Fleeting Opportunity

on

Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada, Robert Paehlke, Toronto:
Between the Lines, 2008, 240 pages.

Reviewed by Michal C. Moore

Climate
change, climate forcing, global warming – all these terms frame a
collective public debate about the future of the world as we know it.
Since that “world” is dynamic and geographically diverse, it is not
surprising that political responses range widely from hand-wringing to
commitment and resignation, to disbelief and reticence, or even
outright denial.

Opinions about
climate change have their genesis in a range of backgrounds as diverse
as engineering, politics, economics and theology. For some, it is a
clarion call to action; to most political institutions and leaders,
it’s a challenge with few clear political benefits, high risks and
historic uncertainty. The Kyoto Protocol arose out of this collection
of instincts, opinions and science, becoming in itself a talisman of
political and economic opportunity wasted. As an early, if reluctant,
participant in the Kyoto agreement, Canada, its citizens and its
political institutions come under special scrutiny, especially in light
of their failure to meet targets.

Author
Robert Paehlke, in his new book entitled Some Like It Cold, has
undertaken the heroic task of stitching together a quilt that reflects
this diverse nation and its political, scientific and business response
to this regional and global issue.

Paehlke’s
book is a long essay about knowing your place in history before it
slips away. The author is a transplanted American who believes
passionately in the Canadian spirit, but recognizes and sympathizes
with the inherent difficulties of managing a confederation with often
conflicting provincial goals and wildly divergent assets.

For
Paehlke, Canada is a land of virtually limitless opportunity and
abundant resources, basking in continuous increases in demand. This
nation finds itself in a unique historical position, an accidental high
card in which a rich and diverse supply of natural resources, coupled
with a strong and growing economy, has put it clearly on the world
economic map with influence far beyond its GDP.

It’s
the catbird seat. Profits are up, if disproportionately allocated
across the land. Wages are good, the economy, if not recession-proof,
is at least running against the trend.

There is a fly in the lemonade, however, and Paehlke is doing his best to sound the alarm.
None
of this current situation is sustainable, either in terms of economics
or more importantly, the environment we share with every other country
on Earth. Paehlke believes that the opportunity for Canada to lead the
world by responding to a growing crisis is being systematically
squandered. Herein lies a conundrum: the current leadership is steering
the country to short-term satisfaction and long-term ruin. In the
process, it is creating a destructive, divisive wedge between the
provinces who “own” and ultimately allocate the natural resources that
form the basis of Canada’s natural capital.

Paehlke
relies on modern heroes such as investigative reporters and independent
watchdogs including the Pembina Institute to underpin his case.
Together, they part the veil on the provinces’ roles, especially
fossil-fuel-rich Alberta, whose obdurate refusal to establish limits
and restrictive regulations on oil and gas extraction has become the
proverbial tail wagging the dog. In this slow motion, public-policy
train wreck, setting a deadline for meeting standards is like measuring
the red shift of stars.

In the
automobile world, there is nothing older than last year’s Ferrari. It
is not a stretch to realize that there is nothing less influential and
less relevant than last year’s political leader who failed to
anticipate or embrace the future. In Paehlke’s Canada, the actors worry
about losing face, but not much, as long as they are making money, or
enabling their friends to make money. They use tools like intensity
targets, impossibly long timelines and volunteerism in their quest to
preserve the business-as-usual option and make sure that they never tie
their targets to measurable milestones.

But why?

Paehlke
gives us hints but never really succeeds in drawing a conclusion to
this fundamental question. He gives us information, anecdotes and a
historical perspective. He points out that it’s a game of delay, pause
and cul-de-sacs driven by malfeasance, inept leadership and short-term
goals targeted at re-election. In this game, if you wait long enough
and make enough vague promises, compliance begins to look impossibly
expensive, and thus undesirable.

Here,
as in all morality tales, we are presented with admirable, honorable,
not-so-honorable and shameless characters who act out their respective
roles. We also get a menu of options and opportunities for taking
action before it’s too late. For instance, in the case of fossil fuel
reserves, Paehlke points out that there is still time to change
procedures, rules and regulations to enhance environmental protection,
without sacrificing competitive profit levels, and while there is still
enough royalty return to advance long-term public welfare (such as the
Alberta Heritage Fund).

However,
reality is relative, and as the Bush Administration has demonstrated,
when you are in power, reality is what you say it is. In Canadian
politics, coming to terms with reality is simply another period of
redefining progress. There are no threats in this world beyond those
that challenge political power; for most office-holders these can be
dealt with given enough time.

In
the case of global climate change, however, we may not have the time,
and thus, the core of Paehlke’s message makes the most sense. Rather
than oppose and stall, Canada needs to act to unite North America as a
responsible, global energy superpower. Get out in front, define and
lead the parade.

Simple observation
confirms that places in history are usually assigned. In rare instances
we have a chance to influence that assignment. Opportunity knocks, but
usually not twice in a row. Failure to act in time will have
consequences far beyond the political structure and leadership of a
country that could be great.

An
economist, Michal C. Moore is senior fellow at the Institute for
Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of
Calgary. He is the former chief economist at the National Renewable
Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, where he led a research team engaged in
examining over-the-horizon issues for the US Department of Energy.

Reposted from Alternatives 34:3 (2008) – the issue on newsstands today. Click here to read what this issue is all about.

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