Climate fears are real so oilsands must close

In Poland, Canada and close to 200 other nations are making a last-ditch effort to save the world from devastating climate change.

At home, the Canadian and Albertan governments are trying to salvage an industry that is one of this country’s largest emitters of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

If this sounds like a contradiction that’s because it is.

The Liberal compromise devised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government two years ago is not working. It was to be a grand bargain that somehow reduced greenhouse gas emissions without costing Canadians any pain.

In particular, it was to be a pact between Ottawa and Alberta. The federal government would help Alberta Premier Rachel Notley exploit and transport bitumen from the province’s oilsands. In return she would support Trudeau’s demand for some form of national carbon tax.

Each side would give a little in order to reach a classic Canadian compromise. That was the theory.

And in normal circumstances it should have worked.

But the circumstances today are far from normal. Climate change is not simply another blip in federal-provincial relations that can be resolved by, say, changing the equalization formula.

If the scientific consensus is correct, it is a crisis on par with worldwide nuclear war.

Already, climate change is producing unusually severe droughts in some areas and unusually wild storms in others. It threatens to swamp much of Florida. It is melting the Arctic ice.

It has expressed itself through flooding in Europe and devastating wildfires in British Columbia, California and Alberta. It is generally accepted as one of the root causes of the Syrian civil war and is expected to lead to more conflict.

When United Nations General Assembly President Maria Espinosa warned that humankind is “in danger of disappearing” because of climate change, she wasn’t exaggerating.

The world tried to deal with this through the 2015 Paris climate summit. There, nations agreed to work together to keep global temperatures from rising too quickly.

But the Paris accord was non-binding. Nations set their own emission-reduction targets and were under no obligation to meet them.

Since then, UN scientific panels have made two disturbing findings. First, the pledged targets are not enough; climate change is happening more quickly than expected. Second, most countries, including Canada, are not on track to keep even the inadequate pledges they have made.

The two-week climate-change conference in Katowice, Poland is an attempt to encourage the Paris signatories to become more ambitious.

Good luck with that. U.S. President Donald Trump has abandoned the Paris Accord. Others are threatening to do the same.

Canada is probably more typical. While rhetorically an ardent accord supporter, it is less enthusiastic about taking the necessary actions.

More to the point, Ottawa insists on supporting an oilsands industry that is one of Canada’s most storied contributors to climate change.

While the oilsands are responsible for only 10 per cent of Canada’s carbon emissions, they remain one of the country’s biggest single-point sources of greenhouse gases and a potent symbol of what humankind is doing wrong.

Economically, the oilsands are doomed. In a world awash with cheap shale oil, new tarsands projects are ultimately too expensive to develop — even if the $4.5-billion Trans Mountain pipeline that Ottawa bought to deliver Alberta bitumen to the Pacific coast goes ahead.

Environmentally, they are a disaster — in terms of both the tailing ponds created to store their waste and the carbon emissions they spew into the air.

Government-mandated production cuts and government-purchased rail tanker cars can keep the oilsands limping along. But in a world whose very existence is threatened by the greenhouse gases this industry creates, the more sensible option is to shut it down.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom

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