The Political Problem Behind Kyoto

Lynn McDonald
Kitchener-Waterloo Record
29 May 2006

Prime Minister Harper and his Conservative government are scuttling the Kyoto Agreement on greenhouse gas reductions, itself a modest proposal to address the crisis of climate change. The Liberals who signed Canada on are protesting, but they failed utterly to produce a plan for its implementation. The NDP protests as well, but it has been no better than the other parties on greenhouse gases when in government provincially. Nor should we forget that it was the NDP which led in the defeat of the Joe Clark Conservatives in 1980, over a slight increase in the gasoline tax--and that with the assurance that petroleum prices in Canada would remain lower than in the United States--to encourage us to continue to waste fossil fuels and not switch to renewable energy and conservation.

Environmentalists and their experts have many practical proposals for sustainable energy alternatives, co-generation and conservation. Good ideas are not lacking, and there is considerable political will to move on them. Why, then, does this not happen, at least not on the significant scale necessary?

I suggest that the political framework for decision making is inadequate for the crucial questions we now face. First of all, the time frame does not work. Governments are accountable to voters within the next four or five years, while the decisions that need to be made will be costly initially. Those who have most to gain from the reduction of greenhouse gases are children and future generations--who do not have a vote.

Our democratic institutions go back to reforms proposed in the eighteenth century Enlightenment--and a great step forward they were. They widened participation in political decision making from the king and a small number of wealthy landowners to the great mass of the population, eventually including all races, men and women, and all over the age of 18. We must now seek ways of going further. Political changes from top to bottom will be required, from the Constitution to the budget and policies on taxes, land use, government procurement, city planning, building codes and the statistical monitoring of progress made. Proportional representation would probably help, and there might even be a role for Senate reform, but this is tinkering compared with the scale of the changes needed.

How to do this is not obvious, so that here I can only propose that the very process of change become a serious question to address, not just the nuts and bolts of conservation, energy use, etc. Certainly all levels of government have to be involved, and First Nations, business, unions, faith communities, young people and concerned citizens’ groups.

In the meantime we all, and the media especially, could help by using more realistic vocabulary. We do not produce fossil fuels, but only extract them from the earth. Alberta’s “booming economy” should be called a “sell-off economy,” and we should all be aware that this is the sale of the family heirlooms. The fossil fuel business is not sustainable, and whether this one-time gift of nature was to a province or to all of Canada is scarcely the issue. Would the Report on Business praise a company whose profits (and even the wages and salaries it paid) came from selling off its assets?

In the meantime also we must be careful not to fall for worse alternatives, like nuclear. It is cheap and clean and reduces greenhouse gases only in the advertisements of the industry, far from it with full-cost accounting of what goes into uranium extraction, processing, use and waste disposal. And now there is the additional risk of nuclear products being used by terrorists--in addition to that of the industry fronting for weapons production by nation states. The proposal of using nuclear reactors to extract tar sands oil must be one of the most anti-environmental ever made.

Of course the political changes needed to address climate change--and declining bio-diversity and other problems--have to be made internationally as well. Here, surely, is a worthy goal for Canadian idealism and experience in international co-operation and peacemaking.

Lynn McDonald is Professor emerita at the University of Guelph; she is a former Member of Parliament, served as environment critic for the NDP caucus and was on the founding board of Energy Probe.