John Baird embarrasses us again
“We’re not going to put our negotiating strategy in the front window.”
— John Baird, December 12, 2007, United Nations Climate Change Conference, Bali, Indonesia
“The Bush administration doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the environment in the Arctic, but they do care about protecting their national security.”
— Michael Byers, author of Intent for a Nation: What Is Canada For? December 12, 2007, ArcticNet conference, Collingwood, Ontario
In February 2006, with the huff and puff of the election campaign behind him, I imagine that Prime Minister Stephen Harper settled into his chair, thought for a moment, and discovered useful, even admirable aspects of the Liberal Party record. Most useful perhaps was the Liberals’ laggard approach to global warming. Most admirable certainly was the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America — a fancy title for a “dialogue” to extend nafta and pave the way for a fully integrated approach to continental energy and security. Harper embraced this with enthusiasm, and that summer he put Conservative meat on the Liberal skeleton.
Before an audience of business leaders in London, England, on July 14, 2006, in advance of the G8 summit and with Russia’s Vladimir Putin singing the virtues of energy nationalization, Harper thundered that Canada would be “a global energy powerhouse.” He spoke obliquely about alternative energy — “Our government is making new investments in renewable energy sources such as biofuels” — but committed Canada to the fossil fuel economy. “[Alberta’s] oil sands are the second-largest oil deposit in the world, bigger than Iraq, Iran, or Russia, exceeded only by Saudi Arabia. Digging the bitumen out of the ground, squeezing out the oil and converting it into synthetic crude . . . requires vast amounts of capital, Brobdingnagian technology, and an army of skilled workers.” But Canada is “a great place to do business,” Harper intoned. It is ordained.
Last November, in a clear merging of two files, the economy and the environment, the prime minister told Commonwealth leaders gathered in Kampala, Uganda, that Canada would only accept “aspirational targets” on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, from his perspective, the subsequent United Nations Climate Change Conference was a sideshow. With the Alberta energy royalties issue settled, Mackenzie River oil and gas developments coming on stream, and the limitless growth agenda coming down from on high, Environment Minister John Baird was dispatched to Indonesia to Bali dance, stick to Canada’s current needs, and reassure the American delegation that we are committed to providing the US with the energy security it craves. For its performance at Bali, Canada received many “fossil of the day” awards. But the real action was taking place elsewhere.
A few days after the conference, Enbridge, Canada’s largest oil pipeline company, and ExxonMobil, the world’s largest public oil and gas company, announced plans to extend the Alberta-to-Illinois pipeline system to Houston, the heart of the US oil refinery business. It’s a bold move that just might be trumped by big player Kinder Morgan’s bid to build a direct Alberta-to-Texas pipeline. Forget the naysayers — there’s oil to burn, baby! Perhaps owing to Venezuela’s being bellicose as always and too-expensive Mexican oil, Enbridge ceo Patrick Daniel said he will not “sit idly by” during this moment of intense competition for natural resources, American need, and Canadian capacity. At least this road map is clear: push on, push on, the future is bright and bountiful.
On global warming, from a historical and internationalist perspective, it was the 1997 meeting in Kyoto, Japan, that was promising. There and then, the past was taken seriously, and the UN was accorded its due as the only body capable of coordinating a global consensus. Having caused or greatly accelerated global warming by belching carbon-laced pollutants into the atmosphere for some 200 years, the developed world agreed to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even the US, its economy wedded to consumption and its belief in the growth model limitless, signed the Kyoto Protocol. It failed to ratify the accord, of course, upon hearing from global warming skeptics and domestic hawks who insisted that (as the beacon of light for the world) America should never subject itself to international tribunals. Nonetheless, for those onside, January 1, 2008, was the date on which targets would begin to be met in reducing emissions based on 1990 levels. In a reasonable accommodation, the developing world (India, China, etc.) would later follow suit. Words often spoke louder than actions; there were foot-draggers, to be sure. But as centres of environmental innovation emerged — gaining green technology jobs while cutting emissions — the future looked almost hopeful. Perhaps others would follow these leads. Perhaps an international agreement backed by international law was achievable.
Then came 9/11 and the rut and rot we are still in. Twin merchants of fear — al Qaeda, the attacker, and the US, the aggrieved and aggressive responder — have dominated the world ever since, distracting us from clear and present environmental dangers. Fossil fuel redoubts Canada and Russia ratified Kyoto in 2002 and 2004, but we prevaricated, while Russia became a CO2 superpower. Nature marched on. Recent nasa satellite images prove that early-fall Arctic sea ice is half what it was just four years ago. Last summer, the Greenland ice sheet lost 17 billion tonnes more ice than in any previous summer on record. Sea levels are rising, forest fires are increasing in number and ferocity, methane gas is escaping from thawing permafrost. And how are those with means responding to such calamities? They are investing in private security, a growth industry whose tentacles stretch far beyond green technology start-ups.
Whereas a short decade ago the past propelled many to act in a coordinated fashion, in North America today we exist in a fearful, greedy present, and broad consensual agreements are less and less likely. Here, it is all about growth and homeland security, about Osama bin Laden poling a gondola up Ottawa’s Rideau Canal or down Washington’s Potomac. And judging by the surge of venture capital investments in surveillance and emergency response companies, it is about private security against global warming. Rather than deal with the issue, our new modus operandi is to build safe havens, fortresses against the gathering storms. Like terrorism, if the environment is hostile to our interests it must be defended against, if not subdued.