By AARON FREEMAN
The Hill Times
September 17, 2007
OTTAWA—The scuttlebutt says the Conservatives will focus on water issues as their new environmental challenge in the upcoming Throne Speech. Opposition parties and many environmentalists will likely respond that the Conservatives are trying to change the channel in an attempt to divert the public’s attention away from climate change and our international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.
The desire to get people talking about something other than Kyoto is evident in the title of the Conservative climate change plan, Turning the Corner. The plan fails to even mention the word “Kyoto,” and features weak intensity-based targets that allow overall emissions to continue to rise. On the global stage, Stephen Harper promoted a similarly watereddown approach in last week’s further attempt to undermine Kyoto at the APEC meeting.
Pacific Rim leaders drafted an agreement (more aptly termed a press release) that failed to specify any binding targets. “The Kyoto process is falling behind us,” Australian Prime Minister John Howard said hopefully.
It appears the Conservatives have made a political calculation that they simply can’t win on climate change—a bunker mentality that says climate activists are simply out to get them—and that their best bet is to do as little as possible, turn the corner, talk about other environmental issues to avoid looking like complete knuckle-draggers, and take their lumps at the polls when the time comes.
That said, progress on water pollution, drinking water and water diversions would address a major environmental challenge in Canada. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River—the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world—is a microcosm for many of the aquatic challenges Canada faces.
Cities like Toronto, Hamilton, and Windsor still dump raw sewage into the lakes.
Industrial plants in the region spew more than a billion kilograms of pollutants linked to smog, acid rain, respiratory illnesses, and other health ailments. New invasive species arrive at a rate of about one every eight months. And water levels are declining due to withdrawals for a range of human activity.
While U.S. federal and state governments are making serious financial commitments to clean up the lakes, Canada’s efforts in this regard have been meagre.
Similar problems exist elsewhere in the country, where water pollution and related issues are compromising the health and environment of Canadians.
As an issue to take political action on, water is an excellent candidate, and some environmentalists (myself included) would have good things to say about a plan that cleans up Canada’s water sources. But water is far less qualified to act as a diversionary tactic to get us off climate change.
First, like many environmental concerns, it is hard to address water issues while ignoring climate change. Global warming affects precipitation and water levels, and creates new demands on aquatic ecosystems, while diminishing glaciers and other sources of new freshwater. The tar sands, responsible for the lion’s share of Canada’s recent and projected increase in greenhouse gas emissions, soaks up unsustainable quantities of H2O, and destroys waterways with deadly chemicals.(One of the world’s largest toxic tailings ponds, visible from space, abuts a tar sands operation in Alberta.)
Second, even if the public wanted to forget about climate change (and polling over the past year suggests they don’t), the natural environment has a way of reminding us about it. Worse for the government, there is no way to predict when these popup messages will appear. Extreme weather events, increasingly frequent, tell us in very real and costly terms that climate change is a reality that we cannot continue to ignore. While one cannot credibly argue that a single hurricane, drought or flood is caused directly by climate change, most climate scientists agree that such events will increase dramatically with global warming.
Canadians increasingly view these phenomena as being associated with climate change.
Third, political events will keep the climate debate firmly in the public sphere. Opposition parties will fight to revive the Clean Air and Climate Change Act, originally a government bill that was strengthened by opposition parties in a Parliamentary committee. Following that battle, a lawsuit will likely materialize in the coming months as a result of the government’s refusal to comply with Bill C-288, a private member’s bill passed in the spring that requires the government to draft a plan to meet our Kyoto obligations.
Opposition parties and NGOs will also no doubt continue to find creative ways to highlight the government’s failure to come up with a plan for meaningful greenhouse gas reductions. A string of international conferences, such as one later this month in Washington, and one in December in Indonesia, will continue to shine a bright light on the issue. And climate change will no doubt be a fixture at other international gatherings such as the G8.
Trying to push climate change off the agenda will therefore involve the government in a constant rear-guard action, at exactly the moment it is trying to create a new agenda and a new face for voters.
The Conservatives argue Kyoto is unachievable without economic collapse. But experts from both Canada and around the world dispute this, and argue that the cost of failing to act meaningfully now will be far more expensive than the cost of weaning ourselves off of polluting technologies.
More importantly, government assertions would carry more weight if they could credibly claim they are doing all they could reasonably be doing to reduce our emissions. But federal targets for industrial greenhouse gas polluters are far weaker than those of other countries, and now even weaker than most provinces. Meeting Kyoto may be tough, but that’s no excuse for failing to put forward an honest effort.
Hopefully, the government will change course and table a serious climate change plan that takes on the tar sands, places a hard cap on industrial emissions, and provides real incentives to shift from fossil fuels to conservation and renewables.
The alternative of trying to ignore climate change simply won’t wash.
Aaron Freeman is the policy director of Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.