Combating the ‘anthropocebo’ effect

Shocking news from Alberta: the Wildrose opposition party has announced that it now believes in climate change, and humans’ influence on it. What’s next? Official recognition that the Earth is round and orbits the Sun?

But you have to hand it to Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith. In response to Alberta Environment Minister Diana McQueen’s quip that Ms. Smith would never be taken seriously on the global stage if she didn’t acknowledge climate change, Ms. Smith retorted “I don’t accept a lecture from a do-nothing environment minister like Diana McQueen.”

Funnily enough, they’re both absolutely right about each other.

So, climate change deniers are disappearing like bees. But climate change deniers have never been the real problem. The real problem is the rest of us.

Some background: In a recently published book entitled The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World, eminent economist William Nordhaus argues that we’ve long underestimated both the risks and the costs of climate change.

By the same token, we’ve grossly overestimated the potential of technological panaceas, the most recent example being carbon capture and sequestration (or CCS, if anyone actually remembers).

Geoengineering — pumping reflective aerosols into the stratosphere to stabilize the global temperature — is likely next to fall. After all, geoengineering won’t actually reverse the warming effects of greenhouse gases. Ocean acidification, for instance, will continue apace, as will disruptions caused by changes in local temperature and climate.

Case in point: The U.S. Natural Resources Defence Council reports that a number of U.S. states — including nearby Minnesota and Wisconsin — experienced a decline in air quality because of smoke from increasingly severe wildfires caused by climate change.

OK, but what are we supposed to do? Our first line of defence against global warming is to limit emissions of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane, be it by regulating emission levels or by putting a price on emissions to account for their “negative externalities,” which is Economics 101 for the costs that emitters are imposing on the rest of us by treating the atmosphere as a free dumping ground. Ideally, we would quickly implement a combination of both regulations and prices.

According to Nobel Laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, none of this is particularly controversial, even to economists.

Yet we are making little if any progress. And here in Canada we are making things much, much worse.

The latest setback is the new set of rules recently released by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency limiting the types of resource extraction and infrastructure projects requiring a federal environmental assessment. In particular, the new rules won’t require reviews of what are called in-situ oilsands developments: projects that directly melt the oil out of the ground, as opposed to mining the bitumen and processing it afterwards.

And for good measure, the agency has also exempted from review not only groundwater extraction but also oilsands processing facilities, which have been shown to release dangerous, cancer-causing carcinogens into the surrounding air and water.

These new restrictions follow on the heels of Environment Canada’s own internal report entitled Canada’s Emissions Trends indicating that Canada will fail to meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Copenhagen Accord.

With all this bad news, you could hardly be faulted for being fatalistic and falling prey to what NYU environmental studies professor Jennifer Jacquet calls the “anthropocebo” effect — a toxic brand of pessimism that makes us accept human destruction of the environment as inevitable.

But there’s good news, too, news that we can learn from.

Communities across New York State have thus far prevented their government from lifting its moratorium on fracking (i.e., hydraulic fracturing) for natural gas, which emits methane both when it’s drilled and when it’s burned.

Over 200,000 citizens have written to the state governor opposing fracking and pleading for the state to become a model for transitioning to clean energy. And they’re having a lot of fun in the process. Download the music concert documentary Dear Governor Cuomo and judge for yourself.

And there’s the rub. Opposing the reckless investment in fossil fuels infrastructure like fracking wells and oil pipelines can work, and it can be a lot of fun, too. You don’t have to be a depressing doomsayer or a new-age hippie to speak up for a healthy environment.

But don’t just take my word for it. See for yourself by coming out to The Study at Lakehead University on Thursday, Nov. 14 at 7:00 p.m., for an evening of entertainment and education about Transcanada’s Energy East pipeline, which is coming soon to a community near you.

Unless, that is, we have something to say about it.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, November 4, 2013