'The science is clear. It leaves no room for procrastination. Global warming is real.'

Wed, 2007-02-14 12:26Jim Hoggan
Jim Hoggan's picture

'The science is clear. It leaves no room for procrastination. Global warming is real.'

With those words, the government of the Canadian province of British Columbia took what might be the most aggressive leadership position in the world on the issue of global warming.

The quote - that headline - is taken from the provincial Speech from the Throne, a broad statement of intent that parliamentary governments use to begin new sessions of the legislature. As such, it is a policy statement, rather than a legislated commitment. But the vision - the sheer audacity - of that stated policy puts British Columbia at the forefront of the global battle against climate change.

For example, the government promises that “It will aim to reduce B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 33 per cent below current levels by 2020. This will place British Columbia's greenhouse gas emissions at 10 per cent under 1990 levels by 2020.” You might quibble about seeing the word “aim” in the preamble, but it takes real political courage to set out a 33-per-cent reduction in 13 years. And every politician knows that the weasel words never count at the polls. If you try something, and fail, you pay the price.

But B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell clearly realizes that there is a potentially larger price to pay. The speech says that, of all the government's environmental priorities, “none is more important than the critical problem of global warming and climate change,” a problem that is “literally threatening life on Earth as we know it.”

It also says, “The more timid our response is, the harsher the consequences will be.”

This response was not timid in the least. One of the boldest initiatives was this: “Effective immediately, British Columbia will become the first jurisdiction in North America, if not the world, to require 100 per cent carbon sequestration for any coal-fired project… That means no greenhouse gas emissions will be permitted for coal-fired electricity projects anywhere in British Columbia.”

In other times, this could have been dismissed in a province where most electrical energy comes from hydro developments, but the BC Utilities Commission had given approval to two coal-fired plants in the last year. Those are now dead in their tracks.

The government also promised a new energy plan that would “require British Columbia to be electricity self-sufficient by 2016” and that “All new and existing electricity produced in B.C. will be required to have net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2016.” That, too, is unprecedented in North America.

It should be noted, for those outside of this jurisdiction, that the current B.C. government is not one of those wild-eyed, left coast radical groups. Although Liberal in name, it is not associated with Canada's Liberal party. Rather, it is a coalition of right-of-centre provincial parties - including Liberals and Conservatives as well as the more populist Reformers and Social Credit. When Premier Campbell's government was first elected in 2001, it immediately instituted the largest tax cut in provincial history and the left-wing New Democractic Party has continued to complain about the aggressive way this Liberal party has reduced the size and scope of government in British Columbia.

But when it comes to climate change, Premier Campbell obviously “gets it.” But his government is just as obviously aware of the challenges of meeting hard targets.

Acknowledging, “Clearly there is a limit to what can be credibly accomplished within any given period of time,” the government promised, “A Climate Action Team will be established. Working with First Nations, other governments, industries, environmental organizations, and the scientific community it will determine the most credible, aggressive, and economically viable sector targets possible for 2012 and 2016.”

B.C. will set automobile emission standards that keep pace with those in California, and will work with California, Oregon and Washington on other climate and environmental policy developments.

The overall tone of this speech is one of optimism and - frankly - opportunism:

“Indeed, being bold and far sighted will foster innovation, new technologies, and plant the seeds of success. Just as the government's energy vision of 40 years ago led to massive benefits today, so will our decisions today provide far reaching benefits in 2040 and 2050.

“Our actions will mean more jobs, new investments, and ultimately greater prosperity for British Columbia. Climate action must be seen and pursued as an economic opportunity as well as an environmental imperative.”

This is inspiring stuff. It is the kind of political leadership that has been lacking in North America, with the sole exception of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's initiatives in California.

We can only hope that British Columians - and especially B.C. businesses - rise to the challenge, and that other political leaders in Canada and farther afield pay close attention to the good things that can come from addressing climate change.

Previous Comments

I’m hopeful, but this government’s record of dishonesty, secrecy, and favouritism for fossil fuels has given me a large dose of skepticism. It’s going to take meaningful action before I come around.

I’ll specifically be looking at three canaries:

1. will there be any change to the Gateway Project
2. what will happen to the two proposed coal plants
3. what measures will be applied to the BC oil & gas and mining sectors

Gateway is the big one because with the high proportion of hydro in BC power generation, the highest proportion of greenhouse gases comes from transportation. If the Feds and the Province continue to massively underfund transit (Translink can’t even meet current demand) overwhelmingly in favour of highway and bridge construction, I wouldn’t count on the targets being met.

Given that the Fraser Valley is expecting significant growth over the next 20 years, if there is a token transit infrastructure and few restrictions placed on sprawl, how are those people going to get around? They will choose the car. As far as congestion is concerned, we’ll be back to square one.

If the Fraser Valley municipalities do not have plans, backed up by zoning, for creating compact communities that reduce the need to even use a vehicle (be it the car or a bus), they miss out on an opportunity to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and congestion while increasing people’s health from walking and cycling more. (There was a study that found urban dwellers are more fit than those in the suburbs because of this.) The province could provide (dis)incentives.

With respect to our exports of coal, oil, and gas, aren’t we being hypocritical reducing our own GHG emissions while profiting from the export of fossil fuels that feed the problem elsewhere?

Much of this province’s current economic buoyancy comes from the exploitation and use of fossil fuels. The companies that profit from this helped put the Campbell Liberals in power. I think they would be reluctant to bite the hand that fed them. Read the fine print.

As for the average worker, I don’t know that they would be terribly troubled if their job is part of the GHG-emitting infrastructure that brought us to our current dilemma, especially if they were given the option of job or no job. Fear has been an effective weapon to get joe six pack to bend in the right direction. Only if they know they can get jobs in a sustainable-oriented economy will this be avoided.

