What's in an emergency? Some bleak thoughts on staring down the last meaningful climate election.
By Michael Nabert
Published June 27, 2019
Scientist John Tyndall first measured the greenhouse effect that drives global warming in a laboratory way back in the year 1859. Since then, it has been studied by the largest collective scientific effort in all of human history, and the conclusion that human activity is causing current changes to our climate is supported by the five-sigma gold standard highest quality of scientific evidence.
There is no alternate hypothesis to explain current events that stands up to even cursory scientific scrutiny, despite decades of well-funded efforts to find one.
So pretending that tens of thousands of scientists are all idiots and that you know better has gotten a lot harder for today's busy climate denier on the go, as we've watched real-world events proving them right over and over again in the daily news. As a result, for the most part we've progressed beyond outright it-isn't-happening denial and moved into token-gestures-while-still-making-it-worse denial.
Enter the climate emergency declaration. Cities, states, and nations have begun an escalating trend of making very public statements that they acknowledge the climate crisis is an emergency.
So what does this emergency look like? The incredible array of dire scientific projections are pretty much terrifying enough that even just educating yourself on the subject opens the door to new and troubling mental health issues.
Nobel winning economists tell us the climate crisis represents the greatest market failure in history, with the Bank of Canada warning that it threatens not just our economy but our entire economic model.
Military intelligence experts define it as a threat multiplier that worsens a broad range of national security concerns, while not one or two but 56 different studies indicate that it also increases threats of interpersonal violence.
So when we say "climate emergency," what we mean is that it might not be exactly fun watching our economy and our food supply race one another to see which one can collapse the fastest.
Or rather, that's what you or I might mean. For governments, unfortunately, declaring the situation an emergency is just the sort of hollow gesture that can tell the public that you are serious about the subject without the pesky inconvenience of actually enacting policies that might back it up.
In Canada, that means some math on a couple of Liberal party climate policy decisions is in order.
Canada's Greenhouse Gas reduction target: -200 megatons of CO2 emissions by 2030
This target, set by the Harper government, was pilloried by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau as inadequate during the 2015 election, but after being elected the Liberals decided that it was perfectly okay.
Pro-climate Liberal policy decisions:
Anti climate Liberal policy decisions:
We could, of course, take a deep dive into much more, like the creation of new fossil fuel subsidies after election promises to eliminate them, but just those two line items is enough to give us a sense of scope.
Declaring a climate emergency one day and then green-lighting a project that guarantees worsening the climate emergency the next day is like saying that you're urgently concerned with fire safety, and then spraying all of the furniture with gasoline to indicate how true that is.
This makes it easier to understand why the climate emergency debate was so important to the mainstream parties that Green Party leader Elizabeth May was the only party leader who could even be bothered to show up, but what do you expect when media coverage of the royal baby eclipses the amount of attention paid to an existential crisis to our entire civilization?
Ironically, the current political awareness that voters care about this issue is leading governments to endorse exactly the sort of incremental changes that would have been credible responses to the issue somewhere around 1980.
The carbon tax is a great tool. Economists agree that it's the best way to reduce emissions with the least harm to the economy. In fact, the Nobel Prize for economics was awarded last year for using the data from dozens of places that already have carbon prices to prove that it works just like they said it would.
So there's nothing wrong with the policy in principle, other than the fact that it's far too tiny to add up to much.
What can be said in its favour is that it establishes the framework of a policy that could be dialed up to the point where it actually becomes useful. What can't be said is that it puts us on an emergency footing that has any chance of doing what science tells us we absolutely need to urgently do.
If we want to make the shift away from fossil fuels in a painlessly slow, incremental manner, all we really need is a time machine so that we can get started when scientists first told us that was what we had to go. At this point, pretending that a slow transition can get us where we need to be is full-throttle denial of what the science actually says - every bit as much as pretending global warming isn't happening in the first place.
It's the details of the carbon tax that much of this year's last-election-that's-likely-to-matter-as-far-as-the-climate's-concerned is going to hinge upon, apparently. The basic math is simple enough that you could use it to explain how this policy helps most of us to a grade three classroom in five minutes or less.
