Twisting the Facts on the Environment

Infographic courtesy of sumofus.org

Case #1: BC Premier Christy Clark has a job creation plan. One component of said plan involves three liquefied natural gas plants in the northern part of the province. Unfortunately, this runs afoul of the provincial Clean Energy Act. So what does Premier Clark do? In June, she redefines “clean energy” to include natural gas — a resource that emits greenhouse gases just like any other fossil fuel — provided that it is used to power those plants in northern BC. Just like that, everybody wins!

Case #2: Scientists advising North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission recommend that the state plan for a sea level rise of 39 inches along its coast by 2100 due to climate change. Business groups complain that the resulting restrictions on coastal development will damage the economy. State lawmakers respond by introducing a bill that would bar officials from taking such pessimistic predictions into account. Instead, they would be required to consider only historical trends. In July, after North Carolina is widely mocked for trying to declare rising sea levels illegal, state legislators agree to a compromise and instruct the Coastal Resources Commission to come back with another report in four years. In the meantime, officials are still to ignore the scientists’ original advice.

Case #3: As a signatory to the Copenhagen Accord, Canada is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Peter Kent announces that Canada is halfway there. This must mean that the country has already lowered its emissions to 8 or 9 percent below 2005 levels, right? Wrong. By “halfway,” the minister means only that if we continue along the same path, we will be halfway to our target by 2020. Furthermore, this 2020 “halfway” projection does not use 2005 emissions as a baseline, but rather hypothetical 2020 emissions assuming inaction on the government’s part. The upshot is that by 2020, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are currently projected to drop to only 2.7 percent below its 2005 emissions, rather than 17 percent below. Halfway indeed!

Case #4: Enbridge would like to build a pipeline pumping Alberta oil to the BC coast for export. Sadly for Enbridge, people are increasingly concerned about accidents and the possibility of oil spills. To reassure the public, the company puts out several promotional videos. Earlier this month, it is discovered that in two of these videos, a string of islands in Douglas Channel, with a combined area of over 1000 square kilometres, is completely erased from the map. One must admit, the tanker route certainly looks a lot safer this way.

The PR lessons from this summer have been fascinating. If the facts are not convenient, simply invent new facts. Staying on message is the important thing. Who are we to let reality get in the way?

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Vancouver Sun Letter

Hot on the heels of my previous post, please see my succinct letter to the editor in today’s Vancouver Sun on the subject of Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

Canada, Kyoto, and Climate Justice

Per capita anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissi...

Per capita greenhouse gas emissions by country in 2000 (including land-use change)

After weeks of rumours, Environment Minister Peter Kent confirmed Monday that Canada is officially pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol.  Echoing the United States, our government has long complained that China, India, and other large developing countries are not required under the current phase of the treaty to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  Instead, say our leaders, any fair agreement ought to treat all major polluters — rich or poor — equally.

Due to the usual distaste amongst politicians for clear statements for which they can later be held accountable, I have been unable to find out in precise detail what Mr. Kent means by his demand for equal treatment.  (Not all equalities are created equal, after all.)  As far as I can tell, there are two likely possibilities.  One is that he wants both developed and developing countries to commit to the same percentage of emissions reductions.  This would be an absurd and deeply immoral proposition.  Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita are four times those of China and thirteen times those of India.  For all three countries to be legally required to reduce their emissions at an identical rate would preserve this inequality in stone and amount to nothing less than climate apartheid.

Of course, China and India both have higher total greenhouse gas emissions than Canada, as they have vastly larger populations.  But this measurement is not very relevant.  Nation-states are artificial entities; only people truly exist.  Accordingly, countries must be judged by the greenhouse gas emissions of the individuals who live there.

The second — and more charitable — interpretation of Canada’s position is that our government favours equal levels of per capita greenhouse gas emissions in every country.  On the face of it, this is much fairer, but it is also historically myopic.  More than two-thirds of the carbon emissions ever produced have come from the small portion of humanity concentrated in the developed world; the imbalance is even greater when calculated in terms of per capita emissions.  This trend is now changing, but it is hard to dispute the historical importance that the burning of fossil fuels played in the economic development of today’s rich countries.

Thankfully, more alternatives exist today, and it is incumbent upon industrialized countries to transfer technology and accelerate the establishment of an effective Green Climate Fund in order to facilitate sustainable development around the globe.  But to the extent that it is true that, in our flawed world, at least some fossil fuel use will continue to be necessary for now to give developing countries the economic advantages already exploited by developed countries, it is only fair that they be allowed to eventually achieve a higher level of per capita emissions (they’re still a long way off), and to maintain this legal leg-up until their citizens’ standards of living begin to approach our own.  Total global emissions need to go down sharply enough to avert catastrophic global warming, but how this burden is to be distributed across the world remains an open question.  Intuitive standards of justice demand that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change be respected.

So does the recently signed deal at the UN COP 17 conference in Durban achieve this goal?  It’s hard to say, since not much was agreed to aside from a commitment to negotiate the real agreement by 2015.  There is language acknowledging that this future agreement will take the form of “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties” (my emphasis).  But whether or not all parties are to make an equal sacrifice is not specified.  Nor, for that matter, are concrete emissions targets.  Considering the urgency represented by the risk of runaway global warming, any delaying tactic — which is surely what the Durban platform amounts to (the predicted 2015 agreement is not meant to take effect until 2020) — is a step in the wrong direction.

And where does that leave Canada and Kyoto?  According to the outcome of negotiations in Durban, the newly extended Kyoto Protocol will be the only legally binding global agreement regulating greenhouse gases until 2020.  It is far from perfect; the targets it sets are not nearly stringent enough to solve the problems it needs to.  But as the “only game in town,” it is considerably better than nothing, and represents at least a timid nod towards the morally necessary principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

And Canada, as expected, has abandoned it.  Time and again, we are proving ourselves to be on the wrong side of history.  No amount of griping about China and India is going to change that.