I was in an Ottawa church basement along with about 80 other people a few days after the election call listening to three church leaders on a panel called Environment & Climate in Peril. The frustration was palpable. “Climate change is the key moral and ethical dilemma of our time and we have to engage it,” said Rev. Lillian Roberts from the United Church’s Ottawa presbytery. “We are facing a developing crisis and there is a need for an urgent response, but you won’t hear about it on the leaders’ debates,” said David Selzer, Executive Archdeacon, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.
Sadly that is probably true. American economist William Nordhaus says that any politician who will not support placing a price on carbon is not really serious about slowing climate change. This pricing can come in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which allows companies exceeding set carbon emission limits to buy credits from companies that create less carbon pollution.
In Canada, the whole issue was sidelined after the 2008 election when the Conservatives launched a devastating attack against Stephane Dion’s Green Shift plan to tax carbon polluters and use the money collected to reduce personal income and other taxes. The Conservative mantra was that no tax is a good tax and that Dion’s proposals would ruin the economy. The Harper government promised to introduce intensity-based pollution targets for industry but they are a joke. They might slow the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions somewhat but would still allow them to rise for many years to come.
In the 2011 campaign, the Liberals have announced that they would establish a cap-and-trade emissions system but they don’t say where that cap would be set. The NDP says it would tax big polluters while leaving individuals alone, and would use the money collected from corporations to invest in green programs and technology. So the Liberals offer an undefined cap-and-trade and the NDP a tax on corporations. The Conservatives would oppose both of those.
Fortunately, most people are coming to accept the basic science of climate change and the number of deniers is thinning. Most now agree that carbon dioxide and other gases being pumped into the atmosphere as a by-product of our burning fossil are heating up the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted temperature increases of between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Celsius in the 21st century.
Australian scientist Tim Flannery says the IPCC estimates have proven to be too conservative and are already being overtaken. He says, too, that the difference between the low and high estimate for warming temperatures is profound. “Humanity can probably cope with a warming of less than 3 degrees, but a 10.4 degree warming would be truly catastrophic,” Flannery says.
The signs of what may come are all around us. My home insurance rates have increased by 20 % in the past two years due to severe storms and resulting flooding, but this pales compared to deadly wildfires and flooding in Australia, widespread droughts and global food shortages, glacier melts and a looming water crisis.
Canada has developed an international reputation as a laggard on policy and action related to climate change. Our government’s negotiators played an obstructionist role at recent international conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. We will see what they do at the upcoming meeting in Durban in November 2011.
We have to modify our profligate habits of consumption if we are to reduce carbon emissions but politicians are afraid to tell us that. In addition, the carbon industry has an immense amount of lobbying power in Canada. It effectively bankrolled the creation of the Reform Party, where our current prime minister apprenticed in politics.
Back in the church basement, Archbishop Brendan O’Brien (Kingston) called for prayerful asceticism. “We are in a critical situation but we have to find ways for people to incorporate all of this into their lives in prayerful contemplation. We should appreciate what we have but the new way we seek is one of being restrained in our consumerism.” O’Brien said a new asceticism would fit well with the church’s prophetic tradition. “Those involved in social movements talk of the impact of social and political structures on people. The ecological situation we face will have its greatest impact on the poor and we must develop a prophetic sense about that.”
My question for the political leaders, or any candidates, in election debates this year is borrowed (with a slight revision) from the church group Citizens for Public Justice: “Should a national carbon tax policy or a mandatoryÂ national cap-and-trade system be imposed?”
We are running out of time to address climate change. Stephane Dion was right about the issue but vested interests prevailed. We should ask who will now have the courage to take the next steps.