How to save the CBC, climate: tune in, demand better

University of Toronto geography professor Danny Harvey recently filed a motion with the National Energy Board urging them to reconsider its refusal to consider the climate change impact of the proposed trans-mountain oil pipeline expansion.

Prof. Harvey’s logic is pretty straightforward. It goes like this:

• New and expanded oil pipelines will facilitate the expansion of tar sands production.
• Expanded tar sands production will significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.
• Increased greenhouse gas emissions will worsen climate change.
• Worsened climate change will jeopardize the well-being of Canadians, including future generations.

Thus, the National Energy Board’s refusal to consider climate change when assessing oil pipeline proposals violates Canadians’ fundamental right to “life, liberty and security of the person” guaranteed under section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Canadians deserve an intelligent conversation about this incredibly important issue. So it was with keen interest that I tuned in last week to an interview with Prof. Harvey conducted by the CBC Radio program As It Happens, August 18, 2014. [See Part Two, NEB Charter Challenge].

But what I heard was anything but intelligent.

The program’s guest host, Laura Lynch, an experienced journalist and a law school graduate, began by asking Prof. Harvey why he wanted to give evidence on climate change before the National Energy Board. Fair enough. His answer: he has expertise on the matter and, like any other concerned Canadian, he has a right to be heard. The board’s hearings, after all, are supposed to be public.

But then Ms. Lynch challenged Prof. Harvey, suggesting that just because the National Energy Board refused his application doesn’t mean that the board is refusing to consider climate change. Which would be a fair challenge if not for the fact that the board has made its refusal to consider climate change an unmistakably clear and official policy.

Indeed, the board’s refusal to consider climate change will be the key issue in a case before the Federal Court of Appeal in October. This too is public knowledge.

Ms. Lynch proceeded to “play devil’s advocate” by asking why the National Energy Board should even consider climate change, “something,” she said, “that’s so much further down the road than the actual thing that’s in front of them, the oil pipeline.”

Which would be a fair question but for the obvious fact that climate change is anything but “down the road.” We’re already witnessing climate change in the form of record floods, droughts, forest fires and storms.

Ms. Lynch continued her bizarrely ill-informed questioning of Prof. Harvey by selectively quoting from the board’s website to show that it considers the impact of oil pipelines on “fish, wildlife, water quality and human health.”

“Why,” she challenged Prof. Harvey, “isn’t that good enough for you? Isn’t that all part of considering a project’s impact on the climate?”

Uh, no.

As Prof. Harvey patiently explained, the National Energy Board is refusing to consider the most significant climate impact of all: greenhouse gas emissions. New and expanded oil pipelines will lock-in increased greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come, making it impossible for Canada to meet its international commitments to reduce emissions and stabilize the global temperature.

Ignoring this, Ms. Lynch proceeded to reprove Prof. Harvey for not bringing his constitutional challenge “through the department of the environment.” But not only is the National Energy Board the administrative agency solely responsible for assessing pipeline proposals and making a “yes or no” recommendation to the government, there’s no such thing in Canada as the “Department of the Environment.”

All of which Ms. Lynch and the program’s producers would’ve known if they’d simply done their homework, simply connected the dots between the CBC’s own stories on tar sands expansion and climate change. But instead of airing an informed and enlightening interview with a recognized expert on the most daunting public policy problem we’ve ever faced, the program seemed intent on staging a confrontation, perhaps out of a misconceived notion of journalistic “balance.”

Whatever the intent, the regrettable result was more Fox News than CBC.

As Wade Rowland argues in his timely book Saving the CBC: Balancing Profit and Public Service, we live in an era of epic challenges. Never has there been a greater need for the kind of thoughtful dialogue and considered judgment that can only take place in public spaces.

Public spaces like the CBC. Or at least like the CBC used to be.

In Canada today, both the CBC and our climate are threatened by a government completely captured by corporate interests. The solution to saving both, it turns out, is the same: tune in, connect the dots staring us in the face and demand something better.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, August 25, 2014