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.
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-elec-tion. 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 for- mer chief economist at the National Renewable Laboratory in Golden, Col- orado, where he led a research team engaged in examining over-the-horizon issues for the US Department of Energy.