Expired · 24th September 2009
Critics who are frustrated with the slow movement of governments to address the issue of "global warming" and "climate change" suggest that the consequences of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide should more aptly be called "global heating" and "climate crisis".
In a world where words make a difference by casting their long shadows of connotation, perhaps more threatening terms would incite a greater sense of urgency. "Warming" seems so harmless. Like being cuddled into a cosy bed, it has no suggestion of the fire smouldering beneath it. And "change" is too vague. It could be associated with the newest must-have fashion instead of weather havoc, searing temperatures, burning forests, rising oceans, spreading deserts and collapsing food supplies.
Denial is a common reaction in politicians if they can't reconcile the enormity of climate change with their economic and social philosophies ‹ some might even find the problem too big for their theologies and imaginations. But nature is indifferent to political agendas or election cycles. For the record, 20 years have passed since NASA scientist James Hansen warned the US government that climate change was occurring. And 37 years have passed since the concern first appeared in The New York Times. The earliest warning about the dangers of industrial CO2 emissions came from the Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, in 1896.
In Canada, global warming was acknowledged more than a decade ago by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien but only symbolic and inept steps were taken to address it. Canada supported and ratified the Kyoto Protocol and its emission targets but did essentially nothing to meet its obligations. Another Liberal government, under Paul Martin's leadership, carried on with the same do-nothing tradition.
In a bold step backwards, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper has essentially repudiated the Kyoto Protocol and, like some exercise in ideological cleansing, last year erased all record of the agreement from its web sites. Then, in a gesture of Orwellian thought control, it muzzled federal scientists from making any unapproved announcements about their environmental findings. Furthermore, at a time when the window of opportunity to effectively address global climate change is quickly narrowing, Canada has eliminated about a billion dollars from mechanisms to increase energy efficiencies and to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.
The Conservative government cut EnerGuide, a program that 300,000 Canadians had already used to reduce household energy consumption and could potentially reduce total household demand by an additional 30% – conservation of energy, incidentally, is the cheapest and cleanest solution. The government has also slashed the greenhouse gas mitigation programs of Environment Canada by 80%. It has withdrawn a $538 million contribution from Ontario's efforts to phase out its dirty, coal-fired electrical generation plants, an effort that could have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 30 million tonnes – the equivalent of removing 7 million cars from our roads. And it continues to fund grain-based bio-fuels, a strategy that might be helpful to voting farmers but increases food prices, causes food scarcity, and likely has negative greenhouse gas benefits.
In a bold but tardy leap into the 21st century, Canada's federal government now seems willing to acknowledge that climate change is actually occurring because it has proposed a "made-in-Canada" solution in place of its Kyoto Protocol commitments. When the obstinate Bush administration in the United States was mercifully replaced by an enlightened Obama adminstration, Canada's own solution seems to have been transformed into a "made-in-America" one – ecosystems do not recognize political procrastination as valid environmental strategies. With an obstructionist George W. Bush no longer in the White House, Canada's Prime Minister is looking more and more like an environmental anachronism.
While Canada's governments have been dithering, its citizens have been trying to be proactive. Quebec has decided to try to meet the Kyoto objectives, as have many of towns and cities across the country. In America, a dozen states and numerous cities and environmental groups were successful in asking the US Supreme Court to rule that the Environmental Protection Agency must consider carbon dioxide a polluting gas whose emissions must be controlled under the federal Clean Air Act. In Canada, environmental organizations are reverting to court action to move a recalcitrant federal government toward more responsible ecological action. But moving the country forward on a meaningful environmental agenda is difficult without the overarching vision and encouragement of a federal government.
Just acknowledging environmental problems is a huge enough challenge because the root causes are deeply entrenched in values and behaviours that may not be immediately apparent to us. And the momentum of communal behaviour that gives stability and cohesion to a society resists the destabilizing effect of new insights. Environmental warnings require us to respond with different values and new behaviours that are usually met with reflexive resistance. We need political leaders who are brave, committed and convincing ‹ leaders who will lead rather than follow.
But we don't have time to dither. The complexities and the basic mechanisms of our environmental problems are looking more pervasive and more serious each time we look. Yes, this is spooky stuff. And yes, it's profoundly disturbing. It's not what anyone wants to know. But it is reality. And if we are going to move toward solutions, we have no choice but to confront the sobering evidence. And to do this, we need bold and courageous governments.