Contra Rex on Climate Change (by Stephen Clare)

Rex Murphy makes a not-so-triumphant return to the climate action discussion with his latest column. He rightfully notes that the election of a coal-obsessed climate conspiracy theorist to the Presidency in our southern neighbor poses new challenges to those of us working for climate justice. However that is about all that’s done rightfully in this column, which shows once again that it’s Mr. Murphy himself who is “out of key” when it comes to climate change. Consider his characterization of China as an uncaring nation of “multiplying coal-powered plants […] free to spew emissions.” It’s an unsubtle, outdated picture of a country that’s recently shown a desire to lead in the international fight against climate change. Chinese leaders have repeatedly criticized Donald Trump’s unscientific statements about climate change while asserting that greenhouse gas reductions are actually “conducive to China’s development interests.”


The government of Canada shares that desire to lead. As Mr. Murphy flippantly points out, we could rather easily drop carbon emissions from human sources to zero by simply switching off our cars, chainsaws, lawnmowers, power plants, and factories. Of course, that’s an absurd strawman of environmental policy proposals. No one is suggesting that as the “best” way to reduce emissions. What makes climate action so darn hard is that when we do talk about the “best” way to reduce emissions, we’re trying to work out how we can do it fairly, efficiently, and quickly without causing undue harm to economically vulnerable populations. Really, it’s exactly because we are considering the economic effects, the social disruption, that Mr. Murphy claims to be so worried about that effective climate action proves so elusive.


It’s tempting to shy away from such a difficult task. As a student who’s chosen to devote my life to figuring out how humanity can tread a little more lightly on this planet, I understand all too well the seductive pull of the fantasy world currently inhabited by Mr. Murphy, Mr. Trump, and Saskatchewan’s Mr. Wall. A world where one can conflate scientific uncertainty with scientific ignorance. Can pretend our economy can grow continuously without guidance or restraint. Can choose the convenient excuse over the necessary action: “Not here, not now; it’s just not the right time.”


But I can’t live in that world. Our economy is restrained whether we like it or not. It’s restrained by the simple fact that we have to live on a finite planet whose land, water, and atmosphere can only absorb so much of our pollution. The USA accounts for almost 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it will be a damn shame if the new government rips up the Paris Agreement. But the President can’t stop states like California from pricing emissions and regulating vehicles; can’t stop Texas from installing huge amounts of wind power; can’t stop new energy companies from offering cost-competitive solar energy while providing good new jobs; and he sure can’t stop the rest of the world from cutting down the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions that come from outside America’s borders. Out here in the real world, things are changing real quick. We’re going to keep moving forward, and Mr. Murphy and his fantasist friends will either come along or get left behind.


Stephen Clare is part of the E4A Project at McGill University. This winter he heads to Panama to figure out how to make resource economies both prosperous and sustainable.

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