub-tropical regions which contain a large portion of the world’s population. That instability, however, has the potential to spill over into the industrialized North, particularly on the periphery. What happens in North Africa is sure to impact the political situation in Southern Europe.

What happens in Mexico and Central America is also sure to impact the United States and Canada.

Even without climate change, the increasing price of oil will impact food availability throughout the world. We here in the northern part of North America may be better insulated from food-related turmoil than other regions of the globe, but we still may be impacted by political instability elsewhere, especially since so many of our industrial and consumer goods are imported from abroad.

The high price of oil is sure to have an impact on our transportation sector. For too long we’ve neglected needed investments in public transit and sustainable transportation infrastructure. We can’t afford to keep doing so any longer. However, if we don’t take action, we can expect to see an increasing disparity between those who can afford to drive their motorized vehicles, and the rest of us for whom personal automobile ownership simply isn’t an option, due to cost.

Certainly, Canadians will be driving a lot less in the future. While some will be able to afford the price of gas, we can expect that the middle class will continue to shrink, especially in the face of economic recessions brought on by high energy prices and global political instability.

The increasing level of economic disparity between the rich and the poor means that fewer and fewer Canadians will be able to influence decision-makers, as there is a proven correlation between wealth and political influence. Therefore, we can expect to see decision-makers increasingly make decisions which benefit their engaged supporters, at the expense of an increasing number of disenfranchised citizens. This process has been underway in Canada for quite some time, and is in part responsible for the lack of action and leadership taken towards moving us forward to a low-carbon economy. It has been exacerbated by a political system in this country which does not recognize all votes cast in elections as an expression of the political will of Canadians.

The result of actions not taken to decarbonize our economy will mean that we can expect many more Canadians to be living in poverty, and that a majority of us will experience a declining quality of life. We’ll also become less engaged with our governments, leaving decision-makers with a free hand to make decisions with the interests of the wealthy elite in mind. The outcomes of this circumstance will be either the continued repression of an increasing number of Canadians, or political instability in our own nation. And by political instability, I am not simply referring to peaceful civil disobedience. Think more along the lines of the sorts of violent demonstrations we’ve been seeing on YouTube from places like Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Greece, Spain and Libya. Or something worse than that.

If you believe that violent political instability can’t happen in Canada, I’d ask you to strongly reconsider. Instability and demonstration has happened consistently in nations where oppression has occurred. Where there is a perception created that governments are not acting with the bests interests of their citizens, we have witnessed either repression through fear and force (as we’ve seen in numerous police states) or we have witnessed rebellion. Given these two options, it’s no wonder that “forward thinking” governments will grant themselves additional police powers to stave off unrest. Canada did so during the FLQ crisis in the 1970s, through the implementation of the War Measures Act. Other democratic nations have, in the past, taken similar actions to quell dissent.

In Canada, our governments have already started down the road to protecting themselves from future expected political actions. Laws have been passed at the federal and provincial levels throughout Canada which have had the effect of curtailing the civil rights of Canadians, often done in the name of “public security” based on a perceived external threat (such as the so-called “war on terrorism” or the “war on drugs”). We’ve witnessed our government’s abuse of civil liberties at the G20 conference in Toronto, where police powers were used to detain protesters without charges (or where charges were later, inexplicably dropped), while politicians looked the other way instead of taking leadership.

Surely, though, such actions taken by governments are done so with the best interests of Canadians? Well, with an increasing number of disenfranchised Canadians living in poverty, in the future, whose interests will such governmental actions be taken in?

If you lost your job tomorrow, due to a global recession brought on by rising energy prices, might your interests also be changed?

Our governments understand that we are headed towards a future where we can expect the gap between the rich and poor to continue growing, and that we’ll be living with the attendant political instability such a growing gap brings. While significant planning has gone into addressing expected future security issues (including the building of massive new jails to house more criminalized citizens), our governments have done very little to address the root causes of disparity, namely moving us towards creating a culture of conservation and a low-carbon future. Why is this?

Why have our governments been negligent in making decisions which don’t lead towards increasing economic disparity and runaway climate change? In part, governments have been reluctant to take the first steps on their own, fearing negative economic consequences from a global trading partners. For example, even the tentative steps towards increasing the opportunities for renewable energy production taken by the government of Ontario through the Green Energy Act have been challenged by global trading partners, including Japan, based on the notion that the legislation gives preferential treatment. Ultimately, any move towards removing the subsidies on fossil fuels that we have built into our economic system is open for challenge on the world stage. How did we get here?

In a nutshell, we’re here because so much of the world’s wealth is controlled by several hundred multi-national corporations whose priorities are likely very different from yours and mine. Even the best-intentioned governments (of which we have very few to speak of, globally) are forced to comply with treaties, agreements, rules and regulations which govern trade in a way which benefits the so-called “free” market over the individual, especially when it comes to pollution.

Governments, however, could still act boldly, if they chose to. However, our governments are reluctant to offer much more than incremental change, or they fear that they will suffer the wrath of voters at the ballot box. Change, even where it can end up benefiting society, is never an easy process. People are largely comfortable with the status quo, even though the status quo shifts slightly over years, and decades, or more jarringly due to sudden change. It’s unlikely that most individuals remain in a static location in their lives; jobs are lost, marriages are entered into, and then out of; children are born, and move away; family members age, and their needs change. In fact the only certain thing about life is that we’re going to experience change throughout it. But that doesn’t ever make change easy.

