Mary Robins, climate change and a lack of political will

This is the third and last piece (for the moment) in my essays from school series. The first covered the idea of the naming of a new epoch in geologic time–The Anthropocene–based on the extent to which humans have changed the natural world. The second essay discussed my perspective that environmental policies and regulations should not be relaxed during a time of recession. In this third essay, I comment on the points made by Mary Robins in an interview with Michael Enright on the CBC’s  Sunday Edition.

Mary Robins on Climate Change and a lock of Political Will

Solutions to climate change already exist or have been proposed. But so far, no solution has been found for a global lack of political will. And with every discovery of a new oil or gas field, that will is sapped even further. It’s a situation Mary Robbins finds profoundly worrying, and she has a blunt and inconvenient message for global leaders and fossil-fuel producing countries like Canada: If you’re serious about preventing the worst of climate change, you have to leave the oil and gas in the ground.

This was the introduction from an interview with Mary Robinson by Michael Enright on CBC’s The Sunday Edition (Robinson, 2013). Mary Robinson is a former president of Ireland, and now runs a foundation dedicated to climate justice. The main premise of her argument is that issues around climate change are now social justice issues, and we in the developed world have a moral obligation to acknowledge the benefits we have gained from the exploitation of fossil fuels and assist developing nations. Nations that, according to Robinson, now have issues like reduced food security due to drought, or are being forced to leave their island homes due to sea level rise, all as a result of climate change (Robinson, 2013).

The idea that fossil fuels must be left in the ground is based in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and a report from the World Bank – Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided (World Bank, 2012). Simply put, if carbon emissions continue at the current rate of output the planet is headed for a world that will be 4°C warmer than pre-industrial levels. This will cause significant issues with world climate, food production, sea level rise, and possible loss of biodiversity. Since the largest portion of increases in atmospheric carbon comes from the burning of fossil fuels, and there is enough carbon in existing reserves to send us way past this limit, the easiest solution to this problem is to simply leave the carbon in the ground. For counties like Canada, however, who see the extraction of fossil fuels as a major economic driver, this is not an option we are likely to take.

Mary Robinson calls on our leaders to make these difficult but necessary decisions. However, Canada has a history of poor performance when it comes to climate policy. In Canadian Environmental Policy  and Politics, Douglas Macdonald (2009) claims there are four major factors that explain this failure. The first is the simple but expansive nature of the problem—Canada is a country were a large portion of the economy is based in motor vehicle manufacturing and the export of oil and gas (Macdonald, 2009). To move the country away from this apparent prosperity and towards the uncharted waters of a low-carbon economy would be political suicide. The second factor is Alberta’s vested interest in the oil and gas industry and their effectiveness as a veto state (Macdonald, 2009). In the past Alberta has effectively lobbied against any emissions reduction policy and maintains its veto by refusing to act on these issues. Moreover, the Harper Conservative government has its base in Alberta and is outwardly pro oil and gas. Third, is absence of any province who is willing to take the lead as a champion of climate change policy (Macdonald, 2009). While there was some hope under the Campbell Liberal government in British Columbia—who introduced a carbon tax and aggressive reduction targets—the subsequent Clark government is promoting Liquefied Natural Gas as a new clean energy. Finally, Macdonald (2009) points to the “weakness of the Federal-Provincial system” (p. 161) of negotiation and accountability for the failure to achieve any meaningful change with regard to emissions and climate policy. More recently, the federal government introduced the Jobs, Growth, and Long-Term Prosperity act (Government of Canada, 2013) which sent a clear message as to the direction the government was taking through the apparent loosening of environmental safeguards, the lack of any definitive climate change policy, and the title of the act itself.

Robinson (2013) in her interview with Enright expresses the urgency of the situation: “the clock is ticking”, “we are running out of time.” But as the recent climate change talks in Warsaw have shown, developed countries are still dragging their heals when it comes to taking any meaningful action (Readfearn, 2013). As one reporter at the conference put it “[r]ich countries are desperate to avoid taking the blame for the impacts of climate change on nations with a lot less money but an awful lot more to lose (like their entire country, for example)” (Readfearn, 2013). Based on Robinsons (2013) assessment of the situation, these same counties are the ones who got rich while creating the problem (albeit through apparent ignorance), and should now financially help out the poorer counties who face the greatest climate change challenges. It seems unlikely that this will happen. As Michael Enright pointed out (Robinson, 2013), these same rich counties currently provide over $500 billion dollars in subsidies to fossil fuel industries globally, while the renewable energy sector receives around one fifth of this amount. Add to this the widely publicized anti-climate change rhetoric that is coming from the newly elected Australian government (Readfearn, 2013), and it seems obvious that many rich countries have no intention of doing anything about climate change.

So where to from here? Those that hold the power to make the change seem disinterested at best, but the reality is they are fully vested in the petro state. As John Dryzek (2013) put it “a globally organized liberal capitalism mostly insensitive to environmental concerns is the dominant political fact of our times” (p. 233). I don’t see any rapid about-face coming from our political leaders either. Moreover, there are still many members of the general public who do not want to be inconvenienced by the changes required for a transition to a low-carbon world, who don’t think there is anything we can do about the situation, or who just don’t think it is a problem. From these observations, there are three possible outcomes I can see. The first is that we will continue to emit greenhouse gasses at a similar rate and will see an increase of 4°C or more by the end of the century. This will bring with it widespread climate disasters impacting human civilization, and a continued loss of biodiversity from the extinction of species that are unable to adapt to the rapid change. Generally, the world won’t be that much fun for its inhabitants. The second possible outcome is where there is significant climate event in the short-term that brings about some action from world leaders. The third possible outcome is that through grassroots organizations, and the actions of these groups and individuals, we buy ourselves a little extra time while a shift in the dominant social paradigm takes place. It is my view that if there is a general shift in the discourse within rich counties towards stewardship and social justice, then we will act on the problem. The first outcome is what I expect and the third outcome is what I hope for.