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Cynically hiding our heads in the (oil) sands


First she was against Northern Gateway — now she’s for it. What a difference an election makes.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s reversal on the Northern Gateway pipeline project is typical of these cynical times we live in, when the lure of quick oil wealth outweighs any responsibility for the threat of climate pollution.

As the latest round of global climate negotiations kick off in Warsaw this week, Canadians are becoming increasingly used to climate action betrayal. The Harper Government withdrew us from the Kyoto Accord — the only legally binding international climate agreement — despite lacking a mandate to do so. Then-environment minister Peter Kent never delivered on the oilsands emissions regulations he promised — twice. And now, a year after saying we were halfway to meeting our weak climate goals — a claim that was widely ridiculed at the time — Environment Canada has announced that we’re actually well short of where we need to be.

Canadians are also increasingly aware that our weather has changed. CalgaryWinnipeg and Toronto experienced shocking floods last summer. The summer before that brought widespread drought. A few years earlier, British Colombians saw high winds decimate historic Stanley Park, and before that Halifax’s Point Pleasant Park was flattened by Hurricane Juan.

Warmer winters have allowed pine beetles to ravage B.C.’s forests — and now they’re moving east. In the Arctic, buildings are sinking into the thawing permafrost — including, I was told a few years ago, the Nunavut Department of Environment building in Iqaluit. Ironic, that.

The most recent update by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that what Canadians are experiencing is a global phenomenon. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to skyrocket, and with them temperatures are climbing. The Arctic ice cap is melting, glaciers are disappearing and sea level is rising. The warming is projected to exceed two degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century, a change that will have a massive global impact with significant repercussions for Canadians.

None of this seems to have spurred our federal government into action. Instead, in the two most important environmental portfolios we have ministers who have cast doubt on climate change: Leona Aglukkaqin Environment) and Joe Oliver in Natural Resources. Conservative MP Ryan Leef sent information from climate change deniers to a schoolteacher. In the House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird applauded the notion that climate change was a “socialist conspiracy”. In the recent throne speech, climate change didn’t even rate a mention.

Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise from a government that has cut science-based departments like Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans to the bone, and wiped out Environment Canada’s climate adaptation group. The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, established by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to give the government sound advice on climate change, was eliminated in 2012Widespread muzzling of federal scientists has been revealed, with one effect being that media coverage of the climate change problem has been reduced by over 80 per cent. The Harper government even went so far as to have “minders” follow around scientists at the 2012 International Polar Year Conference in Montreal to monitor and record what they were saying, a practice that one columnist said was “the type of thing I used to see when, back in the 1980s, I reported from the Soviet Union.”

Not content with just dismantling government-based climate initiatives, the Harper government undermined university-based research with the elimination of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science in 2012. Replacement funding was only recently delivered at a 40 per cent discount. The result — widespread loss of scientific capacity — was entirely predictable, and perhaps intentional.

One wonders what it will take to finally force us to change course on the climate problem. Perhaps the lure of oil riches is too strong for any politician to deny. Certainly the oil industry has done its share, providing millions of dollars to the people seeking to tear down the science of climate change. It should come as no surprise that these companies are operating in the oilsands.

The prime minister has often stated his wish to see Canada become an energy superpower. But a strong future Canadian economy cannot depend only on a volatile resource commodity which is no longer desirable to our trading partners — or competitive with other sources of oil. Canada stands to lose the opportunity to develop value-added industry, particularly in the green energy sector.

We can ill afford to waste more time on politicians who can’t see past their own re-election prospects. The science is clear: climate change is happening and requires a robust response from the global community, Canada included.

Thomas J. Duck is is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a Broadbent Fellow.

This article originally appeared on iPolitics.

Photo: shannonpatrick17. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.