By Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail, December 17, 2011
Canada mocked its own greenhouse-gas reduction targets before, and it’s mocking them again. The Harper government has a target of a 17-per-cent reduction from 2005 by 2020. The Environment Department’s own figures, released in July, showed that emissions have risen by 7 per cent since the Conservatives took office.
No one – not senior civil servants, not foreign diplomats, not academics, not even people in the oil and gas industry – believes Canada will bring down its emissions by 24 per cent (17 per cent plus 7 per cent) in the next eight years. Canada struts on the world stage, naked as a newt, and can’t fool those who know what’s really going on.
It’s easy to mock Kyoto. It failed to halt the upward surge in emissions for many reasons, the most important being that global warming represents the classic example of the tragedy of the commons. That tragedy – well-known to students of human psychology, international relations and economics – means that, when all degrade something held in common, the temptation exists for none to accept responsibility. Every contributor to the degradation finds reasons for inaction.
It’s said, for example, that since Canada “only” contributes 2 per cent of total emissions (while being among the largest per capita emitters), it should really do very little. Ponder that argument. Has it ever been seriously advanced – in war or peace – that Canada isn’t doing its part in world affairs? Did Canada say in two world wars, “Sorry, since we can’t be the decisive actor alone, we’ll take a pass”? Should Canada refuse to give foreign aid because its aid alone can’t eliminate poverty? Should Canada withdraw from a multitude of international institutions because it’s smaller than other member countries and thus can’t do much by itself?
To put the argument this way is to see how false it rings against our traditions of responsible international participation.
This is akin to the pernicious folly of the “ethical oil” argument now embraced by the Harper government (and the oil industry, of course) to justify doing little to reduce emissions from the oil in the tar sands.
In secular philosophy and organized religion, ethics has been about defining and pursuing the notion of the “good.” This “good” is usually set as an optimum, never attained but always kept as a goal. Ethics is not about claiming virtue because behaviour is better than the worst possible behaviour, but rather it’s measured against the nominal sense of the “good.”
The argument that Canada’s oil comes from a more virtuous place than Libya under Moammar Gadhafi or Venezuela under Hugo Chavez would be like saying Canada’s human-rights records is “ethical” because it is better than North Korea’s, or our economy is “ethical” because it’s fairer and more productive than Zimbabwe’s.
The 2-per-cent and “ethical” oil arguments, therefore, represent perversions of principles on which to base international participation. They insult Canada’s history and traditions, but they play exceptionally well with a certain segment of the Canadian public.
According to a recent international poll, Canada has the highest number of citizens (22 per cent) of any economically advanced country who deny that human activity causes global warming. We can fairly presume the vast majority of this 22 per cent are in what we might loosely call the conservative world in Canada. They read the anti-global-warming newspapers and commentators, and they rely on the handful of academics who debunk global warming.
The poll numbers suggest that about half of Stephen Harper’s supporters are climate-change deniers and skeptics. His government pays heed to this core, the world and its climate be damned.
"Ethical oil" as if it were more "good" than that coming from Venezuela, is nothing more than "spin".
We only contritbute 2% so we are not "that bad" is more of the same "spin."
The "tragedy of the commons" as a protective shield against preventive and corrective measures, is another mask of spin, enabling those who choose it to avoid responsibility and action.
"Denial" of human activity causing global warming is part of the "ostrich" head-in-the-sand of both denial and avoidance.
Yesterday, by conincidence, my wife and I happened to watch a 1958 film in which Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives starred, entitled, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. At its core, the movie attempted to unravel some of the complexities of the human tendency to lie. It paraded the word mendacity, along with hypocrisy as if they were real people with whom others had to cope."Brick" (Newman) a former football hero and more recently a sports announcer is a full-fledged, active and acidic drunk. His father, "Big Daddy" (Ives) is near death with cancer, as the owner of a 28,000 acre estate, and the husband of a forty-year marriage to a woman for whom he has no love. His other son, "Gruber" is a lawyer by profession who seeks to inherit, with his pre-adolescent wife, the full 28,000 acres.
It is the conversation between Big Daddy and Brick, alone, that seems to be a missing ingredient in many of the political conversations today, some 53 years later.
"Why are you an alcoholic?" demands Big Daddy of Brick.
"I am ashamed of myself," answers Brick.
"What are you ashamed of?" probes BD.
"I let my best friend down," answers Brick.
And through some well-woven conversations that include the estranged "Maggie" (Taylor) about how she attempted to win back her estranged husband by sleeping with Brick's best friend, but got cold feet and stopped, and yet he had learned that the "coitus" had actually occurred, so that when a desperate call came from the friend, Brick hung up and later learned of the suicide that followed.
"Killing the pain" by medicating it with booze had taken over Brick's life, and his father desperately wanted the addiction to stop before he died.
Desperate situations can produce significant removals of the masks of "spin," or "excuses" or of denials or the complexes of the many layers of lies that underpin a life of avoidance, and often addiction.
With Big Daddy's unpretentious removal of the "excuses" like mendacity and hypocrisy behind which Brick attempts to hide, Brick's life is turned around and his drinking stopped.
Who will play "Big Daddy" to the Harper "Brick" in the case of the environment? Twisting the arguments so that those already committed to the same self-deceptions is just another case of misleading, self-imposed denial.
No matter the "spin" and no matter how many of his corporate loyalists buy the spin, for their own self-interest, it is still a case of denial, and a form of an addiction to the denial.
"Of which part of the truth is the government "ashamed?" we are moved to wonder.
The truth that emissions have risen by 7% since it took power? The truth that they are now so embedded in the spin that it has become their reality, and they can see no way out of the blindness, and the arrogance and the denial? The truth that so many of their party continues to deny the human contributions to global warming?
Or the larger truth that they know better, and can not bring themselves to face their own hubris and the shame of that enounter?
Only if and when the self-deceptions are ripped off as the masks they have become will the government finally come "clean" with the truth and the policies it ought to have been endorsing and introducing and only then will the file take on the public respect and demand the accountability and transparency it so profoundly deserves.