Stay tuned…

The Gateway question is especially important because it will add infrastructure that will change the automotive functionality of Vancouver for generations. It's also reasonable to wonder how easy it will be for Campbell to discipline a party that, I suspect, may be divided on some of these messages.

But the bottom line, for now, is that he has madea commitment unmatched in any Canadian jurisdiction - one that really shows leadership in the whole world. I'm with Jim on this. That was brave and it was the right thing to do. And it will be political suicide if, having said it, he doesn't follow through.

“With respect to our exports of coal, oil, and gas, aren’t we being hypocritical reducing our own GHG emissions while profiting from the export of fossil fuels that feed the problem elsewhere?” Not at all. This is a global market, and we need to maximise our return from the resources we have on today’s terms so we can lead change with the wealth it creates. Hamstringing ourselves by reducing exports of CO2 producing fuels would not help in terms of innovation and overall wealth creation. As long as the market for coal, oil and gas are strong, we should continue to maximise our return, provided that return is turned around into R&D on clean technologies and overall economic diversification for BC and Canada as a whole. On the other hand, there never has been a good argument - global warming or not - for exploiting resources in the absence of social and economic reinvestment.
Eleeson, isn’t it because of maximizing returns on our resources – actually on 19th century terms that continue today – that got us in this pickle in the first place?

I’d like to know how you think we would be hamstrung by phasing out fossil fuel use. A substantial amount of economic activity will be generated by getting us out of our precarious situation, only the fossil fuel dinosaurs won’t be the ones profiting.

Not only do we have a global market, we also have a global ecosphere. What is the difference if we burn the fossil fuels we extract here or sell them to someone else to burn elsewhere? The greenhouse gases still enter the atmosphere. If we don’t curb this sufficiently in time, thousands of smart people who study this for a living (as opposed to those pretending to while getting paid by the polluters) have said the ice caps will melt and the sea level will significantly rise. The sea level doesn’t just rise where the worst greenhouse gases rise. This doesn’t sound like a very good recipe for “raising our boat.”

As for R&D, given the fact that ExxonMobil earned almost $40 billion in profits (not revenue) last year, I don’t see them doing terribly much with that obscene amount; think of the substantial socio-economic investments that could be made with a small proportion of that. In fact, ExMo has been working hard to change as little as possible by investing in BS, which is why this blog exists.

Despite the rosy picture that corporations like to paint of themselves as being “good corporate citizens,” they are compelled to maximize shareholder profits. Period. If this means breaking the law, acting unethically, or immorally, they will do it. If there is a strong probability of getting caught? They will still break the law if it remains more profitable than doing the right thing. Investing in R&D? Only if it is more profitable. If it isn’t, they may be required to make a token PR investment in order to protect the greater profits; that’s it. Only rigorous, enforced government regulation (laws, taxes, etc.) will change this.

I find it interesting that we were able to do something quickly about the ozone hole when it was thought life on earth was significanlty imperiled. Yet, now, our governments in North America have been trying their best to do as little as possible when the stakes are just as great, if not greater. It isn’t as if we don’t have the technology and know-how to do something right now. We do! And we don’t have to wait 10, 20 years to see the impact.

I don’t think you can compare action on banning cfc emissions to that of the scale it will take to end our worlds reliance on fossil fuels.
Zig, you’re absolutely right about the differences in scale. That’s not my point.

In both cases, life on Earth is similarly imperiled. Given that implementing the solution to CFCs was less difficult, the problem was rapidly addressed. However, with GHG, we face a much greater problem, yet so much time has been wasted because of PR pollution. Progress is slower when, in fact, it needs to be faster.

I hope that public opinion has reached a tipping point to the degree that we’ll be able to make up for lost ground.

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What pickle? Pardon me while I puke.

Could TILMA hamstring BC’s efforts? Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement between BC and Alberta, which other provinces and the US could join:

“…This deal extends NAFTA-like privileges to Canadian corporations, allowing them to sue provincial and municipal governments for any regulation deemed harmful to their profits. Under TILMA, even policies designed to protect the environment and public health are vulnerable to attack from corporate lawsuits…”

So it is an environmental concern as well as one about deep integration with the US.

Council of Canadians

I had always kind of sat on the fence with this Campbell guy. I don’t live in BC, but you sure do hear about him (and not in a good way). But he’s got the guts to do what is right and that is a hard thing to find amongst the waffling breed of politicians. He deserves nothing but praise for the guts he has shown.
If this is just a PR stunt with loopholes large enough to sail the Exxon Valdez through, it definitely would take a lot of guts to try and perpetrate such an audacious fraud.

I’ll wait until I see some action before coming to any conclusions as Campbell has been hard at work doing what is Right.

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O.K. Jimbo, you’ve convinced me. In order to punish Evil Exxon, I’ve started taking public transit to work. It means leaving for work 3/4 of an hour earlier and getting home 3/4 of an hour later, but my house is so cold now that I don’t want to spend much time in it anyway. I shut off my furnace a couple of weeks ago and wear lots of clothes. Anything to save the world and prove that I’m not a smarmy hypocrite like Suzuki. Of course, with no heat in the house, my plumbing froze and the pipes burst with the last big cold snap, so we’re melting snow in the fireplace for water and shitting in the back yard. My neighbours don’t like that very much but, I tell them we’re doing it for the environment. As soon as the ground thaws in April, I’ll dig a pit and build a crapper over it. I can hardly wait to relive the sentimental days of my childhood on the farm before we had nasty electricity from coal-fired Sask Power plants. I’m sure that all of Hoggan’s heros will be rushing to join me back in the good ol’ days by getting rid of their big modern houses and moving into more appropriate accomodations. EARTH FIRST!
This is bad news. Campbell is drinking the Global Warmerization Koolaid. We’re screwed.
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