Tuesday, September 29, 2015

On Climate, the Times Are a-Changing

Three stories out of the United States this week offer hope to those concerned about the climate crisis.

Pope Francis visited the United States, where he interjected himself firmly into the 2016 Presidential election narrative.  After meeting with President Obama at the White House, Francis addressed both houses of Congress with what was surely for some Republicans, an unsettling message: our generation must be the one to take serious and responsible action to address climate change (see: “Read Pope Francis’ speech that he gave at the White House,” ABC News, September 23, 2015). While many Republican Presidential hopefuls continue to deny the reality of human-made climate change, they are increasingly finding themselves offside with an American public that understands how science works.

Earlier in the week, Democratic Presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton announced her opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.  Clinton cited her belief that approving the pipeline, which would see dirty Alberta bitumen pumped to Gulf coast refineries, was not in keeping with the need to combat climate change (see: “Hilary Clinton breaks silence on Keystone XL pipeline: ‘I oppose it’,” the Guardian, September 22, 2015).  Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the other Democratic frontrunner, have formed a united front on Keystone XL.

And, in what is turning out to be one of the worst corporate scandals of this century so far, German auto manufacturer Volkwagen was caught by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for installing “defeat devices” in their vehicles (see: “How a minor emissions experiment put Volkswagen in hot water,” the Globe and Mail, September 23, 2015).  The U.S. has some of the most stringent vehicle emissions standards in the world.  VW’s defeat devices were used to trick emissions tests, allowing as many as 11 million vehicles to emit hundreds of thousands of additional tonnes of nitrous oxide - a potent greenhouse gas. Consumers who turned to VW for a “greener” vehicle purchase are up in arms (see: “Overview of Greenhouse Gases, Nitrous Oxide,” the United States Environmental Protection Agency). Since the scandal broke, Volkswagen has lost around US$28 billion of its market value (see: “Volkswagen emissions scandal – as it happened on Tuesday,” the Telegraph, September 22, 2015).

As Bob Dylan sang about a different shift of perspective that washed over America in the 1960s, ‘the times they are a-changing’.  In the lead-up to critical international climate negotiations in Paris this December, a new sense of optimism is in the air, thanks to what’s happening south of the border.

The United States of America is the world’s foremost economic powerhouse.  Where the U.S. leads, other nations are often forced to follow.  If the U.S. chooses to take the Pope’s exhortations to heart and begin the process of vigorously decarbonizing its economy, climate laggards like Canada may have little choice but to do the same – or potentially face retaliatory border tariffs for exports that don’t have built-in costs for carbon pollution.  The choice may become one of getting with the program, or paying the price for our obstinacy.

The sheer size of the U.S. economy means that if anyone wants to sell a product in the States, they’re going to have to follow U.S. rules and play ball with regulators.  While some multinational corporations like Volkswagen might try to game the system to their advantage, as VW is now finding out, scandalous corporate trickery can have multi-billion dollar consequences.  Major corporations will now think twice about playing similar games with the EPA.

President Obama visited the front lines of the climate crisis on a recent trip to Alaska.  As Air Force One over-flew the island of Kivalina, and the President had a chance to see first-hand how the rising ocean is slowly swallowing the island – along with its human inhabitants (see: “Obama Takes on Climate Change: The Rolling Stone interview,” Rolling Stone, September 23, 2015).  In 2008, Obama claimed that his election to the Presidency signaled the moment when the rise of the seas started to slow.  While that hasn’t happened yet, Obama remains keen to leave behind a legacy of climate action.  It is widely expected that the President will show an iron resolve to push forward a meaningful climate treaty in Paris.  Our children and grandchildren will benefit from his efforts.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

Originally published in the Sudbury Star without hyperlinks, September 26, 2015 - print and online - as "Times are a-changing"

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