Saturday, December 31, 2016

Time to Knock Down Liberal Straw Men on Climate Change & Carbon Pricing

Climate change has been one of the biggest news stories of 2016.  It was hard not to trip over an article or editorial in the daily newspaper that didn't mention climate change or carbon pricing.  Even regular political news has started to be viewed from a bit of a climate change lens.  Think of how the election of Donald Trump has been, in part, framed around a desire to take more aggressive action, or less action, on reducing emissions.

Of course, a lot of the reporting was pretty poor.  While it may be that news editors for papers and networks have finally come to accept that climate change is a real thing, columns and opinion pieces which deny this reality continue to regularly appear in the papers and on TV - if with less frequency.  Even pieces which accept the facts of climate change are often presented in such a way as to suggest that the climate crisis is somehow purely a problem for the physical environment, which allows for the perpetuation of the "economy vs. environment" myth.  And far too many discussions about the impacts of carbon pricing fail to even mention "climate change" - the very reason that governments are starting to finally put a price on carbon pollution (too often, carbon pricing is instead portrayed as a 'cash grab').

We've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go.

Effectively and Efficiently Fighting Climate Change

In 2017, my home province, Ontario, will be putting a price on carbon pollution through a cap and trade scheme.  In 2018, Ontario's trading scheme will be joined to Quebec and California, creating one of the world's largest carbon trading markets.  It's an effort which, unfortunately, is doomed to fail - mainly for political reasons.

Ontario anticipates a base price for carbon allowances to be established at around $17 per tonne.  That's too low to have much of an impact on consumer behaviour, but certainly it's high enough to cause the public to grumble about rising gasoline prices and home heating rates.

Ontario is going to use the revenues generated from its carbon auctions to fund initiatives identified in its Climate Change Action Plan, many of which should eventually have some pay off in reducing emissions - although there may be a few misguided efforts included as well.  It's a pretty base framework - a lot more should have been included.  But overall, Ontario's Climate Change Action Plan identifies some decent initiatives to do the things that we should be doing anyway.

I can't help but wonder, though, if the Climate Change Action Plan points the way forward, why doesn't the government want to fund these worthy initiatives through general revenue?  I understand that Ontario is running deficits and we do have a substantial debt to contend with.  But if the Plan really does lay out worthy initiatives to combat climate change, why choose to rely on an unstable funding source?  Even if cap and trade proves to be a failure, that's no reason to throw out the Climate  Change Action Plan.

Do Nothing No Longer an Option

But even the Province's tentative steps towards carbon pricing are raising concerns among some sectors.  Recently, 20 local Chambers of Commerce issued press releases requesting the Province to hold off on cap and trade (see: "Defer cap and trade program: Sudbury chamber," the Sudbury Star, December 20, 2016). The Chambers cited various reasons, including the anticipated impacts on energy and heating, along with the election of Donald Trump and his desire to do nothing on climate change, a position which the Chambers believe will negatively impact Ontario businesses.

Of course, the chambers failed to identify in their releases the reason that Ontario is implementing a cap and trade scheme in the first place: because of climate change.  The chambers offered no alternatives to the Province on how they believe carbon should be priced - maybe because the chambers haven't actually given anything but a no-price option much thought at all.  And frankly, that's just not on - not now, with federal government saying that there will be pricing in place at $50 per tonne by 2022.  With this in mind, it's completely irresponsible for these chambers to be asking Ontario to hold off with cap and trade in absence with proposing a better way of pricing carbon.

Unsubstantiated Claims and Wild Exaggerations

Predictably, the Province's response to the chambers' request for deferral was, "No" (see: "Province won't defer cap and trade," the Sudbury Star, December 23, 2016).  However, in response to the Chambers of Commerce, Ontario's Minister of Environment and Climate Change took some liberty with factual information to support his position that cap and trade is the most "effective" way of fighting climate change.  Some of the more wilder assertions made by the Minister were that "third party economic experts" have said that Ontario's plan will be the most "cost effective", and linking economic growth in California to that state's cap and trade program.

The Minister's claims were quickly debunked by Laurentian University Professor of Economics, Dr. David Robinson, in a scathing blogpost which took Minister Murray out back to the woodshed, economically speaking (see: "The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change has its Head in the Sand," Economics for Northern Ontario, December 26, 2016).

But Minister Murray wasn't through with making wild claims about carbon pricing.  In a recent attack on a revenue neutral carbon tax - of the sort that they currently have in British Columbia - Minister Murray made the outrageous claim that a tax would "spike by dollars" the price of gasoline (see: "Cap-and-trade to cost at the pumps," the Sudbury Star, December 29, 2016).

Of course, this is just pure bull-nonsense.  The Minister knows - or at least he ought to know - that even B.C.'s $30 per tonne tax on gasoline did not send gasoline prices soaring by more than a dollar per litre in that province.  It didn't happen. And yet Minister Murray wants Ontarians to believe that it did - or that at least a similar tax in Ontario would.  This is exactly the sort of fact-free nonsense that simply has no place in any discussion about carbon pricing.

Of course, maybe a revenue neutral carbon tax would actually spike gasoline prices by dollars as the Minister has suggested.  I'm not sure how high that tax would have to be, but it would clearly but much higher than the $50 per tonne price the federal Liberals are talking about, to say nothing of the paltry $17 per tonne Minister Murray's own Ministry estimates the going rate for carbon pollution will be in this province in 2017.  In essence, Minister Murray has set up a straw man to be knocked down in the name of "moderation".  Since no one is actually talking like an extremists, Liberals like Murray have to invent one.

