Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kyoto... and the milk of human kindness

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One truly great thing about the ongoing national debate over how Canada should come to terms with its five-year-old commitment to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas emissions is the way it has brought out the best in everyone.

It's just like being Londoners during The Blitz.

Suddenly, the Canadian Manufacturers Association, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce -- all these big and important people -- are deeply concerned about my own personal welfare. Imagine that.

They worry about how much money Kyoto's going to cost me. They fret about how much my income may fall. They lose sleep about how much more money I might have to spend on downtown parking fees and fixing those drafty kitchen windows.

The milk of human kindness verily flows from these people, as does their desire for a clean and safe environment. They are so filled with bonhomie that they have formed the "Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions" with the assistance of National PR, Canada's largest public-relations firm.

National PR is an affiliate of the multinational Burson-Marsteller. You remember them. They were the guys who helped the Indonesian government with a pesky image problem after slaughtering 200,000 East Timorese. They were the guys who handled Union-Carbide's crisis-management work after the Bhopal disaster in India, helped an Argentinean dictatorship deal with irritating questions from reporters about that country's 35,000 "disappeared", and laid out a strategy for the tobacco-friendly lobby in the U.S. known as the "Nation Smokers Alliance."

They're the ones that helped set up the U.S. oil industry's American Energy Alliance, which was ultimately successful in overturning the U.S. government's initial commitment to Kyoto.

I'm sorry. I digress. What I meant to say was that I am heartened and encouraged by all this fellow-feeling. Rarely is the nation gripped with such camaraderie, such concern for one's fellow man. Here's a small sample, from some recent headlines:

  • Don't Spend Billions On Something That Won't Work
  • The Chilling Cost of the Kyoto Deal
  • Kyoto Time Bomb
  • How Kyoto Punishes B.C.'s Forest Sector
  • Leap Back From Kyoto Precipice
  • When They Came for Alberta, We Did Not Speak Up.

    It's as though we're back in a tube-station bomb shelter sharing cups of toddy. And while we're wondering whether Saint Paul's Cathedral is still there -- steady as she goes, oh, there's another one, mind how you go -- National PR, all brave and plucky, leads us all in a cheery singsong of Pack Up Your Troubles.

    But now I am being mean.

    Still, one has to ask: What is wrong with these people, exactly? What can they possibly be thinking.?

    Canada entered into a solemn commitment to tackle greenhouse-gas emissions, through a United Nations covenant, a full decade ago. Canada then signed an international treaty in Kyoto in 1997 which set out the contribution we'd make, as a nation, to the important work of reducing the world's output of greenhouse gases. Our prime minister declared just this past summer, in Johannesburg, that Canada would ratify the deal before Christmas. Jean Chrétien's not even running again, so it's not like he can be ambushed at the polls; and besides, his commitment to ratify Kyoto is solidly backed by his own party and by two of the three national opposition parties.

    Until just a few days ago, Canada's business elites, led by the oil-and-gas lobby and hilariously aided by a little flag-bearer in the person of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, were stone-faced serious in asking us to believe that all this could be somehow undone.

    They're not saying that now. What they're saying now is, well, confusing, which is what it's supposed to be. You are supposed to feel confused, because what's been going on all along is a cynical game of find-the-card.

    Western Canadians, especially, have been treated like Pavlov's dogs, expected to salivate on cue to all the usual bell-ringing noises: it's the National Energy Program all over again! it's Big Government telling us what to do! It's those arrogant Liberals snubbing their noses at us and denying us our God-given right to first ministers' conferences and, by jiminy, we'll be separatists worse than Quebecers if they're not careful!

    What's really been going on these past few weeks is the dirty work of manipulating public opinion, with the help of strategies crafted by the likes of National PR, in order to buy time and negotiating room so that the oilpatch can shift Kyoto's weight from its own deserving shoulders onto the rest of us, without the rest of us noticing.

