How to Avoid Action on Climate Change

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The following is the text of Ian Angus’s keynote speech at “Smells Like Green Spirit,” a conference sponsored by the University of British Columbia Student Environment Centre, on January 19, 2008.

Canadians are known for being modest and self-effacing. We don’t brag much, and sometimes we seem to have an inferiority complex, a belief that we do okay, but we seldom excel.

Last month, diplomats and politicians and scientists from all over the world met in Bali, in Indonesia, to discuss what to do about climate change. As I followed the Bali discussions, I realized that there is one area in which Canada is truly a world leader. So I decided to devote my talk today to this Canadian success story.

Yes, the world can watch and learn from Canada, because if there is one thing that Canadian politicians and business leaders do well, it is this: They can teach the world how to avoid action on climate change.

This is an important issue for politicians and corporate executives, because they face a big problem.

On one hand, the scientific consensus is overwhelming: global warming is real, and its consequences may be catastrophic. Voters and customers view climate change as a serious problem requiring decisive action, and they might not vote for politicians who don’t do anything, and might stop buying from the companies that are causing the problem.

So action seems to be necessary.

But on the other hand, the politicians and corporations have a vested interest in the oil, gas and coal industries. If they aren’t directly connected to them then they are connected to companies and industries that depend on oil and gas and coal.

What’s more, Canada’s political and economic elites sincerely believe that they live in the best of all possible societies. Obviously a social order that made them rich, that put them on top, must be perfect. So it is obviously wrong, perhaps even evil, to take any action that might lead to substantial change in that social order.

The solution is to appear very concerned and thoughtful, while actually doing as little as possible. Done properly, that will reassure voters and customers, without doing anything that might disturb corporate profits.

Canadian politicians and business leaders are world-class masters at this.

There are many ways to avoid action on climate change, and I don’t have time to discuss all of them all today. I’ll focus on seven that really stand out.

1. Deny that action is necessary

One of the simplest methods of avoiding action is to deny that anything needs to be done, to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the science and warn that doing anything will cause until damage. Just three days ago, at an oil sands industry meeting in Calgary, an Alberta Cabinet Minister gave a keynote speech in which he said that when it comes climate change the “science is still unknown”. He said, and I quote, that a “government cannot be too dogmatic (and take one side) when the debate (on global warming) is still out”.

He was just the latest in a long line of Conservative politicians to take that stance.

Before he became Prime Minister, Stephen Harper was completely devoted to this approach. In 2002, when he was head of the Canadian Alliance, he wrote a fundraising letter, seeking support for a very important project. He wrote:

“We’re gearing up for … our campaign to block the job-killing, economy-destroying Kyoto Accord.…

“It’s based on tentative and contradictory scientific evidence about climate trends….

“Implementing Kyoto will cripple the oil and gas industry…

“Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”

Harper wasn’t alone. In that same year, John Baird was a featured speaker at a special dinner for Conservative MLAs in Ontario, paid for by a group called the “Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions,” an anti-Kyoto lobbying group funded by the oil and coal industries.

Since then, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives merged to create the Conservative Party. They won an election. Stephen Harper became Prime Minister. And who did he appoint as Environment Minister at the beginning of last year? Why John Baird of course!

That decision, led to what I consider to be the least believable newspaper headline of 2007. It was in the National Post on January 5: “Harper Goes Green.”

Of course Harper isn’t even a little Green. But that appointment, and that headline, were signals that he had decided to change to a different do-nothing strategy. Instead of denying that action is needed, he switched to ….

2. All Talk and No Action

To be fair, Harper didn’t invent this approach. The real masters of Talk Without Action were his predecessors in government, the Liberal Party under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.

Between 1990 and 2005, there truly was a lot of talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. During that time, Canadian governments announced five major plans to deal with climate change — the Green Plan in 1990; the National Action Program in 1995; the Action Plan in 2000; the Climate Change Plan for Canada in 2002; and Project Green in 2005.

Even more important, during the same period Canada signed and ratified the Kyoto Protocol promising to reduce greenhouse gases to six per cent below the 1990 level by 2012.

