March 8, 2013
Environmental Highlights of 2012
Climate change is a current issue which has captured the interests of both local and national governments, in Canada and internationally. Below are some of the highlights of the news which has covered climate change at the provincial and federal scales in Canada as well as the international. I have identified what I believe are three significant stories in a political context from 2012.
At the provincial level, the Liberal government in Ontario backed out of its commitments to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It cut funding from existing programs (for example, the rebate program for consumers who purchase electric vehicles) so that money can be put towards eliminating the government’s current deficit. While the current government does have some notable accomplishments, like the phasing out coal-fired electricity generation and introducing new clean energy sources, funding for a number of environmental programs is being decreased so that the deficit can be reduced. I believe that this will lead to further environmental destruction that can be prevented. However, what impact will Ontario’s actions to reduce climate change have in the overall picture if other provinces or countries are not taking similar steps?
I have always found the relationship between the environment and economy an interesting one, given that the environment is one of the first areas where cuts occur so that the fiscal situation can be improved. Data collected by the Canadian Opinion Research Archive (CORA) shows that when concern for the economy decreases, concern for the environment increases; the reverse is also true in the sense that when the economy is a bigger concern, the public’s concern about the environment decreases. The Liberal government’s actions which are stated above support the data collected by CORA.
Thomas Mulcair, leader of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP), made headlines over the summer of 2012 with his comments about Alberta’s oilsands. A number of major newspapers, including the National Post, quote him saying the following: “Right now we’re allowing them to use the air, the water, and the land as a free dumping ground, and that’s where the problem arises.” A number of individuals have stated that Muclair’s comments are ill-informed and according to Pat Bell, British Columbia’s Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation, he has a “lack of understanding of the economy.” From this comment we see the environment being placed on one side of the spectrum and the economy on the other. As is evident from the comment about Mulcair’s ‘lack of understanding of the economy’, there are individuals who believe that an individual who affirms the important of environmental stewardship cannot have a grasp of economics.
After his statement was made in mid-May, Muclair made a visit the oilsands in Central Canada and as The Globe and Mail notes, he toned down his language. Regardless, he “stuck to his arguments which he has repeated often but only this month erupted into a war of words with western premiers. Environmental oversight of the oilsands is subpar and the federal government should enforce its laws. It is nice to see that a leader of a major party at the federal is supporting the enforcement of environmental laws. Hopefully, we can elect a leader who will ensure that environmental laws and policies are enforced, rather than cutting existing programs that are in place. The bigger question is, will voters eventually elect a leader (as a Premier or Prime Minister) who is tough on environmental destruction?
On an international scale, one of the highlights of 2012 is the Doha Climate Change Conference which occurred from November 26, 2012 to December 8, 2012. A total of 194 countries attended this conference and there were approximately 16, 000 participants (including 6,868 delegates and 5,829 observers). One of the outcomes of this conference is that discussions occurred on a universal, legally binding international agreement which would cut greenhouse gas emissions; the aim is to have this agreement ratified in 2015 and have it come into force by 2020. On the one hand, some have hailed these discussions as a positive step forward to combatting climate change. On the other hand, these discussions are viewed as simply an extension of the Kyoto Protocol which may not actually do much to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Taking into consideration the Canadian experience with the Kyoto Protocol, I am forced to question whether the new agreement will lead to tangible results for a number of reasons. Firstly, tensions arose between the federal and provincial governments during the negotiation process of the Kyoto Protocol because although the federal government wanted a national climate change strategy, a national consensus with the provinces was hard to pin down. The reason for this is that while all the provinces agreed with the voluntary approach, not all of them were ready to make firm commitments. As a result, it is evident that without the support of the provinces, it will be difficult for the federal government to move forward and ratify a new international agreement without the support of the provinces. Secondly, some scholars have argued that the external pressure by other heads of state is what led the Canadian prime minister at the time to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Taking this point into consideration, one has to question whether the countries who will be signing on to the new international agreement are doing so for symbolic purposes or whether they are doing so to take action. While the Canadian government initially ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the Conservative government under Stephan Harper withdrew Canada from its commitments to the Kyoto Protocol because Canada would not be able to meet its targets. Given the Canadian experience with the Kyoto Protocol, I am unsure whether a new international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will provide concrete results. Also, to what extent will party ideologies play into whether such an agreement ratified or not?
While the effectiveness of the new international agreement can be questioned, a significant outcome of this conference is that the effects of climate change on poor countries have been acknowledged and rich nations have pledged to assist poor countries to repair the loss and damage that has taken place. According to The Guardian, Ruth Davis, political adviser at Greenpeace, said: “This is a highly significant move – it will be the first time the size of the bill for failing to take on climate change will be part of the UN discussions. Countries need to understand the risks they are taking in not addressing climate change urgently.” Often enough, the costs associated with climate change and environmental destruction are externalized; in the process, many corporations and governments do not fully understand the risks associated with letting things continue the way they are. By assisting poor countries to repair the loss and damage that has taken, rich countries may start to realize the true impact of climate change on the environment.
Why are these stories important?
In this blog, I have examined three stories which touch on the issue of climate change. The first was about the Liberal government in Ontario backing out its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that it can eliminate its deficit. This was an important story because it was another example of where the economy is higher on the governmental agenda than the environment. Over the summer in 2012, I had the opportunity to hear David Suzuki speak at the University of Guelph where he described the venn diagrams provided in this post.
He described our current way of perceiving the world in the context of Figure 1 where the environment, economy and society are given equal importance. However, given that human actions are increasingly putting the planet in danger, his belief is that the biosphere should be the largest circle (Figure 2) and the most important given that there are over 30 million species that depend on it for their existence, including humans. Within that would be human society and a small portion of that would be the economy. I believe that one of the underlying ideas of this notion is that without the environment, the economy would not exist and that we need to take care of the biosphere if the living creatures on the planet are to survive. Essentially, the individuals and groups that are placing the economy ahead of the environment are leading to the imminent destruction of the planet. One underlying question that I have is: will the environment eventually be a number one priority?
The second story was regarding Thomas Mulcair’s comments about Alberta’s oilsands. I believe that this was an important story because it is an example of a politician (more importantly, the Leader of the Opposition at the federal level) who recognizes that environmental destruction that is taking place publicly and that it is an issue that needs to be addressed. The third story I looked at in this blog was about the Doha Climate Change Conference. I think that this was an important story because it signals that countries are willing to come together to climate change is a current issue that needs to be addressed. Overall though, one can question whether these are the stories that we should be looking at given that they share a common thread: politics. Are environmental issues like climate change inherently political? Are there other stories that we should be looking at? Do we need to look at stories which examine the direct impact of climate change first rather than moving directly to what we can do about it? These are questions that I believe are all relevant to the larger discussion about climate change and how we can move forward to addressing the issue.
Simran Chattha completed her B.E.S. degree at York University. More recently, she graduated from the University of Guelph with an M.A. in Political Science specializing in Public Policy and Administration. Her research interests lie in the areas of environmental policy and climate change adaptation.