"Kicking our carbon habit within a few short decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation."
- from a Dec. 7 editorial published in The Guardian and 55 other newspapers around the world
According to a Harris-Decima poll conducted last month, most Canadians think climate change is mankind's defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response.
The debate over whether humans are causing climate change is long over. The purloined e-mails from East Anglia are a sideshow intended to sew doubt, the way tobacco companies used to question the link between smoking and cancer.
The debates, now, are over how severe climate change will be, what we can do to mitigate the change and who will pay for those mitigation efforts. And this is where the giant conference in Copenhagen, the 15 th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, matters. As The Economist stated this week, "Without a new global agreement, there is not much chance of averting serious climate change."
The British magazine also suggested the problem of climate change is simpler and cheaper to fix than most people think. It's not a lack of low-carbon technologies, nor is it an insurmountable financial challenge. "A percentage point of global economic output is affordable for a worthwhile project," The Economist states. "Saving the banks has cost around 5% of global output."
The problem is political, on several levels.
There is, of course, the international debate over how much developing countries should be required to cut carbon emissions when it is developed countries that have contributed most of the greenhouse gas emissions and have enjoyed the benefits that came with those emissions. That's an issue that has been under discussion for some time and may come to some resolution in Copenhagen.
Many local governments are also taking action. Whistler is one of 175 municipalities in British Columbia that have signed the provincial Climate Action Charter, pledging to become "carbon neutral." In the United States, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickel started the Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement. More than 1,000 U.S. cities have now agreed to reduce emissions to levels set in the Kyoto Accord, even though the U.S. rejected the accord.
British Columbia is one of four provinces that have joined seven states in the Western Climate Initiative, an organization that is coordinating technical details and standards, including a carbon-trading system. The Western Climate Initiative is filling some of the void left by the governments of Canada and the United States, that have to date done little to address climate change.
If some momentum is gained at the Copenhagen conference that may finally change. But don't expect the Harper government or the U.S. Congress to suddenly embrace Al Gore. Canadians may say climate change is mankind's defining crisis but when they went to the polls they overwhelmingly rejected Stephane Dion's Green Shift.
Moreover, the first priority of federal politicians and governments, particularly minority governments, is to remain in power. Policies are important but you can't make policies if you're not in government. And unpopular policies - those that require some sacrifice or commitment from voters - will get you booted out of office.
Mark Jaccard, the SFU professor and a Nobel Prize winner for his work on climate change, touched on the importance of compulsory government policies and the difficulty of implementing them during his presentation in Whistler Monday. Jaccard, who has been a consultant to the provincial government, called B.C.'s carbon tax the most economically efficient way of addressing climate change. No new bureaucrats were hired to administer it, whereas under a cap and trade system a whole new level of bureaucracy is created.
And the carbon tax nearly cost Gordon Campbell's government the last election.
Jaccard's message to municipal governments was to focus on reducing emissions. In Whistler's case, that largely means emissions from automobiles and buildings. Set realistic targets and design compulsory policies that will get you to those targets.
So, to no one's surprise, climate change solutions are political. But that doesn't mean it's all up to governments. Solutions involve voters and people accepting that they will have to change some of their practices - and not turning on a government when it sets policies that require some sacrifice.