So the talk was pretty good. But we know what really happened.

By 2005 Canadian GHG emissions were 27 per cent above the 1990 level, one of the worst records of pollution growth in the industrialized world. All talk, no action.

One of the best talkers was Stephane Dion. Today he is Leader of the Opposition, but in 2005 he was Minister of the Environment under Paul Martin. In November of that year he gave a rousing speech at a United Nations conference on Climate Change held in Montreal.

“We know that climate change is the single most important environmental issue facing the world today. … The broad-based consensus is that more action is required now.”

No one at that meeting seems to have asked him how that statement jibed with something else he said six months earlier, about development of the Tar Sands.

“There is no minister of the environment on earth who can stop this from going forward, because there is too much money in it.”

The Alberta Tar Sands project is the largest single reason why Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have risen drastically since this country signed the Kyoto Accord. But there is “too much money it,” so Dion let it go ahead.

So much for “the single most important environmental issue facing the world today.”

3. Shift the Blame

In parallel with the All Talk and No Action strategy, Canadian governments are masters at Shifting the Blame.

They don’t do anything about climate change because … they can’t! They invested millions of dollars in advertising that says the only solution is voluntary action by individual Canadian consumers. If only we would drive less, change our light bulbs, and wear sweaters in the winter, global warming would go away.

That’s right – global warming is your fault!

Let me be very clear. It is a good idea to try to organize your life ecologically, to recycle, minimize your carbon footprint, and so on. But global warming is an immense problem and the impact of such individual actions is negligible.

How can we truly live “carbon neutral” lives when the society we live in is grossly, profoundly carbon-intensive? For example, how can people be expected to stop driving cars when public transportation is hopelessly inadequate, when cities are designed so that people must live far from their jobs and schools?

Personal action is important – but focusing on personal action as the primary issue lets the real culprits off the hook, and diverts precious activist energy away from challenging the system that is destroying our planet.

4. Lower the bar

Another very effective way to avoid doing anything about Climate Change is to lower the bar, to change or reduce the targets so that you can claim victory even if you don’t do anything.

The current federal government is particularly good at this. What’s more, they have figured out ways to hide the fact that the bar is lower.

International experts say that rich countries like Canada need to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 25 to 40 percent below the 1990 level, by the year 2020. Some experts think we need to cut them farther and faster.

Harper and Blair brag that their plan will reduce emissions by 20% by 2020. On the face of it, that’s below the low end of the international recommendations. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

What Harper and Baird mean is 20% below 2006 levels – not below 1990. Since Canada’s 2006 levels were about 30% over 1990. even if the Tory plan works Canada’s emissions will still be above 1990.

But at least they are trying, right? Surely it’s unfair to include this as a means of “avoiding action.”

On the contrary.

The Tyndall Institute, a highly-respected British organization that studies climate issues, did a detailed study of the Harper-Baird climate change plan. They concluded:

“The proposed slowing in emissions growth is in line with or less than what is expected in the absence of these government requirements and in some instances less than what has already been voluntarily committed to by industry.”

In other words, emissions would be the same, or maybe even lower, if the Harper-Baird plan didn’t exist at all!

5. Focus on ‘intensity’

The Harper-Baird plan achieves that dubious result, because it incorporates another clever bit of sleight of hand.

The plan currently being implemented by the federal government doesn’t aim to cut emissions. Instead it sets objectives for emissions intensity.

When ordinary people talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they mean that total emissions tomorrow should be lower than today, that next year they should be lower than this year.

But Harper and Baird, like their Liberal predecessors in government, mean something quite different. What they are talking about is using fossil fuels more efficiently.

The goal is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas produced for each unit of production – each barrel of oil, or each megawatt of electricity. If the amount of oil or electricity that’s produced doesn’t change, then an efficiency improvement would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But – and it is a very big “but” – if production rises faster than the decline in emissions intensity then total emissions will increase under the Harper-Baird plan.