As a result, our governments like to suggest incremental change as an option. Sometimes these incremental changes move us towards the culture of conservation we need to thrive; other times, they take us backward. Sometimes, when policies are proposed to move us forward, the end result will in fact be to move us in the wrong direction. Populist politicians like the idea of giving people want they want, but sometimes doing so takes us in the wrong direction.

For example, recently there has been talk about the need to remove certain taxes from home heating bills, and to cap the price of gasoline at the pumps. Both policy initiatives likely sound good to people concerned about rising prices, but neither will do anything to address the root causes of rising energy prices. In fact, over time, these policies will actually move us backwards and away from creating that culture of conservation we need for our future, because it means that we will need to find other resources to pay for these energy subsidies.

Taxes are probably one of the most powerful tools that our governments have to shape both economic and social policy, short of legislating activities. For example, cigarette smoking is a dangerous and costly indulgence for many Canadians, and smokers require the expenditure of additional health care costs by governments. While governments have the power to outlaw the purchase of cigarettes, and could do so for both health and economic reasons, they’ve chosen not to. Instead, we’ve seen governments take an incremental approach to phase out cigarette smoking, through public education on the dangers of smoking, by limiting the locations in which smokers can light up, and through the imposition of taxes on cigarettes, which have led to the purchase of fewer cigarettes by Canadians over time. In the case of cigarettes, taxes have played an important role in shaping social policy, while providing much-needed revenues for governments.

Right now, similar discussions are happening around carbon pollution. Greenhouse gas emissions are recognized as a health, environmental and national security issue. Since there are other options available which create fewer or no emissions for some industrial processes, if our governments put a price on carbon pollution emissions, surely we would begin to experience a reduction in emissions. It may not happen right away, however, as we currently do not have the infrastructure in place to switch from coal, oil, and natural gas to clean, renewable alternatives. However, with higher prices associated with the use of fossil fuels, the investments in renewable infrastructure will surely follow. Further, rather than over-using energy, which a majority of Canadians do now, we can expect to see our overall per-person energy use decline due to conservation.

The notion of energy conservation and carbon pricing scares a lot of people, though, because at first it seems that we’re likely going to have to make some lifestyle changes. We find ourselves in the position that smokers found themselves in, faced with rising prices and social stigmas, many smokers have changed their ways, and have either quit altogether, or they smoke less (with many choosing not to smoke in their homes and cars, for fear of passing on to their children the negative health impacts associated with second-hand smoking).

Smokers, however, now also have a better understanding that if they continue to smoke, or smoke as much as they did before, they run a significantly greater risk of experiencing negative health impacts. Canadians, too, have become increasingly aware that the same is true of our fossil-fueled society, and that if we continue along the path we’re on now, we are running the significant risk of economic, social and environmental upheaval.

Either Canadians begin to change our carbon-intense lifestyles on our own terms, or else we run the risk of having them changed for us, through, for example, paying more for personal transportation, food, or experiencing recessionary job loss or social and political upheaval.

To avoid economic and political destablization as best as we can at this late time, we must now aggressively pursue public policy initiatives which move us towards creating a culture of conservation. We must begin the process of decarbonising our economy, and building the infrastructure (physical and social) which will better allow us to live in a low-carbon future. Much of that work will need to occur locally, but it must be led by supra-regional governments (in the case of Canada, that means both our national and provincial levels of government), given the limited taxation powers which currently exist at the municipal level. Indeed, the very relationship which our municipalities have with senior levels of government would also benefit from significant change, so that municipalities experience a greater deal of flexibility to implement options and solutions which work best in their own local context. However, even should the governmental relationship be overhauled, the federal and provincial levels of government in Canada will continue to need to show leadership in creating a culture of conservation.

We should have begun this process decades ago, even at a time when we didn’t have the best understanding of specific climate change impacts, or exactly when oil would peak. We’ve known for a while now that these days were coming, but instead of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuel use, our global economies have continued to embrace it at the expense of just about every other energy source, even with our knowledge that continued use would lead towards both rising prices and global temperatures.

But we’re here now. And we can’t afford to lose any more time. There is no more time to fool around with tackling these two issues. Populist political opportunism must stop. Our news media should become engaged in discussions about climate change and the end of inexpensive energy in a meaningful way. While journalists cope with the twin pressures of a 24-hour news cycle and a lack of resources, this should not mean that they can continue to fail in asking important and difficult questions of our politicians. As the gatherers and disseminators of information, our media has a significant role to play in educating Canadians about energy use, climate change, and public policy proposals.

Voters, too, should not continue to reward politicians who will not take action to address climate change and energy issues, as a majority of Canadians stand to be negatively impacted by these issues. While the super-rich might weather the storm, the rest of us face change on terms which are not our own, if a course of inaction continues to be pursued. Further, voters must be wary of populist forces which disguise regressive public policy proposals through the use of spin and deceit. This form of political “greenwashing” needs to be called out by responsible Canadians at all levels, including and especially in the news media.

Together, we have the ability to create change on our own terms, but as with any change, it’s not going to be easy. The alternative, however, is change on terms which aren’t our own. Either way, the status quo will change, and the lifestyles of a majority of Canadians will change with it. If we Canadians act in the interests of our families and communities, and take into consideration the needs of our grandchildren and their children, we will surely be able to decarbonize economy, and create a culture of conservation. If we act instead in the interests of the rich multi-national corporations, and focus instead on greed and the creation of wealth for a tiny minority of individuals, we will surely suffer the negative consequences.

(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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