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.

Why Vote Green?

Green PartyIn the fight against global climate change, we are currently approaching the endgame.

The time for compromise has come and gone. A certain temperature increase is inevitable — already “locked in” — but if we are to have any chance of preventing runaway global warming and the destruction this would entail, then we need to start saying no right now to the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Either we stay below the two-degree warming threshold or we don’t. Politicians who only get us partway there are no better than those who don’t even try.

This is the issue of primary importance during the election campaign underway here in British Columbia. Environmental questions are the ones with the most profound, far-reaching, and long-lasting impacts. Air, water, land, food, climate. These are not frivolous, “post-materialist” concerns that we have the luxury to think about only when there’s nothing else on the radar. They are inescapably wrapped up in our collective survival.

In this context, limiting our consideration to just the NDP and the Liberals won’t cut it. We British Columbians must “think globally” while we vote locally. It is time for us to embrace the Green Party.

No one is perfect, but a brief look at the party’s platform makes it clear how the Greens got their name. They alone in the electoral field support raising the carbon tax, and they are the ones most consistently opposed to oil pipelines. On natural gas, the Greens provide a lone voice of skepticism towards LNG and propose a moratorium on new gas developments. They even go so far as to endorse relocalization and to question our current economic model of perpetual growth.

On non-environmental issues, the Greens favour the creation of a Guaranteed Livable Income as a means of poverty elimination, ensuring that no one in BC falls below the Statistics Canada low-income cut-off. This would amount to a major raise for those on welfare or disability, while at the same time reducing administrative costs by combining all social assistance programs into one. The Greens also propose a living wage for public sector employees, a phase-out of BC’s regressive MSP premiums, and a drastic reduction in post-secondary tuition fees. They support an end to drug prohibition (which is, strictly speaking, a matter of federal jurisdiction, but provinces do have the freedom to set their own policing priorities). And more than any other party, the Greens are committed to a deepening of democracy through free votes in the Legislature, campaign finance reform, electoral reform, and an expanded use of citizens’ assemblies.

So why vote Green? Why vote for a party that is not Liberal or NDP, not one of the two main contenders? A party with a reputation for being marginal, minor league, no more than a protest vote? Simply put: because the Greens have the strongest policies on the issues that matter most.

Considering all that is at stake, why would one vote otherwise?

This post appears on rabble.ca.

What the NDP Is and Isn’t Promising on the Environment

Adrian DixIn the wake of the NDP’s Earth Day announcement unveiling its environmental platform in Kamloops, BC’s environmental movement has been falling all over itself in praise of the party sure to form the next provincial government. Environmentalist Tzeporah Berman, a vocal NDP critic in the last election, has now offered her enthusiastic endorsement of the party — this in addition to previous votes of confidence of a more qualified nature from the likes of Mark Jaccard and Rafe Mair. And let us not forget former Sierra Club BC executive director George Heyman, who is running as a candidate for the NDP in Vancouver.

So what exactly does the NDP have to offer on the environment? Well, let’s look at what it said in Kamloops yesterday. Contrary to media reports, leader Adrian Dix did not quite assert his unwavering opposition to Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline “twinning.” But he came closer than he ever has before. As stated in a release on the NDP website:

The Kinder Morgan proposal as we understand it, would dramatically transform what that pipeline does and would dramatically transform the Port of Vancouver. The Kinder Morgan pipeline would become a pipeline designed for oil sands bitumen export, with [sic] increasing dramatically the barrels per day passing through the Port of Vancouver via tankers.

We have to wait to see a formal application, but I don’t think that the Port of Metro Vancouver, as busy and as successful as it is, should become a major oil export facility.

We will conduct a made-in-BC review of the Kinder Morgan proposal and decisions will be made here in BC.

Our position is clear: we do not believe any proposal should transform Vancouver into a major port for oil export.

Read over that statement again. If Adrian Dix had wanted to pledge explicitly that an NDP government would block Kinder Morgan’s application, then he would have done so. But he and his team are choosing their words carefully. Without doubt, the party’s increasing negativity of tone with respect to the pipeline proposal is reducing the future government’s wiggle room (and environmental groups are right to celebrate this small victory), but some room for manoeuvre does remain.

This fine line being walked by the NDP is reflected on other environmental issues as well. In contrast to their Kinder Morgan position, Dix and co. are unequivocally opposed to the more well-known Enbridge pipeline proposal. They also favour a ban on cosmetic pesticide use. They have promised to broaden BC’s carbon tax to some (not all) currently exempt industrial emissions, and to devote a portion of its revenue to initiatives like public transit, but they will not raise the tax rate. On natural gas, they are calling for a review (not a moratorium) on the practice of fracking, but their position on liquefied natural gas development and export is otherwise mostly indistinguishable from that of the Liberals, despite evidence that BC will fail to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets if current plans go ahead.

The NDP has certainly come a long way since its “axe the gas tax” campaign of 2009 (and an even longer way since Premier Glen Clark called environmentalists “enemies of BC” in 1997). Without question, New Democrats are now miles ahead of the governing Liberals on environmental policy, and their announcement in Kamloops yesterday is justifiably greeted with cautious optimism.

But now is not the time to ease up the pressure. Environmentalists must remain vigilant against all who seek power. In fact, barring some truly spectacular flip-flops over the next three weeks, enterprising voters would do well to remember that there are more than just two parties competing for their votes on May 14.