That is not an abstract theoretical possibility – that’s exactly what has been happening in Canada. Between 1990 and 2004, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions intensity improved by 14% – but actual emissions increased 27%.

It gets worse. Under the Harper plan, the Tar Sands industry is supposed to improve its emissions intensity by 23% by 2020. But according to industry forecasts, actual production will in quadruple in that same time.

  • Result #1: Emissions produced by the tar sands industry can TRIPLE, and still meet the Harper-Baird targets.
  • Result #2: Despite having higher emissions in absolute terms, the industry will be able to sell any credits for any excess improvement in “emissions intensity.” The value of those credits – pure profit to the polluters – may be as much as $700 million.

In short, by focusing on intensity instead of actual emissions, the Harper-Baird plan lets the country’s worst polluters keep on wrecking our atmosphere – and it will reward them for doing so!

Now that is a great example of doing nothing to stop climate change!

6. Ignore the elephant in the room

Now we come to the single biggest emissions problem in Canada. The problem every politician tries to ignore. The tar sands.

In December, one of the biggest daily newspapers in England, The Independent, ran a front page story that called the Tar Sands oil extraction project “The Biggest Environmental Crime in History.” And that is absolutely correct.

Never before has a single project done so much damage, to Canada and to the world.

  • Tar Sands operations could eventually cover 149,000 square kilometers, an area the size of Florida.
  • Each day the tar sands use 600 million cubic feet of natural gas, enough to heat more than 3 million Canadian homes.
  • Producing a barrel of oil from the tar sands produces three times more greenhouse gas than a barrel of conventional oil.
  • Tar sands operations use about the same amount of freshwater in a year as the entire City of Calgary – and 90% of that freshwater ends up in toxic tailing ponds.
  • Toxic tailing ponds already cover more than 50 square kilometers and are considered to be one of largest man-made structures in the world.

The tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. They are the main reason for Canada’s appalling emissions record in the past decade. It is impossible to get Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions under control and then reduced unless the tar sands are confronted head on.

As the Climate Justice Now Coalition points out, the only really effective way to cut emissions is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. In Canada this means immediately stopping all expansion of tar sands projects – and then shutting existing oprations down quickly.

Any government or political party that actually wants to stop climate change would make stopping this environmental crime a priority

The Tar Sands are the elephant in the room in Canada. The Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP have no policy for stopping or even slowing down the tar sands. The Green Party only calls for a “moratorium” on new projects – a policy that would allow radical increases in emissions, not to mention environmental destruction covering an area the size of Vancouver Island.

Everyone is avoiding action on this one. As Stephane Dion said, “There is just too much money in it.”

7. Leave it to the market

There are many other ways in which Canada has demonstrated its expertise in avoiding action on climate change. For example, Stephen Harper has promised $1.5 billion in subsidies for biofuels like ethanol, which uses more energy than it produces and drives up the price of food.

And then there was what Environment Minister John Baird did in Bali last month, refusing to do anything unless all the other countries act first. That’s a grossly immoral position for a country that has the third highest emissions per capita in the OECD and the worst record for emissions growth in the G7 – but Baird didn’t care – he’s determined to do nothing, and doesn’t care how he does it!

But I’d like to finish with the cleverest technique of all, because it really looks as if they are doing something. There are entire books on this one, and debates among economists on how to do it. Rather than do anything, they say, we should leave it to the market.

Just over a year ago a leading economist, Nicholas Stern, reported to the British government on climate change. His report identified the source of the problem. He wrote:

“GHG emissions are an externality; in other words, our emissions affect the lives of others. When people do not pay for the consequences of their actions we have market failure. This is the greatest market failure the world has seen.”

“Externality” is a term used by capitalist economists to describe what happens when capitalist corporations don’t pay for the damage they cause. Pollution is the perfect example – individual corporations pollute, but society as a whole bears the cost.

So what should we do about that? Some naïve people might say that we should stop relying on markets. But not Nicholas Stern, and not most policy makers. On the contrary, their solution to market failure is: create more markets!

This takes various forms, but the most widely proposed one is to put a monetary value on the right to pollute.

