National Post Letter

LetterIn today’s National Post, I’ve got another letter to the editor on everyone’s favourite topic: the Trans Mountain pipeline. (I’ll stop repeating myself once people start listening!) My letter appears only in the print edition, so I cannot provide a link. Accordingly, here is the full text:

The pipeline crisis

Re: PM takes right tack on Trans Mountain, Andrew Coyne, April 17

Regarding the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Andrew Coyne writes, “this is not a debate about a pipeline, or not any longer. It is about who decides.”

With all due respect, it absolutely is about the pipeline.

If greenhouse gas emissions do not peak and subsequently decline within the next couple of years, the world will fail to meet its commitment to limit warming to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. The time for building new fossil fuel infrastructure has come and gone — not just in other countries, but here at home, too.

To insist on procedural niceties — in the face of the climate chaos we risk unleashing and the burden we are placing on future generations — is narrow-minded provincialism at its worst.

David Taub Bancroft, Vancouver

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Of Premiers and Pipelines

In an interview with the National Observer last week, Justin Trudeau raised more than a few eyebrows by comparing B.C. premier John Horgan to former Saskatchewan premier and climate policy obstructionist Brad Wall.

“Similarly and frustratingly,” said the prime minister, “John Horgan is actually trying to scuttle our national plan on fighting climate change. By blocking the Kinder Morgan pipeline, he’s putting at risk the entire national climate change plan, because Alberta will not be able to stay on if the Kinder Morgan pipeline doesn’t go through.”

All this over a timid proposal by the B.C. government to study the effects of bitumen spills before allowing increased shipments through the province.

Clumsy “guilt by association” attempts aside, I understand what the prime minister is trying to get at. His approval of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, so goes the reasoning, is part of a grand national compromise. Alberta gets a pipeline (flowing through B.C.) and environmentalists get carbon pricing. Win-win, everyone’s happy. Remove one piece of the strategy and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Except that it doesn’t. The Alberta government’s willing participation — while preferable — is not strictly needed. As Trudeau himself admits, “there is a federal backstop that will ensure that the national price on carbon pollution is applied right across the country.”

Furthermore, his climate plan was a pretty rotten compromise to begin with. The federal carbon pricing requirement is set to rise to $50 per tonne by 2022, but then it stops. This is not nearly enough to get us to the 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that Canada pledged to achieve by 2030 at the Paris climate conference. To meet that commitment would require an eventual price of $200 per tonne (if pursued through carbon pricing alone). Or, at the very least, a federal government with the political backbone to say no to environmentally destructive fossil fuel projects.

The international community has agreed to limit warming to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That means reaching peak global emissions no later than 2020. Simply put: now is not the time to be building new pipelines.

Nobody suggests shutting down the oil sands tomorrow. But at the very least, at this moment in our history, we must stop moving so aggressively in the wrong direction. If the Trans Mountain pipeline is allowed to go forward, alongside other fossil fuel infrastructure proposals with decades-long lifespans, that would mean sabotaging the meagre gains made by our inadequate federal carbon scheme.

A transformation on the scale required demands bold national leadership. Sadly, beyond a few token half-measures, said leadership has been lacking from Trudeau. It is no ideal solution for the mantle to pass to a provincial premier, but under the circumstances, I don’t see what other options we have.

While the Kinder Morgan kerfuffle has gotten very ugly very fast, and will likely only get uglier, Canada is morally obligated to do more than free-ride on international efforts. So let’s brace ourselves for the coming ugliness and keep our eye on the prize of climate justice.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Globe and Mail Letter

LetterIn today’s Globe and Mail, you will find a letter from me (fourth from the top, under the heading “In the national interest”) relating the present interprovincial pipeline kerfuffle to global efforts efforts to solve the climate crisis. Never hurts to remind ourselves how much is really at stake.

Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterFor what is likely to be my last letter to the editor of 2016, see today’s Vancouver Sun (fourth letter from the top). The gist of my argument is that Kinder Morgan is bad.

Fun fact: this ain’t the first time I’ve responded to a pro-Kinder Morgan op-ed by former NDP Premier Dan Miller.

It’s the Climate, Stupid!

Portland protestNot two weeks since the federal government’s long-anticipated approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, the magnitude of the obstacles faced by the project are becoming clearer by the day.

There is widespread public hostility — both in Kitimat, envisioned as the pipeline’s end location, as well as across British Columbia more generally. First Nations and environmental groups have launched several court challenges, with more expected to come. Massive protests and civil disobedience are inevitable. Efforts will soon be underway to initiate a province-wide referendum. The government of BC, which must provide about 60 permits, is ambivalent about the pipeline at best, while federal opposition parties are promising to reverse the project’s approval if they win next year’s election.

All this in addition to the much-ballyhooed 209 conditions.

Nevertheless, as rosy as matters may look from certain angles, victory is far from assured. The entrenched power of Enbridge and its political backers in Ottawa and Edmonton is nothing to scoff at, and pipeline opponents would do well to take a step back and consider why exactly they are opposed.

I say this because in the coming months, British Columbia will be bombarded by relentless propaganda (as though we haven’t had enough already) claiming that Enbridge has heard our cries of protest and will commit to building the greenest, most environmentally responsible pipeline it can build. The threat of bitumen spills on land and at sea will be neutralized. The company will meet and exceed provincial demands for “world-leading” response, prevention, and recovery systems.

Never mind for a moment the disingenuousness of such attempts to deflect and to co-opt. Never mind Enbridge’s less-than-exemplary record on oil spills. Such promises, even if true, are irrelevant because they fail to address the proverbial elephant in the room, climate change. The fight against pipelines is not just about our wilderness, our rivers, our coastlines — vital though these are. It is about the planet-wide impact of dangerously accelerating tar sands expansion, a process that Northern Gateway is meant to facilitate.

