An Argument in Search of an Audience

From 2001 to 2004, Joyce Murray was the British Columbia “Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection” – an executive officer in a government that didn't even want to acknowledge the “environment.” (To their credit, the provincial Liberals have dropped the conceit and once again take ownership of a “Ministry of the Environment.”)

Regardless of her government's record (Murray says, “I was not able to bring forward as strong a Plan for BC as I intended (for various reasons I will not go into here!),” the former minister has been speaking out about the worrying abdication of climate change responsibility at the federal level. She submitted this article to the Globe and Mail and to the Vancouver Sun to no avail. We think it deserves some attention.


By Joyce Murray, MBA

The singular aspect to last week’s federal budget that sends shivers down my spine: Stephen Harper’s decimation of the budget for climate change initiatives.

How can the new Canadian government dismiss the prospect of an unimaginable worsening of climate impacts? We are already changing our climate globally at enormous cost - the destruction of the pine forest in BC is just a small taste of possible future disasters. We risk, in our and our children’s lifetimes, catastrophic changes in sea levels, ocean currents, and heat and rainfall patterns, which will threaten entire human populations, ecosystems, species, and food sources. Since I first researched and wrote about this issue fourteen years ago, the urgency has become much greater.

Climate change is the defining issue of our present generation; the one by which we will be judged. Global warming is as great a challenge to civilization as the threats to democracy the world faced in the 1930s. It requires as great a resolve, cooperation, and urgency. Political leaders who deny this problem to appease their “Big Oil” and corporate supporters will be condemned, as Britain’s Neville Chamberlain was condemned for his appeasement policy of 1938 and 1939.

Harper dismisses and criticizes the Kyoto Accord; he would pull Canada out. What a mistake! Past experience dealing with atmospheric ozone-destroying chemicals proved that a binding international agreement like Kyoto is essential in dealing with a global problem. It is the only way to get governments and corporations to act; the only way to stop renegade countries and companies from taking a free ride on the efforts of others.  

Last December in Montreal the Kyoto framework agreement was extended beyond 2012. Then-environment minister Stephan Dion is credited with pushing through a successful outcome despite difficulties posed by obstruction from George Bush’s delegation. China and India also agreed to accept a future share of responsibility to reduce or avoid emissions.

Kyoto is not perfect but it is working. As provincial environment minister I worked with heads of major corporations that are transforming their businesses to reduce emissions in response to Kyoto targets; in fact many members of the business community are leaders on this issue. British Columbia is becoming a competitive centre of new technologies and processes. Some European countries are exceeding their reduction targets.

In Canada, our previous federal government rightly committed to significantly reducing our country’s emissions. By ratifying Kyoto in 2002 government sent a strong positive signal to Canadians and to the world. Provincial governments, municipalities and industrial sectors responded by creating their own reduction plans, in some cases in negotiation with the federal government. Individuals have become far more aware of the issue and what they can do to help.

Despite ongoing Conservative opposition to Kyoto-related action, the federal government did make considerable progress in recent years. Greenhouse gas reduction initiatives and incentives were woven into a wide variety of government policies. Capital funding was committed to help pay for necessary infrastructure like rapid transit in BC or replacing coal electrical plants in Ontario. And funds were budgeted to implement the emerging plans to meet Kyoto targets.

Stephen Harper and his team have criticized the former government for the rise in emissions in Canada since 1990. Indeed, both the federal and the BC climate change plans should have been much stronger, with more bite. But Harper is taking us backward, not forward. It has taken time for policy-makers to develop an approach that will be cost-effective and still be fair in the allocation of emission cuts. And we will continue to be challenged by the fact that a significant part of Canada’s increased emissions results from the accelerated export of petroleum products to the USA. Much of the natural gas we send south is actually reducing emissions in the USA, by replacing their more polluting oil or coal electricity plants. Unfortunately the USA gets the credit while Canada has to count the emissions from producing and exporting the product.

Sure, reducing emissions while growing a population and an economy is a complex challenge. But as with other complex international challenges the world has faced, there is simply no excuse for not taking vigorous action.

Fast forward to budget day 2006. What do we have now?  A budget with billions cut from climate change programs. In their place, the Conservatives placed one lonely environmental program in the budget -  it’s a 50 buck tax break next April if you ride the bus for a year. How laughable! How unacceptable. By scrapping most of the work that’s been done to date and declaring that they will start working on a new plan, Stephen Harper is undermining a decade of work by thousands of people across the country.

Please don’t be fooled by the Conservative promise of a “made-in-Canada” climate plan. What that really means is a Conservative plan of inaction; a climate change time-out for Canada. The Conservative Party has always been clear they don’t support Kyoto; they don’t believe we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now in government, the Conservatives have greater power to apply their doctrine of appeasement of “Big Oil.” Stephen Harper is writing off his responsibility to Canadians, the majority of whom do support Kyoto. He is undermining the international community and its collective framework for dealing with this crisis. And, most especially, he is thumbing his nose at our children and grandchildren and their right to a future safe from climate catastrophe.