So if a corporation decides it is too expensive to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it can buy pollution credits from some other company that is doing well at that, or it can invest in supposedly green projects in the Third World.

Peter Atherton, a financial analyst with Citigroup Global Markets, studied the European Emissions Trading System, which has been in operation for several years. He concluded that it,

“has done nothing to curb emissions … is a highly regressive tax falling mostly on poor people …”

Despite that, it now seems certain that similar plans will be introduced in North America. The BC government is negotiating to set up an emissions trading scheme with the western states.

The Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP are all calling for an emissions trading plan in Canada. And, as a recent editorial in New Scientist magazine says,

“Finance houses and traders are licking their lips at the profits they hope to make from trading in carbon offsets, futures, derivatives and much else…”

Emissions trading doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse, by delaying practical action to reduce emissions by the biggest corporate offenders.

But it sounds good, and it will make lots of money for polluters and stock brokers.

Why are they avoiding action?

Any reasonable person who has followed the efforts of capitalists and governments to avoid action on climate change must eventually ask “why?”

The earth is heating up. Our climate is going crazy. Everyone on earth will be affected. So why don’t the people in power do something? Don’t they understand that this is a crisis?

The American writer Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

And that is the case with our politicians and business leaders.

They are the guardians of the existing economic, social and political system, a system that cannot function without growth, no matter how damaging it is. A system whose only measure of growth is how much is being sold every day, every week, every year. Those sales include thousands upon thousands of products that are directly harmful to humans and nature. They include commodities that cannot be produced without spreading disease, destroying the forests that produce 100% of the oxygen we breathe, poisoning our water and our air. That doesn’t matter – it is all growth.

It is a system that cannot sacrifice short-term private profit for long-term social good, because a corporation that is less profitable than its competitors will go out of business.

That creates constant and irresistible pressure to cut costs – and for centuries that has meant using the environment as a free source of resources and as a free sewer.

The system is called by various names, but I prefer the simplest and clearest one: Capitalism. A system in which capital rules, in which the needs of capital are paramount – a system in which nature, which includes humanity, pays the price.

Waste and pollution are not accidental side-effects of capitalism. Ecological destruction is built into the system’s DNA.

Calling global warming the result of “market failure” misses the fact that it is a direct and inevitable result of the way capitalism works. A few years ago the World Resources Institute studied how resources are used in the industrialized countries. They found that between one-half and three quarters of the resource inputs used by industrial economies are returned to the environment as waste, within twelve months.

Look at the tar sands, where 90% of the freshwater used as input is excreted as poisonous waste. That’s what capitalism does with natural resources – it trashes them, turns them into landfill and pollution and greenhouse gases.

And that is why politicians and business leaders who are committed to maintaining capitalism are also committed to avoiding action on climate change.

If we had a government that actually cared about the environment instead of capital, that actually wanted to help stop global warming instead of protecting profits, it would unilaterally adopt the IPCC’s recommendations for emissions targets, and make meeting those targets a top priority.

It would legislate rapid reductions in Greenhouse Gas emissions, with heavy penalties for failure to comply. These would be absolute reductions, not phony trading schemes, not clever mechanisms for offloading the problem onto the third world.

It would end all subsidies and tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry.

It would immediately stop all expansion of operations in the tar sands, and then rapidly close down existing operations.

And it would redirect the billions that are now being spent on wars and debt into public transit, into retrofitting homes and offices for energy efficiency, and into renewable energy projects.

And it wouldn’t just reduce emissions in Canada. It would declare that the issue is not just stopping climate change, but winning climate justice.

It would recognize that centuries of plunder and exploitation make rich countries like Canada liable for an immense ecological debt to the third world. Global warming has been created in the Global North, but the principal victims are in the Third world and in indigenous communities everywhere.

We have a moral responsibility to help clean up the destruction caused by Canadian corporations abroad, and to assist the developing world to shift to clean technology and to adapt to unavoidable change.

Those are just some of the things that a government that actually cared would do. But our government doesn’t care, and the opposition parties are no better.

