Volume 43, Issue 4: July/August 2009

British Columbia’s Meaningless Climate Debate

Judging by the response of mainstream environmentalists, British Columbia’s recent provincial election was a referendum on how to fight climate change. The Liberal incumbents proposed no change to the carbon tax they introduced last year. The opposition New Democratic Party wanted to replace the tax with “a ‘cap and trade’ plan — just like U.S. President Obama.”

Prominent green NGOs, including the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute, and ForestEthics, blasted the NDP for taking a “backward step.” A Pembina representative wrote: “The carbon tax is already showing results. It is important for British Columbia to keep moving forward on climate change rather than starting over again.” The Liberals won the election, so BC’s green future is assured. Right? Wrong.

In the first place, the actual policy difference between the two parties was very small. The Liberals called for cap-and-trade in addition to the carbon tax. The NDP only opposed one specific tax — their program included a variety of new environmental taxes in addition to cap-and-trade.

So at most, this was a debate about emphasis — would BC’s policy be taxes with cap-and-trade as an add-on, or cap-and-trade with taxes as an add-on? Behind those minor differences, the two parties were united in seeking to use capitalist methods to solve a problem that is inherent in capitalism. “Putting a price on carbon” — directly through taxes or indirectly through cap-and-trade — means depending on the magic of the market to reduce emissions.

At best, that’s wishful thinking.

To avoid dangerous climate change, the world’s average temperature must not increase more than 2°C. To achieve that, the latest climate research shows that global emissions must fall by four percent a year, reaching zero by 2040.

Even if taxes and trading have some effect on emissions — an unproven claim — it’s very clear neither will do what really needs to be done.

A government that really wanted to deal with climate change would declare a Climate Emergency.

It would learn from the experience of World War II, when Ottawa forced through a radical transformation of the entire economy in a few months, with no lost jobs or pay cuts.

It would set hard, rapidly declining ceilings on emissions produced by the largest companies, and expropriate any company that doesn’t comply.

It would guarantee every household a basic energy allowance, massively expand public transit and intercity rail, and set aggressive targets for a rapid transition to renewable energy in every sector of the economy.

It would create democratically controlled crown corporations to make the immense investments that are needed to carry out the transition and win the war against global warming. For all the sound and fury, the solutions offered in BC’s election amounted to incremental tinkering — minor measures that were consciously designed to have the least possible effect on the profits of corporate polluters, and which therefore can have little or no effect on emissions.

A year ago, Canadian Dimension wrote that the liberal environmentalists who endorsed the BC carbon tax “should hang their heads in shame.” Sadly, those environmentalists haven’t changed — they are so committed to the capitalist fantasy of carbon taxes as a universal panacea that they have effectively abandoned the fight to actually reduce emissions.

Even more sadly, the NDP offers nothing better.

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