According to current projections, if warming is to be kept within the two-degree limit pledged by world leaders at Copenhagen, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak some time before 2020. Such a scenario is not consistent with the continued building of large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure with decades-long lifespans (at least not here in the developed world). Virtually every new pipeline, oil refinery, LNG facility, or coal-fired power plant is another nail in the coffin of climate stability.

It is possible to disagree reasonably about how rapidly to phase out existing infrastructure, how aggressively to tackle the transition to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and other renewables. But at the very least, at this stage in our history, to continue full speed in the opposite direction without a care for the consequences should be unthinkable.

That — in addition to the risk of spills — is what’s wrong with Northern Gateway. That is why we can’t let them win.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Three Solutions to Mark Canadian Environment Week

EarthIn honour of Canadian Environment Week — currently underway amidst accelerating tar sands development, hot on the heels of withdrawals from the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification — let us reflect upon what the federal government, if it were so inclined, could be doing differently. In other words, broadly speaking, how might Canada move beyond the symbolic in pursuit of true environmental sustainability?

1. Get serious about climate change.

By and large, there are three basic policy tools available to the government here: standards, carbon taxes, and cap-and-trade. To the extent that they have acted at all, the Harper Conservatives, in line with the Americans, have primarily gone the route of standards (such as fuel efficiency requirements and sector-by-sector regulations). This is a somewhat surprising move since standards are known for being “command and control,” while carbon taxes and cap-and-trade, regularly decried by the Conservatives (although they did briefly favour the latter), are considered more market-oriented.

Unfortunately, the standards that have been implemented so far by the Canadian government do not go far enough. The three major types of policy tools may have different implications with respect to simplicity, predictability, cost-effectiveness, and comprehensiveness, but in the end, the most important question is how stringent they are. We are getting rather late in the game of dealing with climate change, and it is high time we exploit every mechanism we have at our disposal.

2. Take advantage of our federal system of government.

In a federation like Canada, where responsibility for protecting nature is shared between the federal and provincial governments, environmental policy can get messy. But if this overlapping jurisdiction is accepted and handled wisely, then sometimes environmental progress can emerge out of competition between the two levels. Political scientist Kathryn Harrison dubs this kind of arrangement “unilateralism,” in which the feds and the provinces pursue their environmental goals independently. That way, they effectively check one another’s work. If one level of government abandons its responsibilities, there is still the second to fall back upon.

Sadly, this approach is not one that is embraced by the current federal government. The Harper Conservatives have pursued equivalency agreements with their provincial counterparts, in which provinces forfeit their rights to implement independent environmental assessments on certain key projects, allowing the feds alone to call the shots. This may avoid duplication of efforts, but the savings come at the expense of the natural world. The environment would be far better off if we embraced all the advantages Canadian federalism has to offer.

3. Enshrine environmental rights in the Constitution.

Environmental lawyer David R. Boyd came out with two books on environmental rights last year. He finds that 147 countries from virtually every region of the world have explicitly inserted environmental rights or responsibilities into their national constitutions. His work shows that the impact of these measures extends far beyond mere symbolism, with countries that boast green-tinged constitutions demonstrating stronger environmental performance. In many cases, governments rewrite legislation to comply with the environmental provisions of their constitutions and courts even force their governments to change course.

Anyone who recalls the last few decades of Canadian history knows that amending the Constitution is no easy task, but the fact that we are part of a dwindling minority of nation states that do not prioritize environmental protection in this manner should serve as a wake-up call. The natural environment is not some trivial matter to be tossed back and forth by the government of the day. It is the life support system we all depend upon, and it deserves at least as much pride of place in the supreme law of the land as freedom of speech and the right to vote.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Exxon’s Love for the Poor

Rex TillersonAt Exxon Mobil’s annual meeting in Dallas this week, shareholders rejected a motion to set greenhouse gas reduction targets for the firm. CEO Rex Tillerson argued that such an extreme measure would hurt the world’s poor, stating, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

So begins, I expect, the newest form of corporate philanthropy, wherein titans of industry the world over seek to ease their troubled consciences and aid the downtrodden by — what else? — frying the planet. Companies like Exxon already benefit from myriad government handouts, so why not do the obvious and simply relabel their tax credits “charitable”?

Never mind the fact that the effects of climate change will hit poor people the hardest, reducing crop yields and increasing food prices globally, threatening hundreds of millions with homelessness and possibly statelessness at the hands of rising sea levels. And never mind the devious misdirection at play in implying a clean separation between “planet” and “humanity,” as though the former were not where the latter so happens to spend most of its time.

After disparaging climate models and the atmospheric carbon threshold of 350 parts per million identified therein, Tillerson went on to say, “We do not see a viable pathway with any known technology today to achieve the 350 outcome that is not devastating to economies, societies and peoples’ health and well-being around the world.”

This common line of reasoning assumes a world marked by an unbridgeable chasm between environmental and economic well-being — identifying social justice and poverty alleviation solely with the latter — which, if true, would showcase a fundamental irrationality at the heart of our economic system. We can avert one kind of catastrophe or the other. Never both.

It is no wonder so many people seek alternative models, in which economic laws are recognized not as immutable, but as social constructs that can be bent, broken, and reconceived if we so desire. Alternative models in which — and I’m just spitballing here — the whole purpose of the economic system is to benefit the poor directly, instead of multimillionaire CEOs who make transparently self-serving excuses for climate inaction.

Crazy, I know. But a blogger can dream.

This post appears on rabble.ca.