Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The lie and the allowance

A column from the March 1, 2007 edition of The Uniter

"I firmly believe that the goal I laid out---that Americans will use 20 per cent less gasoline over the next 10 years---is going to be achieved, and here's living proof of how we're going to get there," said George Bush after sticking his head under the hood of an electric-powered SUV parked on the White House lawn, the Associated Press reported this week. This is the much-maligned George W. Bush, former oilman and governor of Texas, talking about alternative fuels in this fashion, talking about the goal he set during his state of the union address.

Granted, weaning America off its dependence on unstable Middle-Eastern and socialist Latin American oil is driving the legislative agenda on alternative fuels more so than some environmental furor; but there are some even more powerful and surprising allies of green economic measures surfacing in the US, namely some large corporations.

The United States Climate Action Partnership, a seemingly unholy union of General Electric (technology, media and finance), Dupont (chemicals), Alcoa (aluminum miner), BP America (oil and gas), Caterpillar (industrial vehicles), along with a few of America's largest electric companies and environmental groups took the message directly to President Bush earlier this month, calling for strict and immediate emissions caps across all large industrial sectors. These corporations, ones that take the lead in pressing for and implementing efficiency standards, are expected to advance and profit in their markets for getting on the reduction bandwagon early.

Painful as it is, I have to look to Kyoto-renegade U.S. for examples of meaningful and significant political dialogue on climate change and the economy. Why? Because Canada is seeing nothing of the sort.

Our politicians, and the daily media covering them, threaten to falsely disassociate environmental action and economic robustness; for all I hear, every ounce of CO2 taken out of the air costs one job. For those who'd believe, and especially the ones that push this acidic misunderstanding, there's some reading you should do.

Last November, Macleans magazine published a sizable article covering a major report from the Conference Board of Canada (the same group whose report calling for free trade between Canada and the US preceded the signing of the FTA, later NAFTA), a damning report that exposes our economy as a mere empty shell.

Indeed, Canada is enjoying low unemployment and low inflation. Currency, and corporate profits, has hit record levels across a number of sectors, and federal surpluses have hit the double digit billions. However, don't be fooled. Even though Canadians work some of the longest hours and take the least vacation time in the world, we are falling behind in our productivity. The big issue: efficiency. Though our raw amount of export has gone up since the mid 1990s, overall, we produce less and make less per unit of input, be that your extra hours of work or pounds of metal we dig out of the boreal forest.

That inefficiency is forcing us to work longer hours and carve up our planet more than needed, but it is also grossly failing to maintain our prosperous status. According to The IMF's September World Economic Outlook, 135 other countries' economies will grow faster than ours in 2007. Our gross domestic product (a measure of how much goods and services we produce) is still among the eight largest in the world, meaning we still punch with the big fellows in the G8 power group of developed countries. As the Macleans article says, though, "Spain, Mexico and Brazil gaining fast, our place at the G8 table is increasingly more symbol than substance. (The Spanish media has been openly advocating that they should replace us in the G8.)"

As young people, we should be crapping our pants. If this trend continues, we'll be working 80 hours a week to make half as much as those slackers in more profitable and efficient countries. So, what's they key to making sure we'll have more than two days vacation per year? The report suggests that we follow the lead of countries like Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark, all of whom have long embraced environmental sustainability as a cardinal rule, all of whom are enjoying fantastic growth and rising incomes and standards of living, working fewer hours and pumping less CO2 into our air.

Now, instead of getting real with our sagging economic potential before we run out of oil and beg for international economic support, we are busy hacking back and forth over the golden word: Kyoto.

Its funny that the United States, a non-signatory on the international greenhouse gas pact, has seen some great progress, with certain states catching on to the economic opportunity presented in a green economy---opportunities so clear that massive oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell are drafting energy efficiency and alternative fuels plans. The formula is simple: reducing green house gasses forces you to invent better technology and cut wasteful use of precious resources. More university graduates are employed producing those technologies, and we hack up the earth less because we don't need as much fresh oil, metal, etc. Better yet, you export these technologies to less advanced economies like China and India that don't have the educational and research capacities we do; we make money off of that too, while helping to green those countries. Sounds like the best deal since the Uniter office got a free Red Bull fridge.

New Liberal leader St phane Dion ran on essentially this exact platform during the recent Liberal Leadership. However, he's since been a poor advocate for his cause by focusing his criticism solely on meeting Kyoto targets. The Kyoto protocol, in the end, is only useful because it forces fat and wasteful countries like ours, who use huge amounts of energy per person, to go to the economic gym and back away from the resource buffet. Yet, the Liberal party has been busy using Kyoto targets as a political wedge (fruitlessly, I might add), not questioning the government on its lack of economic foresight in refusing tough measures demanding transformative economic change. Previous Liberal governments under Jean Chr tien and Paul Martin shared the same lack of green economic vision, and perhaps the grand old party's caucus needs some more time to get with it.

The NDP, who arguably and logically may have the best environmental platform (never being scared to stick it to corporations as they are), are trying to come up with some new pamphlet points for next election on how much they affect legislation in the House. Sitting down with the Conservatives to redraft the half-hearted Clean Air Act is a dangerous liaison, as the current document doesn't even address economic remodeling. It will take nothing short of a miracle to beef up the bill to that point, and supporting anything less will be a sellout of the worst kind: purely political.

The Conservatives, environmental Johnny-come-latelies I firmly believe that the goal I laid out---that Americans will use 20 per cent less gasoline over the next 10 years lies and authors of roundly denounced, toothless greenhouse gas legislation, are up to some tricky and sinister business. Perhaps because they are new to the whole belief in climate change, they are still shouting that any significant green house gas reduction in the short and medium term come at the costs of jobs, threatening the crippling of our economy.

"I want to see greenhouse gas emissions reduced, with a growing economy at the same time," Environment Minister John Baird said earlier this month, quoted in the Toronto Star. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is quoted as saying, "As economic policy, the Kyoto Accord is a disaster," in a 2002 speech. They cite job losses in current industries, but fail to account for job creation as new industries arise, ones that pay higher wages. Many powerful and successful CEOs understand the faultiness of Harper's logic, but the national media doesn't have the same affliction of knowledge or care.

Aside from a rash of feature articles dealing with Kyoto and dire predictions of perfect storms and beach-bound polar bears, the day-to-day coverage of the Kyoto debate rarely gathers opposing opinion from groups like the EXCEL Partnership, Canada's answer to the United States Climate Change Partnership; EXCEL's membership includes Canadian miner Teck Cominko and Alberta oil powerhouse EnCana, along with two large environmental groups. In a time where the opposition parties are dropping the ball, we need the national media to step up with some insightful coverage. Politics has always included much that doesn't happen on Parliament Hill, a simple bit of wisdom that national reporters are not grasping in this debate. If politicians alone define the public debate, we are failing as a democracy.

As young people, we suffer the most harm from the sham climate change debate. Just as earlier action on greenhouse gas reduction by the previous Liberal government would have made our lives easier now, delayed action and economic scare-mongering threaten to put us further behind in the race to the pot of sustainability gold at the end of the Kyoto rainbow. We'll be the ones living in a substandard, outdated economy if the Harper economic outlook prevails. We need to put old stereotypes about business, politicians and the populace aside and look boldly at the economic opportunity in front of us, lest we become the resource warehouse of the world, and get paid like stock boys.

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