The price of doing a thing affects how often people do it. If a movie ticket cost fifty dollars, fewer people would go to the movies than when a movie ticket only costs ten dollars. So adding a tax the price of things that emit carbon means that people will do less of the things that emit carbon and emissions will go down. If it costs a little more to drive, then people will drive a little less.
This is not a difficult concept. You can ask literally any person who has ever had to work within a budget to explain it for you.
Canada's new carbon tax uses what is called a fee-and-dividend model, where the money collected is divided among citizens to give them a rebate and put money back into their hands.
A small proportion of people who are very high emitters will pay more than they get back because they emit lots of greenhouse gases by living large, while the great majority of people will actually get a bigger dividend paid to them than they pay in carbon taxes in the first place.
That's where the "more than they get back" that the biggest polluters pay goes: into the pockets of people like you and me. So you pay $2 more filling your gas tank and get it back on your tax return, and the guy filling up the million litre gas tank on a super yacht pays $40,000 more and you get a cut of that, too.
In conservative circles, and on Doug Ford's gas pump stickers, the "you get a rebate" part is conveniently forgotten, and decades of conditioning people to respond to the word tax with outrage as reliably as a rat in a behavioural study stamping on a button to get a food pellet kicks in.
It turns out that it's surprisingly easy to demonize a policy when you only focus on a word people don't like and pretend that the upsides don't actually exist at all. Go figure.
So the carbon tax takes money from the biggest polluters and gives it to taxpayers. In contrast, what both Doug Ford's climate plan and Andrew Scheer's climate, um, I'm reluctant to misuse the word 'plan' here, so let's say Andrew Scheer's something-to-wave-around-while-pretending-he-has-a-plan have in common is that they take money from taxpayers and give it to the biggest polluters instead.
That's much more comfortable ground for them.
What's really striking about Scheer's numberless propaganda effort, however, is its foundational reliance on finger-pointing. Not just in the way that the first dozen pages contain basically nothing but attacks on the Liberals, which we could easily anticipate, but in a much more fundamental way.
As conservatives have found it progressively harder to pretend climate change isn't an issue, and scientists tell us we absolutely need every nation to do its part, the go-to rhetorical tool the right dredges up is based on pointing fingers elsewhere.
For example, China's emissions are larger than ours, unless we use intellectually honest measures like per-capita emissions in comparing the footprint of our 37 million people to their nearly 1.4 billion.
But never mind the fact that we are in the top ten emitters among over 190 nations: Scheer's intention is to find a way to claim the credit for emissions reductions in other nations (you know, the 180 or so other countries that are already emitting less than we are) instead of taking action on emissions here at home where we could theoretically do something about them.
This is the finger pointing strategy taken to the Nth level. And for those tribal voters whose loyalty isn't shaken by little things like policy, it's music to their ears: both a way to pretend to take the issue seriously and a way to continue with business as usual by asking little to nothing of them.
In short, the Conservatives have offered us a cynical posture perfectly in line with the fact that while two-thirds of Canadians care about the issue, only half care enough to think $10 a month would be worth spending to avoid the almost unthinkable planetary catastrophe we were talking about earlier.
Here's the really uncomfortable truth of it: a vote for the Liberals is a vote for planetary disaster while saying the right things about it in front of the TV cameras. And a vote for the Conservatives is a vote for the exact same planetary disaster, maybe a teeny bit faster, while treating environmentalists as a public enemy in the media, and for anyone unfortunate enough to be trying to live here a few decades from now, there really isn't much difference between them.
Where does that leave voters interested in really doing what the real science is really telling us is necessary?
While Jagmeet Singh's NDP are working hard to separate themselves from former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's pipelines-or-die fossil fuel shilling and BC NDP's Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) love not being much better, they are bringing some credible policies to the table with a promise to reduce emissions 37 percent by 2030.
The Green Party, on the other hand, which seems likeliest to make this issue their top priority, raises the bar even higher to aim towards a 60 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.
Sounds fabulous, right? Or it does until we look at what the science is telling us. According to the scientists who correctly predicted all of the runaway wildfires and so on happening in the daily news, carbon emissions actually have to reach zero by 2030 in every country in the world if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
And the political voices suggesting maybe we should try to avoid those worst impacts by finally taking scientists seriously? We're over here on the sidelines being ignored and ridiculed while everyone else tells us to "be realistic."
Better buckle up, it's a long hard road downhill from here.
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