Science Matters by David Suzuki
Right now, the environment is hot. Literally and figuratively. Much of North America has hardly had a winter this year, and the media and politicians have finally caught on to the fact that Canadians now cite environmental issues as among their biggest concerns.
You know the environment has become a big deal when Alberta?s own Stephen Harper starts talking about it. He?s doing it through gritted teeth, certainly, but he knows he has to say something. Polling shows that his party is very vulnerable on the issue. As well it should be, considering his lame efforts to date.
But while the public is pushing Prime Minister Harper forward, some pundits are pushing him back, saying that Canadians aren?t ready for real change. They insist that any leader who tries to make the changes necessary to curb global warming and put Canada on the path to being an environmental leader will suffer politically because Canadians don?t really want to pay for a cleaner environment, even if they say they do.
Wrong ? on at least two accounts. First, pollution and poor environmental practices are already costing us dearly in terms of our health and our international reputation, as well as in cold, hard cash. We spend billions on the health affects of air pollution alone.
Second, Canadians know that real environmental change can only be accomplished if we all take part. That requires domestic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within a global framework like Kyoto. And it requires changes in rules and laws to ensure that we all are playing on an even field. This is the role of government ? to work with other nations internationally, and develop policies domestically, to encourage more sustainable choices and behaviours.
Free market ideologues might now be jumping up and down screaming about how government shouldn?t interfere in the market. Nonsense. As Canada?s great economic thinker John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out, government has a clear role in making the market work towards a common goal. Canada, as all other industrialized nations, has never had a pure market economy. Government has always played a role in the expansion and shaping of the Canadian economy, from the building of the railroad to creation of the Auto Pact. Industry responds to more than price signals in the market. Fiscal policy (such as taxes and subsidies) as well as regulations, also guides decision-making in corporate boardrooms.
The free market wonks are right in that Canadians who really want environmentally sustainable goods and services can already hunt them down and purchase them. But the fact that so many of us don?t choose more sustainable options is not because we don?t care or aren?t willing to pay slightly more for them, but because we don?t have enough information, can?t find the best options or don?t know where to look. And when we do find them, because of subsidies or rules favouring the status quo, the most sustainable option can be prohibitively expensive.
Government?s role is to advance the public good. On the environment, that means enacting visionary new laws and policies to move us towards a sustainable economy. Certainly, there would be griping and moaning and complaining from some circles. But the reality is, Canadians are tough and practical. We know that our environmental record stinks and we know that global warming is a very serious problem that will harm our health and our economy. We?re willing to pull up our bootstraps to make things happen. But we need direction from our leaders to ensure that everyone plays by the same rules. It?s only fair.
Polls show that Canadians are genuinely concerned about our country?s flagging environmental record and what that means for our health and our future. They are expecting politicians at all levels to be upfront, pragmatic and committed to working towards a more environmentally sustainable future. Politicians and pundits can squabble amongst each other about the public?s appetite for change, but the public is already ahead of them. And this time, lame efforts won?t cut it.