Don’t frack with the facts, Prime Minister

By now you’ve probably heard about the historic Lima Accord — nearly 200 countries have agreed to agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of oil, gas and coal. Of course, it’s just a pledge at this point, with the final agreement to be reached next year in Paris. And even if a final agreement is reached, it won’t be legally binding. The Lima Accord doesn’t actually obligate countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by any particular amount, or at all. Rather, countries are encouraged to submit by March 2015 their plans — “Intended Nationally Determined Amounts” — setting out how much they will cut after the year 2020, and what domestic laws they will pass to achieve the cuts. If countries miss the March 2015 deadline, they get an extension until June 2015. And if they miss the June 2015 deadline, well, no one really cares.

According to Jennifer Morgan, an expert on climate change negotiations at the World Resources Institute, “if a country doesn’t submit a plan, there will be no punishment, no fine, no black UN helicopters showing up.” It’s what political scientists call a “name and shame plan.” The hope is that countries will comply, the better to avoid international condemnation. It’s the kind of aspirational but soft international instrument that allows Canada to make a formal pledge while our prime minister tells parliament that “under the current circumstances of the oil and gas sector, it would be crazy, it would be crazy economic policy to do unilateral penalties on that sector. We are clearly not going to do it.” It’s the kind of thing, in other words, that has no effect whatsoever on the shameless.

But the good news is there’s another way. Last week, for example, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a truly historic statewide ban on the extraction of natural gas using the controversial drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking has been championed for years as an economic lifeline for struggling communities in New York. Nevertheless, the state conducted an extensive environmental review and concluded that fracking’s risks far outweigh its potential rewards. The state’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, directed the review by posing two simple questions: “Would I live in a community (with fracking) based on the facts that I have now? Would I let my child play in a school field nearby? My answer is no.” As a result, there will be no fracking in New York State unless “the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk” and “the risks can be adequately managed.” How a governor bent on creating jobs and improving the economic prospects of his state arrived at such a sensible, precautionary decision teaches us a valuable lesson about democracy.

As Governor Cuomo travelled around his state he was regularly pursued by protesters — i.e., citizens exercising their constitutional right to free speech — who pressed him to impose a statewide ban on fracking. Meanwhile, dozens of local communities across the state passed municipal moratoriums on fracking, and the state’s highest court recently held that towns can use zoning ordinances to ban fracking. Scientists, lawyers and thousands of local citizens spoke up, and both the governor and the courts listened because they had the facts on their side. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. Not so — not yet — in Canada.

Last June, eight prominent Canadian scientists published a powerfully concise article in the leading science journal Nature calling for a moratorium on tarsands development: “As scientists spanning diverse disciplines, we urge North American leaders to take a step back: no new oilsands projects should move forward unless developments are consistent with national and international commitments to reducing carbon pollution.” Commitments like the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, which the Harper government freely admits that it’s not going to meet. Commitments like the 2014 Lima Accord, which Prime Minister Harper might as well have spit on when he told parliament that regulating the oil and gas sector — the fastest-rising source of carbon pollution in Canada — would be crazy economic policy.

But would it really be crazy to listen to the evidence of prominent scientists? How about one of Canada’s largest banks? According to a recent report of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, “oil rich provinces (such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador) have recorded the sharpest downgrades in their respective outlooks.”
Meanwhile, it might surprise you to learn that Canada’s green energy sector has grown so quickly that it now employs more people than the tarsands. Check the facts for yourself:

Now, imagine the kind of country we could have if our prime minister simply listened to the facts.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, December 22, 2014