The Environment: It’s time to come clean

It’s time to come clean about the environment. Trigger warning: Popular myths are about to be debunked.

Myth #1: We can’t live without the tar sands.

Let’s start with Alberta’s tar sands, now rebranded as the “oilsands.” Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski asks, in an oddly plaintive tone, “will we ever be proud of our oilsands?”

Yakabuski frets that the “view of the oilsands as a national shame and planetary scourge is astonishingly common among a broad swath of mainstream Canadians, not just among a vocal minority made up of environmentalists, leftist politicians and First Nations activists.”

Canadians, Yakabuski pleads, must be made to understand “just how critical the oilsands are to the national economy.”

Leaving aside the enormous environmental costs of tar sands extraction and exploitation, the truth is that the tar sands aren’t all that important to the Canadian economy.

According to Statistics Canada, the tar sands account for a whopping two per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP). That’s not a typo. Two per cent.

Now, you can be forgiven for assuming that the tar sands are critical to the health of the Canadian economy, given the Harper government’s evangelical and taxpayer-funded proselytizing on their behalf.

Nor would you be alone in grossly overestimating the importance of the tar sands. A recent Environics poll shows that 57 per cent of Canadians overestimate the tar sands’ economic importance, with 41 per cent mistakenly thinking that their contribution is between six and 24 times higher than it really is.

Some of our most respected members of the media also deserve credit for popularizing this myth, from columnists like Mr. Yakabuski to iconic CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge, who has accepted handsome fees for speaking at various Canadian oil lobby group events. As a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers spokeswoman explained (without irony), “Peter Mansbridge is one of the most credible journalists in the country.”

And yet, despite the spin of the federal government and the mainstream media, Canadians know better. In the same Environics poll, 76 per cent of Canadians think we should be moving away from fossil fuels toward clean energy. Sixty-six per cent want an economic strategy that doesn’t depend on the tar sands.

Myth #2: A carbon tax would clobber the economy.

Prime Minister Harper recently dismissed the possibility of robust climate-change policies like a carbon tax, asserting that “no matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that.”

A little more frank, and dead wrong.

Consider British Columbia’s carbon tax.

Since the implementation of B.C.’s carbon tax in 2008, B.C. has outperformed the rest of Canada economically while lowering fossil fuel use by 16 per cent, 10 per cent more than the Kyoto Protocol target that the federal government shamefully abandoned. B.C.’s carbon tax has garnered praise from the OECD, the World Bank and the business-friendly magazine of record, The Economist.

What Harper doesn’t understand about environmental fiscal reform is that it’s a two-step process. As McGill University economics professor Christopher Ragan explains, step one is imposing higher taxes on socially undesirable things like pollution (air pollution alone costs the Canadian economy approximately $8 billion per year). Step two is lowering taxes on social goods, like income. The result? A more innovative economy that doesn’t screw our kids.

This is also known as Economics 101.

Myth #3: Climate change won’t happen in our lifetime.

A colleague of mine works in Yellowknife. When I last chatted with her, I asked her (like a good Canadian) how the weather was up there. Her response: Smoky. The Northwest Territories is literally ablaze with over 100 forest fires being described as “apocalyptic.”

Meanwhile, California suffers through year three of its “drought,” which is threatening both its agriculture and water supply.

And Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is calling the flood in his province “unprecedented” (even worse, in other words, than the previously “unprecedented” flood of 2011). Fifty-three Saskatchewan communities have declared states of emergency.

“Not in our lifetime” is something many of my otherwise brilliant colleagues like to say about climate change. Even if true, of course, that’s hardly reassuring to those of us with children and grandchildren.

But it’s not true. Climate change is here, and it’s here to stay. The only question is whether we can stop it from getting so bad that we won’t be able to adapt.

Which brings us to:

Myth #4: Environmental protection is someone else’s responsibility.

It’s not. It’s yours, and mine and ours. It’s time to come clean and start talking about what we’re going to do.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, July 14, 2014