And that’s why Canada has such an appalling record of inaction on climate change. That’s why Canada won worldwide recognition at Bali last month. At every step, the Canadian delegation fought to ensure that the Bali Action Plan didn’t require any action at all.

Since they won’t act, it is up to us. It’s time to stop letting them speak for us.

Conferences like this one are an important part of a growing movement that also includes marches and rallies, sit-ins and occupations, guerrilla theatre, and much more – all aiming to win mass public support, and mobilize public opposition to the policy of doing nothing.

Since they won’t don’t want to act, it’s up to us to organize, to ensure that they have no choice. It can be done, and it must be done – it’s up to us to make it happen.

In short, it’s time to stop the climate vandals, because our planet is much more important than their profits.


  • Powell Lucas, if you’re not going to read the article and research ecosocialism then please keep your comments to yourself.

    The first articles I found on ecosocialism reject dehumanizing productivist socialism for the same reasons it rejects capitalism (capitalism needs to prefix. It is by its nature dehumanizing and productivist). It’s even in the Manifesto!

    If your impression of socialism is authoritarian regimes trying to mimic capitalism then you’re ignorant and are only puppeting fascist propaganda.

  • David Gardner’s attack on the modern world probably will win only a few Yuppie ubran gardners. David’s vision is easy to realize: the grindng poverty of Africa and Asia where cow dung and charcoal is the only energy source. Good luck with that and your vision of a benign fuedalism.

    Powell…ecosocialists do not defend the Stalinist depradations of the enivornment that existed in the countries you named. But, since you mention it, Cuba is not a bad example of extensive reuse of materials, recycling and energy conservation. Cuba is a MODEL of how to live peacefully with your enviroment, not a ‘disaster’.

    David Walters

  • Yessir, lets follow the path of ecosocialism. Then we could have such pristine landscapes as those created by those great socialist nations such as Russia, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, etc. where the air, water and soil are so toxic that were they found in these degenerate capitalist countries an area for 100 miles around would be declared off limits to humans. Our record on the environment is pretty sad but it outshines the ecological disasters left behind by these caring socialist regimes. But then, it was the west that probably drove them to it. If you want to push an aggressive anti-polution agenda I would suggest you don’t hang the socialist tag on it. The example set by socialist nations, including China, are not exactly a shining beacon for us to follow.

  • You have to love this direct approach that pulls no punches. We need more of this. Is there video of this speech? I would love to include a clip in my documentary.

    Mr. Walters’ brings up jobs in an age-old distraction called “jobs vs. environment.” What good is a job in a world ravaged by climate change? Get over it, David. Put those people to work farming the land with labor rather than oil.

    Mr. Walters also brings up nuclear energy, another great example of man’s denial of the root causes of our problems. Nuclear energy just substitutes one unsustainable and environmentally destructive form of energy for another, in a desperate attempt to avoid changing our lifestyles and shifting away from our worship of perpetual growth.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  • Ian, thank you for a well researched and interesting expose of the Canadian gov’ts’ proposals on carbon emissions.

    Obviously you article raises more questions than it answers. Clearly, for example, the tar-sands project out in Alberta is building it’s own huge constiuency of working class tar-sands operators. Hundreds of thousand of skilled and unskilled workers have flooded the Province. What solution for them if the tar-sands project is killed or scalled back?

    The real 800 lbs gorrilla in the room is the issue of nuclear energy, the single biggest source of carbon free energy in Canada after hydropower. It is not brought up in your article yet it needs to be descussed, as objectively as possible. I would only raise this here because any Federal policy stemming from the Conservative Party gov’t has to jive with the energy policy of the largest Province, Ontario, the only gov’t I’m aware of anywhere that has truly laid out a policy of phasing out fossil fuel generation, the largest stationary source of carbon emission in Canada outside the tar-sands project itself. The target in Ontario, specifcially, is coal, which is also the largest source of mercury in the enviroment, as well as uranium, thorium and other heavy metals.

    I’m hoping you can start to write on the subject of nuclear energy.

    David Walters
    Pacifica, CA