Justin Trudeau's Pipeline Straw Man

Minister Murray isn't the only one setting up straw men to be knocked down.  Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invented his own straw men to justify the federal Liberal's decision to approve two new pipeline projects.  In an attempt to portray these approvals as a moderate decision in the fight against climate change, Trudeau tried to stake the middle ground between doing nothing and "shutting down the oil sands tomorrow and stop using fossil fuels within a week." (see: "Trudeau's New Pipeline Talking Point - Straight from the Oil Industry," DesmogCanada, December 21, 2016).   And maybe between those two extremes, the Liberals pipeline approvals make sense - but it would only be between those two extremes.

DesmogCanada rightly asks, just who is campaigning to shut down the oil sands tomorrow?  The answer, of course, is nobody.  So why did Trudeau raise the point - inventing an opposition which just doesn't exist?

It's been my experience, and maybe yours too, that when logic can't win an argument, one turns to other ways of seeking to influence opinion.  One of those tactics is the invention of straw men, to make one's own position look reasonable.  Another is to just make stuff up and hope that nobody notices.  Trudeau opted for the former, while Minister Murray clearly seems to be using a number of misdirecting tactics to bolster his own position on cap and trade in absence of factual analyses.

An Online Exchange with Minister Murray

Yesterday, in my frustration over Minister Murray's fact-free statement on rising gas prices, I called him out for it on Twitter.  Surprisingly, I received a response from the Minister.  He contradicted my assessment, and doubled down on his own, claiming that the statement was indeed a "fact" - but offered nothing in the way of evidence to support his outrageous claim, besides pointing out what he considers to be the virtues of cap and trade - which have nothing to do with his original statement about carbon taxes.

Oh, and about those virtues of cap and trade?  The Minister appears to actually believe that cap and trade will reduce emissions more deeply and at less cost, because we won't have to wholly rely on price for reductions.  Let's break this down a little bit, because it's not exactly easy to understand, in defiance of what others might generally accept to be facts.

More Straw Men

What I think the Minister is referring to is the idea that Ontario's Climate Change Action Plan is to be funded through revenues raised by cap and trade.  So cap and trade on its own will help reduce emissions, and then emissions will be further reduced by initiatives in the Plan that are now funded.  OK, that's probably the case.  I'm not sure who might have ever suggested otherwise, but maybe there is some straw man out there making a claim that we can lower emissions more deeply by just pricing carbon than we could if we were to take multiple actions.  Maybe there's someone who has been saying that, but I don't know who they are.

Oh wait a minute.  Maybe Minister Murray wants us to think that it's those people, like Citizens Climate Lobby, that are championing a carbon fee & dividend approach to carbon pricing.  Or maybe it's the B.C. Liberal government, as they enacted a revenue neutral carbon tax.  In both cases, revenues are returned to the public (in the first, in the form of a dividend cheque, in the second in the form of tax cuts), and aren't available to fund government initiatives like those found in the Climate Change Action Plan.

Of course, neither Citizen's Climate Lobby, or the government of British Columbia, has ever insisted that the only thing a government has to do to reduce emissions is put a price on carbon and return proceeds to the public.  B.C. has invested in numerous initiatives to lower emissions - many that are the same as those Ontario has identified in its Climate Change Action Plan.  The difference is that B.C. has been funding these initiatives through general revenues, because it understands that these are the sorts of initiatives which build resiliency in their province, create jobs, and are good for the economy.

Maybe Ontario doesn't understand that.  If so, that's a huge concern, as all of the good initiatives in the Climate Change Action Plan are then put at risk of falling off the table when cap and trade collapses.

Liberals that Aren't

Here's one last thing on Minister Murray's economic paternalism.  Minister Murray is a Liberal.  It's always interesting and entertaining to me that the Party of laissez faire capitalism has decided to champion a father-knows-best approach to carbon pricing, rather than giving consumers the power to make their own decisions in a market that has seen its playing field leveled through a carbon tax.  Liberals ought to have some faith in our businesses and industries to innovate in the face of a changing market that sees consumers with more buying power looking for goods and services that provide the best value.  If Liberals like Minister Murray really believed in Adam Smith's free market, they would never have turned to cap and trade in the first place, given the significant intervention in the market that cap and trade entails (not to mention the picking and choosing of government backed winners and government shunned losers).

To me, that's telling.  Clearly, today's "Liberals" aren't really "liberal" at all - they're more interested in perpetuating the kleptocracy that ultimately enriches the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

It's my hope that in 2017, we'll begin to start seeing results from the political realignment that finally started to surface in 2016.  Liberals like Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Murray (and Democrats in the U.S.) will be revealed as acting in the interests of the corporate establishment at the expense of regular people.  Their unsupported counter-factual nonsense will be exposed for what it is and what it does: obfuscation that ultimately acts against the interests of democracy.

In 2017, I hope that it becomes evident that those who call themselves "liberals" have placed themselves in the camp of enemies to the planet.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Canada and Ontario)


The Mound of Sound said...

Hi Steve. Thanks for this and a Happy New Year to you. More battles to be fought in 2017.



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