Sunday, December 10, 2006

Canada, "Green" Politics and Science

The Liberal Party is making “green” issues a centerpiece of their strategy to beat the Conservatives at the next election. Despite continuing dispute within the scientific community, the Liberal claim will be that we face “catastrophe” for coastal regions and the artic from the warming of the planet. Our weather system will be changed fundamentally, affecting agriculture, fisheries and other industries reliant on predictable climates. Various species will disappear and new illnesses will reach our shores due to the warmer climate. As we near an election, expect any science supporting the exaggerated claims to be minimal and rhetoric maximal.

Science will be used to justify substantial proposals requiring the expenditure of billions. This from a political party that, when in office, had opportunities to do things about the issues they raise and yet achieved nothing, other than spending funds on activities which made very little difference.

Yet the science keeps changing. The UN will release a report in February 2007 which will make clear that previous reports have exaggerated the impact humans have on climate change – the sun is a major player. They will also reduce by half the predicted impact on the oceans of rising sea levels. The fact that none of their models of climate change have yet proved accurate will not be mentioned – an inconvenient truth.

What kind of policies will the Liberal Party propose? Carbon taxes – taxes on SUV’s, taxes on cars based on emissions standards. More toll roads – Ontario already has some. Subsidies for the building of ethanol plants, wind power turbines and solar power. Subsidies for retrofitting homes with efficient furnaces, better windows and insulation and new building codes requiring all new homes to be carbon neutral. Tax credits for companies who chose to go green. Lots of carbon trading – buying carbon credits to offset the fact that few of these measures will have an impact on CO2 emissions.

The impact of these measures will be felt most directly by the poor. Housing will become more expensive, the cost of living will rise and transportation will become a burden. Jobs will also be lost as companies seek to absorb the rising cost of compliance with legislation – expect a lot of regulations. Certain industries – the natural resource sector, automotive, air transport and tourism – will be most affected, as they absorb costs and shed labour.

If they were really radical, they would require each home in Canada to be carbon neutral and all businesses to buy a certain volume of carbon credits based on the industry and their size. For my household, this would be a cost of some $175 a year. For my small business this would be around $675 a year.

And what will we gain in terms of saving the planet. Almost nothing. If every home and business in Canada was to comply with what the Liberal party will likely propose, the impact on CO2 emissions will be minimal. The measures will have no impact on the fast growing producers of CO2 – India, China. They will impact the oil and gas industry, Canada’s leading producers of CO2, marginally and we will continue to have global warming, given the role of the sun.

So what is the point? The politics here are about creating fear and then acting as if it were real. Global warming is real – it is in describing the impacts that we have real fear mongering. The politics of this are about seeking to create an agenda which pushes two alternative views – the Liberal idea of the state as a “nanny” which needs to manage what its population does and the conservative idea that the state needs to partner with communities of interests so as to secure social and economic development. Elections are about which one of these two views will be dominant.

All politicians need to remember three things. First, several polls suggest that some 18% of the population do not believe global warming poses a serious threat and don’t support action aimed at responding to climate change. 14% of the electorate claim not tot have heard of global warming – they probably haven’t heard that the Conservatives are in power either or that Tommy Hunter is no longer on televison.

Second, while many agree that “something ought to be done”, most polling data makes clear that they think they are talking about “someone other than themselves” doing it – it is a “not me, but them” issue.

Finally, a lot of people are left feeling “cold” about the solutions proposed. The carbon tax on air travel (France), road charges (Britain) and taxes on car emissions (Britain), massive investments in wind power (Germany, Spain. UK) or the requirement for bio-fuels to be the primary fuel for transportation (several countries) do not resonate with voters. The “one tone” challenge is an example of a Liberal strategy that was simply too clever – most people had no idea what it was about at all. Policies aimed at cutting emissions from industry also go over the heads of many – they have heard all this before.

In all of the debate, the group that will suffer the most will be scientists. Their work will be manipulated, distorted and misread every day between now and the announcement of the election result. Expect Al Gore to feature prominently in the Canadian election, not as a candidate but as a source of “truth” – something that is worrying in itself (he “invented” the internet, you will recall with skepticism). Also expect this to be a messy campaign, with different scientists being used to “justify” fundamentally different positions. The end result: cynicism, not just about politics but about science.

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