Party Positions on BC’s Carbon Tax

Carbon taxWith the release today of the NDP’s fiscal plan in advance of the May 14 election here in British Columbia, we are now finally able to assess where the major parties — Liberals, New Democrats, Greens, and Conservatives — stand on the province’s carbon tax. In my opinion, there are four primary questions by which their respective carbon tax proposals are to be judged:

  1. Will the tax be raised?
  2. Will the tax base be expanded?
  3. Will the tax remain revenue neutral?
  4. How will equity concerns be addressed?

This is not to say that these four criteria are the only relevant ones in carbon tax policy. But I believe they are the most important.

First off, the only thing that needs to be said about the Conservative position is that the party opposes the carbon tax and plans to eliminate it in the unlikely event that a Conservative government is formed. A similar policy was adopted by the New Democrats four years ago, which did not end well for them. I can’t see it going any better for the Conservatives. ‘Nuff said.

Raising the Tax

As for the other three parties, let’s start with where they stand on raising the carbon tax. The Liberals — who introduced it back in 2008 at $10 per tonne, raising it incrementally until it reached $30 in 2012 — have now promised to keep the tax frozen at its present rate for five years to allow other jurisdictions a chance to “catch up” to BC’s “leadership.” The NDP’s fiscal plan indicates that the likely next government will be taking roughly the same position. Only the Greens (full disclosure: I’m a party member) are pledging to increase BC’s carbon tax to $50 per tonne and to continue nudging it up from there until it gets the job done.

Expanding the Base

On the subject of the tax base, let’s note that the carbon tax, as currently constituted, applies to only about two-thirds to three-quarters of emissions in the province. Exempt are certain mostly industrial emissions coming from oil, gas, cement, aluminum, and other sectors. The Liberals have announced no plans to change this, while the NDP says it will expand the tax to some areas (such as oil and gas) but not others (such as cement and aluminum), and the Greens promise to tax all greenhouse gas emitting industries.

Revenue Neutrality

The issue of revenue neutrality is one which I think is not nearly as important as it is commonly assumed to be. So, counterintuitively, here is a lengthy digression on the subject:

Currently, the carbon tax is required by legislation to be revenue neutral (it’s actually revenue negative, but who’s counting?), with every dollar coming in going back out in the form of tax credits and cuts to personal and corporate income taxes. The rationale is something along the lines that if people are aware that their tax burden will be no greater (on average) with a carbon tax than without, then they will be more likely to support it because, after all, everybody hates taxes. What the Liberal government did not count on, however, was that many would not be convinced of the carbon tax’s effectiveness unless they saw its revenue being put to productive use. There is a certain poetic justice in the idea of a tax on greenhouse gas emissions being used to pay for public transit and other eco-friendly projects.

Political optics aside, the best argument for revenue neutrality is that the base for a carbon tax (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions) should be declining over time, assuming that the tax is doing what it was designed to do. Such an unstable revenue source will not provide reliable funding for important government services — green or otherwise — so it is better not to depend on carbon taxes for revenue at all.

On the other side, opponents of revenue neutrality might acknowledge that perhaps carbon taxes are not ideal sources of government funding, but we are not exactly spoiled for choice. Not nearly enough is being invested in green initiatives at present, so why not exploit whatever revenue we happen to have at our disposal, regardless of how imperfect it might be?

Personally, I consider both these arguments to be about equally convincing (or unconvincing) and find myself in the rare position of being pretty much neutral on revenue neutrality. I support carbon taxation and I support green government spending, but what do I care whether or not funding for the latter comes strictly from the former? I could simply go either way on the issue.

BC’s political parties don’t quite see things the same way. The Liberals seem to be holding the line in favour of revenue neutrality (even if their latest budget has altered the tax cuts which were originally part of the revenue neutral deal, but never mind), whereas the New Democrats have long supported investing carbon tax revenue in public transit and other such projects. The Greens, officially, are on the side of revenue neutrality, but they have indicated that they might be open to compromise.

Equity

Finally, there is the question of equity. Carbon taxes on their own, like all consumption taxes, are well known for being regressive, meaning that on average the poor have to pay a larger percentage of their incomes (although lower absolute amounts) than the rich. For this reason, most fair carbon tax proposals include some kind of mechanism to compensate for this regressive element. BC’s carbon tax includes a low-income tax credit meant to do just that, but unfortunately, a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that the current program does not go nearly far enough and that our carbon tax is still, on balance, regressive.

I have not heard the Liberals or the NDP say anything about changing this. The Greens meanwhile have promised to “exempt” (whatever that means) people below the low-income cut-off from the carbon tax. The lack of detail on offer from parties across the spectrum suggests to me that the issue of equity is not being treated as seriously by opinion makers as it deserves to be.

Final Assessment

  • Green Party: B+
  • New Democratic Party: C+
  • Liberal Party: C-
  • Conservative Party: F (or I for Incomplete)

Note, these grades reflect the parties’ carbon tax proposals only. Carbon taxation is not the sole dimension of a comprehensive climate policy, but it is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. I find it encouraging to see three of the four major provincial parties openly embracing an idea which is still considered taboo on the federal level. That being said, it would be even more encouraging if they would step up their game. Climate change is the key challenge of our generation, and a well-designed, progressive carbon tax ought to be considered part of any reasonable set of solutions.

So hop to it, BC parties! The stakes are high and time is short.