If only we could launch air strikes against climate change

This week in existential threats to our society
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

Tom Mulcair’s fifth question yesterday for Stephen Harper was rather profound.

“How,” the NDP leader wondered of the Prime Minister, “can he face his children and his grandchildren?”

This was not quite the sort of straightforward and simple question for which the leader of the Opposition has made a name for himself. But there was a certain simplicity to it. Perhaps this is the question that should be asked of every MP, on a daily or hourly basis, or, at least, at the end of each debate. Perhaps we could permanently fill the House galleries with groups of 12-year-olds. Maybe that would impose some constant and heavy sense of consequence on the proceedings.

By a vote of 157-134 last night, the House of Commons did do something of great consequence: It endorsed the government’s plan to launch air strikes against targets in Iraq (and maybe Syria). This decision was preceded by two days of pitched debate, which were preceded by two weeks of questioning and fussing. Now Canada gets to sign its name to the latest attempt to confront one of the great existential threats of the 21st century and commit some number of soldiers and material with the intention of accomplishing something.

But Mulcair’s question had nothing to do with that; it was about that other great existential threat, climate change. The query came in the middle of some back-and-forth as to whether the ill-fated Kyoto Protocol constituted a “socialist scheme”—when the NDP leader reminded the House of the Prime Minister’s 2002 description of the accord, some Conservative MPs applauded—and was precipitated by the latest reminder that this country (not merely this government) is only sort of committed to do anything about this particular threat.

Had we figured out how to bomb climate change into oblivion, we probably would have done so by now—at least, unless someone thought to describe the expense of maintaining an army and sending it into battle as a job-killing, multi-billion-dollar war tax. In which case, we might all suddenly become pacifists.

But since this involves imposing government regulations on a national and international level, we’re all a bit reluctant to act.

For the sake of getting the gist of the Canadian situation, you might merely note the subheadings of the environment commissioner’s latest audit: “Regulations to reduce emissions have been delayed and good practices have not been consistently followed; Departments are not yet assessing the success of current regulatory measures; Environment Canada is not coordinating with the provinces and territories to achieve the national target; Environment Canada still does not have a planning process for how the federal government will contribute to achieving the national target.”

So far as achieving the government’s commitment to the Copenhagen Accord, it’s not likely going to happen, and regulations for the oil-and-gas sector remain a bit of a mystery. Despite the commissioner recommending two years ago that an overall implementation plan be drafted, the government still hasn’t gotten around to doing so.

Two years ago, the Opposition put the commissioner’s concerns to the government and the environment minister of the day reminded the House that the government was not proposing a carbon tax. Yesterday, the leader of the opposition put the commissioner’s concerns to the government and the Prime Minister reminded the House that the government would not be proposing a carbon tax. “Our objective on this side of the House is not to kill jobs and not to impose a carbon tax,” Harper assured.

So, at least as compared with the spectre of economy-destroying carbon tax, the government is doing all right.

In fairness, the government has done a few things. As the commissioner notes, it has introduced three regulations for the transport sector and one for the electricity sector, but it has so far failed to follow through on the other sectors its sector-by-sector approach is supposed to include. We are currently on track to miss our Copenhagen targets by 122 megatonnes, producing 734 megatonnes in 2020 when we should be producing 612.

That we are in this spot is not quite news. The government’s intention to regulate the oil-and-gas sector is now older than some schoolchildren (here is a report of a consultation in September 2006). And we now find ourselves in a situation not entirely unlike that of 2007. The onus remains on someone to do something.

“Mr. Speaker, our government’s record is very clear,” Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq asserted twice on Tuesday afternoon. “We have taken decisive actions in a responsible way to protect our environment, as well as our economy.”

The basics of this conversation don’t really change: The Opposition suggests the government is mistaken and must do more, the government says it is doing some things and the Opposition’s ideas are terrible.

“Thanks to our leadership and the efforts of the different levels of government, businesses and consumers,” Aglukkaq told the NDP’s Megan Leslie, “Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020 are projected to be 130 megatonnes lower than what they would have been under the Liberals.”

The Conservatives like this line, which no doubt sounds impressive, as long as you’re willing to suspend your disbelief sufficiently to imagine that, under a Liberal government, absolutely nothing of any consequence would have happened, either federally or provincially, in the last nine years.

As with the spectre of a carbon tax, anything can be made to seem preferable if you conjure up something worse.