    Pumping greenhouse gases into the upper stratosphere is Grade A stupid behaviour, and everyone knows it. Most greenhouse gases come from fossil fuels, and the whole point of Kyoto is to curb fossil-fuel burning. Klein and his oilpatch friends know Kyoto is not good for their kind of business. They can dress it up any way they want, but what they're really after are measures that will oblige the rest of us to make life easier for them. They want other Canadians to bear as much of the Kyoto burden as they can get away with forcing us to carry.

    To a point, this is all well and good. It's dishonest and cynical but, let's face it, the rest of us aren't angels. We drive SUVs, let our railways fall apart, pipsqueak on industrial fuel efficiency, skimp on public transit, and so on.

    But in the real world, almost half of Canada's greenhouse-gas output comes from the energy sector, and its contribution has been growing. Klein has hitched Alberta's economic wagon to that kind of growth -- the oil sands he wants to tap produce ten times the greenhouse-gas intensity of conventional crude. What the ruckus of the past few weeks has been about, with all its reasonable-sounding language about "made-in-Canada" solutions, is to rig the game so that kind of expansion can continue.

    That's what all the talk about "emissions trading" is about. It's about obliging Canadian taxpayers to purchase other countries' allowable emissions to subsidize the fossil-fuel appetites of Canadian oil companies. It's also what "clean air credits" are about. The fiction there is that clear-cutting of Canadian forests actually offsets our net contribution to the clouding of the stratosphere's greenhouse windows.

    Fudging Kyoto's purpose in this manner would cause the whole protocol to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. Dozens of "developing" nations -- China, India and Brazil among them -- are scheduled to start making their contributions to the international Kyoto effort in 2005. If they look back over what's happened since 1997 and find the books so cooked that it puts Enron and Martha Stewart to shame, then the whole protocol, the entire global effort to stave off the catastrophic effects of global warming, will go up in smoke.

    As tragic as that would be, it's actually a scenario that clearly appeals to some people. When former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed was conscripted to help lead Alberta's anti-Kyoto campaign -- a move that proved rather awkward, owing to his ties to the coal-mining giant Luscar Ltd. -- he was, at first, less than coherent about why ordinary Canadians should oppose Canada's ratification of the treaty.

    When pressed by a reporter, Lougheed offered his own, personal bottom-line: "I don't think in matters of this nature we should tie ourselves to international agreements."

    In other words, democracy is all well and good, but there's a limit to what Canadians should be allowed to decide, and there's a limit to what the people of the world should be allowed to do, collectively, as nation-states. To people like Lougheed, curbing the behaviour of the world's oil, gas and coal companies crosses the line.

    At the end of the day, that's what really is at stake with Kyoto.

    When the United States disgraced itself by pulling out of the deal, it was left up to countries like Russia and Canada to ensure that the treaty was backed by the minimum number of industrialized countries to make the deal enforceable. Had Canada not agreed to ratify, the chances of the rest of the world coming on board would have all but evaporated.

    Meeting our targets -- reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions to a point six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012, which will mean cutting our current output by a quarter -- won't be easy. It also won't do much to slow the pace of global warming -- Kyoto is just where that effort starts. The big issue here is whether the citizens of the world will be allowed to make Kyoto work. It's whether we'll be allowed to make decisions, as a species, about our very destiny, and about the fate of the planet itself.

    Klein, Lougheed and the rest have already lost that debate, and they know it. The economists can argue with one another about "Kyoto's costs" until they're blue in the face. The last time we entered a treaty with huge disputes about its costs was the Canada-U.S. free trade deal. Lougheed and his crowd were all for signing. Back then, they were the ones telling us to make a leap of faith, and the economists are still arguing about whether we came out ahead or behind.

    When it comes to Kyoto's "costs", there is only one matter worth discussing. It's how Canadians will share the burden of fixing the mess that oil, coal and gas has gotten us into. National PR's clients should be honest about this. And they should keep their fatuous and phony empathy to themselves.

    Terry Glavin is a B.C. author, critic and journalist. His most recent book, The Last Great Sea: A Voyage Through the Human and Natural History of the North Pacific Ocean, won the 2001 Hubert Evans Prize. He is the editor of Transmontanus Books, and lives on Mayne Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands.

  • Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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