Correcting the myopia of Canadian climate policy (by Daniel Horen Greenford)

garneau-spaceship-earthAs the second year of the Trudeau administration gets underway, Canadians must pause to reflect on their progress by weighing actions against promises. Recently, I met with Minister of Transport Marc Garneau along with two other Canadian youth concerned with the direction of our nation on energy and climate policy. The meeting was arranged to follow up on a sit in and direct action that we were part of two and four weeks ago. Minister Garneau was very generous with his time, our meeting exceeding the allotted 30 minutes. However for all his hospitality and diplomatic courtesy, we still walked away feeling patronized and dismissed. We fear that meetings like this can be co-opted as currency to bolster the party’s popularity. An awareness of this makes one acutely aware of the difference between being heard and being listened to.


The object of the meeting was to remind Minister Garneau that an approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project is incompatible with Canada’s expressed climate targets and international commitments. He said he understood our position, though we represented a particular demographic — the climate demographic — and we have to understand “the big picture”. The irony of this is excruciating. Garneau’s version of the big picture, like many politicians, is extremely myopic — short-term economic gains and limited jobs for a dying industry. We’re talking about averting ecological collapse in favour of building a resilient economy that will safeguard the environment and climate. We’re talking about moving one of the best-educated countries into the twenty-first century. We’re innovators — we don’t need to make a living selling tar we dug out of the ground. We need to be making these decisions now, looking forward for generations upon generations, not just quarter to quarter.  What else is more “big picture” than this?


It should be noted that the metric the minister suggested we use to measure their success was the 2030 climate target — a 30% decrease in national emissions from 2005 levels. It is convenient that we’ll have to wait several election cycles before being able to definitively hold them to account. The current target is extremely inadequate, unchanged from the Harper era, and we’re on track to even miss that. We found it impossible to communicate how all this flies in the face of Canada doing its fair share to honour the Paris Agreement.


There are many arguments, economic and environmental, for why the Trans Mountain Expansion and other new pipelines out of the tar sands should not be built, but the climate case is strong enough in its own right.  New pipelines are directly at odds with a transition aligned with averting catastrophic climate change. The math is clear and simple — Canada doesn’t need new pipelines if we are to honour our climate policy commitments. Earth scientist David Hughes provides lucid analysis and has said with conviction: “Short of an economic collapse, it is difficult to see how Canada can realistically meet its Paris commitments in the 14 years remaining without rethinking its plans for oil and gas development.”


As for other arguments, there are too many to list exhaustively here. For starters, even if we intend to sell tar sands oil, the most likely outcome is that no one will buy it. New reserves were recently discovered in the Permian Basin three times larger than that of the Bakken Formation. Tar sands oil is a marginal resource. It will not be sold in a carbon-constrained world. Prices will remain low indefinitely due to an adequate remaining supply of cheaper, more accessible resources. This says nothing of it being the most environmentally damaging form of oil extraction. For all these reasons and more, it must be the first oil source left buried.


We relayed this to the minister and none of it really seemed to make it through. His response was that it takes time to make progressive change in a democratic government, that we need to be more patient. And as for whether our oil will become a stranded asset, we’ll have to “wait and see what happens”. When it comes to the health of our environment and our economy, a “wait and see” strategy is irresponsible. Whatever happened to the precautionary principle?


Garneau iterated that it is our job — the demographic of climate conscious Canadian youth — to hold our government to account. But should it not be the role of our government to hold themselves accountable to the safety and well-being of Canadians and the global population? This meeting was a window into the four-year party system and its inability to govern effectively when faced with long-term existential problems. Canadians will continue to hold this government responsible to their climate commitment, which should have begun with the rejection of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline.


Daniel Horen Greenford is an E4A PhD student based at Concordia University. His research aims to to define and quantify responsibility for climate change. Listen to him in a recent interview on CKUT radio (15 minutes in).


Note: an edited version of this article was subsequently published in the National Observer December 14, 2016.






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