“Mr. Speaker, this is an incredible question from the Liberal party, which has the worst record in the world on this issue,” Harper chided the third party when Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau dared question the government’s record yesterday. “Of course, the reality is that the Liberal party signed these incredibly ambitious targets, and then went in precisely the opposite direction, seeing some of the fastest increases in global greenhouse-gas emissions in the world.”

Chiding the Liberals was possibly more compelling eight years ago, before the Prime Minister’s government had its own targets that it was going to miss, with a trend line moving in the wrong direction.

Of course, as it is for the New Democrats and Liberals now, it is easier to be aspirational when your actions still exist only in theory. It is infinitely easier to promise action than to act, and relatively simple to invoke children and grandchildren until you think it might cost your party the next election.

But, for whatever reason, we seem to have hit some kind of moment of indecision (or repetition, so far as what each side has to say).

All of which might be mere rhetoric and math if it weren’t for the concerns that climate change poses a threat to our planet and our species. The government’s own climate change website suggests that “future warming will be accompanied by other changes, including the amount and distribution of rain, snow, and ice and the risk of extreme weather events such as heat waves, heavy rainfalls and related flooding, dry spells and/or droughts, and forest fires,” as well as “changes in average and extreme sea level, wave regimes, and ice conditions.” In the frequently asked questions section, we learn that the predicted results include “increased smog and heat waves resulting in more temperature-related illness and death; the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria‚ dengue and yellow fever into Canada as insects carrying these diseases migrate northward with the warming climate; and the quality and the quantity of drinking water could decline as water sources in some areas become threatened by drought.” The World Health Organization figures on about a quarter-million deaths per year worldwide between 2030 and 2050 as a result of climate change. There is possibly something to be said too for simply breathing cleaner air.

We might wager that it won’t be so bad, or that achieving meaningful global reductions is impossible, or that we will certainly adapt to whatever happens, but then, we might at least be up-front with each other about that bet.

Of course, if it’s easier to join a war than to implement a comprehensive national strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, that likely owes something to the more ambiguous threat of climate change and the simple reality of who would be doing the fighting: It’s one thing to send some planes and soldiers into a battle with bad guys, it’s another to compel an entire population to accept whatever new inconvenience or cost might be associated with helping to stave off future droughts and flooding.

If climate change were only being caused by a murderous gang of abhorrent maniacs, public support for bombing them into oblivion would probably be running around 98 per cent. If the president of Russia were single-handedly manipulating the world’s climate, the government would no doubt be eager to denounce him. But it is not so easy to confront a problem that implicates every human on the planet.

The government has not gotten to its current spot without the tacit approval of this country’s citizenry—or, at least, a certain lack of outrage. If we have not yet done enough to confront the problem—if we have spent decades pondering the way forward—it is surely because governments have not seen much to be gained from doing so. But if there are very difficult choices to be made here—and there are—then we might try to put them in front of ourselves for consideration.

We might get to confronting all this via next year’s election, but then, we’ll have all sorts of other issues to sort through then: tax rates, social programs, the precise look and personality we desire in a prime minister. So perhaps we should just declare some kind of new crisis on the climate change front and spend the next two weeks working ourselves into a tizzy about what will and should be done. The government could craft a resolution of some kind—even if only to explain that it’s not much interested in doing anything too dramatic just quite yet—and the Prime Minister could make a statement in the House and MPs could spend two days arguing and pleading with each other to see things one way or another. Each side would have a chance to explain the merits of their preferred course of action—the Opposition parties having to ante up and explain the details of their counter-offers. The country’s pundits and analysts could descend on the proceedings with their arguments and calculations. Reporters could be dispatched to the Maldives (or Miami) to ask the locals what they think we should do. And then the House could have a vote. And then we could spend the subsequent days watching and considering the ramifications of that decision.

After a week or so, we would lose interest and move on to something odd that Trudeau said, or some new outrageous peccadillo committed by some member of the government side, but at least we would have had a decent week or so of fussing about that which apparently threatens to reshape the course of humanity.

“If we do not deal with ISIL and its ilk, they will deal with us,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird told the House on Monday.

Setting aside the debate we might have about the internal coherence of this sentence, there is a simple argument here: If we don’t do something about Islamic State, it will not merely go away on its own, but rather, probably force us to deal with it.

This seems true of the threat of climate change: Either we deal with it or it deals with us, or, at least, with our children and grandchildren. If that’s the premise we’re confronted with, we might as well act like we’re serious about considering that. At least for a week or so.