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General · 5th June 2014
Ray Grigg
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

–William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (Act 4, Scene 3, 218-224).

Canada is at a critical juncture in its history. It can either catch the flooding tide of clean, renewable energies presented by the urgent call of circumstances, or it can miss the rising current of opportunity, succumb to being a purveyor of fossil fuels, and thereby spend the “voyage” of its life “bound in shallows and in miseries.”

If the development of Alberta's tar sands, the proposed building of bitumen pipelines and the dream of a liquid natural gas industry are any indications, we seem to be choosing badly. The cause is clear. Whereas historians and philosophers think in decades and centuries, politicians and economists think in months and years. The difference is enormous. And the folly of living with such brief perspectives is becoming sadly evident.

The latest indication of this unfolding tragedy has been highlighted by the third National Climate Assessment Report, an 839-page study issued to the American government by its climate scientists. Unlike the previous two that were suppressed and manipulated during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, this one has been signed and endorsed by the White House. “The assessment is clear,” declared President Obama on May 6, 2014. “Not only is climate change a problem in the future, it's already affecting Americans, and people's lives are at risk.”

Indeed. Extreme spring storms and tornadoes ripped through Arkansas and Mississippi killing an estimated 35 people. Torrential rains in early May flooded Florida. The airport in Pensacola recorded an astounding 5 inches (127 mm) in just one hour. Then the rain continued for the rest of the day. After more than 1.5 feet fell (457 mm), the deluge rendered the airport's measuring gauges inoperable. The same day, other parts of Florida got more than 2 feet (600 mm) of rain — the exact amount is uncertain because none of these gauges, either, were capable of registering the intensity of the rainfall. Records since 1880 were shattered. Needless to say, flooding was extensive.

Such extreme weather events in the US have become the norm rather than the exception. A succession of bitter storms racked the East Coast during the winter of 2013-14. On the West Coast, California continues to suffering the worst drought of its 160-year history. Wildfires and water shortages are haunting other states. “Hardly a week goes by without Obama announcing more weather-based disaster relief,” writes William Marsden for Postmedia News (The Vancouver Sun, May 8/14). So the Report's conclusion that “climate change poses a clear and present danger to every area of the US is simply the official acknowledgement of the obvious.” Almost every aspect of American life, from safety and security to growing crops and oysters is being affected.

America's perspective on greenhouse gas emissions is undergoing a sea-change. This is undoubtedly a factor in postponing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline that would move Alberta's tar sand bitumen to southern US refineries — tar sands emissions are clearly a considered factor in America's energy relationship with its northern trading partner. Canada's appalling history of thwarting international agreements on carbon dioxide reductions, of abandoning its emission agreements, of failing to meet its negotiated reduction targets, and of perpetually delaying constraints on its own emissions is placing it on the wrong side of history.

While Americans are becoming progressively more nervous about the affronts of extreme weather to their health and prosperity, their president and politicians can't help but notice the unhelpful signals coming from Canada's reigning prime minister and his ruling Conservative Party. Their values and strategies are an uncomfortable reminder to Americans of their own unfortunate years under the Bush administration, a dark and regrettable period in their history when critical time and opportunities were lost to an ideology that was both blind and hostile to the precautionary warnings of climate and environmental science.

Americans now look northward and see a Conservative government in Canada that may be even worse that the Republican one they abandoned and are trying to forget — although “repress” may be a more accurate term to describe their response to the impact of the Bush administration on their collective psyche. Americans see in Canada an even more hostile response to climate science and scientists, an even more suppressive reduction in foundational environmental research, an even more methodical subversion and abandonment of carefully developed conservation policies, and an even more blinkered preference for ideology over evidence. The blatant and corrupting connections between government policies and the fossil fuel industries that warped American thinking are just as evident and constricting in Canada as they were in the United States — Prime Minister Harper is as tightly bound to Alberta crude as President Bush was to Texas oil.

Americans, of course, will make the decisions that are best for their own interests. But climate change blurs borders. Canada's carbon dioxide emissions will contribute to the extreme weather in such states as Florida, Arkansas, Mississippi and California. As America becomes progressively more concerned about its own environmental health, it will judge Canada's errant policies accordingly.

These policies are now moving in opposite directions. While the American government is becoming more environmentally conscientious, the Canadian government is defining itself as an environmental pariah, a outcast that is thwarting efforts to address the largest, most complex and dangerous threat to ever confront human civilization. The flooding tide of environmental awareness is raising consciousness and redirecting the destiny of many nations. But Canada is not one of them. As it steers in a contrary direction, it is missing opportunities, bewildering friends, deserting co-operation and straining important alliances. The farce would be comical if it weren't the prelude to tragedy.