Peace means not having to fear for our lives. So imagining a peaceful world in which we haven’t dealt with climate change is nonsensical.
The violence we inflict on each other, we inflict not only with guns, knives, and bombs. Sometimes we do it more subtly, more imaginatively, with smokestacks and car exhaust.
Climate change kills more than an estimated 300, 000 a year, considerably more than any current military conflict in the world. If peace means anything, it means that people are free from the fear of constant threats to their lives. So imagining a peaceful world without dealing with climate change is nonsensical.
This subtle form of violence is one Canadians inflict on others. Those in Bangladesh, whose homes will be underwater in my lifetime; in southern Africa, where drought and starvation are progressively becoming more frequent; or in the Caribbean, where hurricanes are getting more severe, are not threatening Canadians with climate change. But the emissions from Sudbury, Saguenay, and Saskatoon are already heightening those insecurities around the world.
We will, of course, not escape in the long run. Think of climate change as a murder-suicide type of problem. Climate change will hit Canadians, but later on in the process. We’re killing others as we slowly turn the gun on ourselves.
Around three-quarters of the emissions that cause climate change come from rich countries that have only roughly one-quarter of the world’s population. Even amongst rich countries, some emit much more than others.
Per capita, Canada emits more than almost any other rich country – only Australia and the U.S. are close. We emit more than twice as much per person as countries such as the U.K. or Germany. Those higher emissions mean we bare a greater responsibility for the increased risk of early death in poor countries.
How might we make peace with climate and stop causing this violence? Bombs and guns won’t help us – if only because those emitting the most are the people with the most bombs and guns. Rather, it involves a fundamental rethink of the way we use energy in the economy, to aim for what climate geeks call “decarbonisation.”
Easier said than done, of course. But saying it is crucial to being able to put it into practice.
Amongst high-emitting countries, a number are acting in ways that aim to decarbonise their economies. Iceland plans to use its geothermal resources to get rid of oil entirely. The U.K. has particularly ambitious targets and an elaborate plan to halve its CO2 emissions by 2050. Denmark has long championed wind energy and is benefiting from the export of its technology as the world catches up.
The contrast with Canada couldn’t be starker. While Jean Chrétien ratified the Kyoto Protocol that committed Canada to the modest target of reducing emissions by 6 per cent by 2012, no government since has shown serious purpose in getting anywhere near that target. Plans have been announced but none implemented. Canada is the only country that will not get anywhere near its Kyoto target, and our emissions have grown faster than any other rich country. In climate change, Canada is the proverbial rogue state, a major threat to world peace.
The oil sands are part of the issue here, but laying all the blame there is too easy. The deeper issue is that we haven’t been able to imagine an economy not so dependent on fossil fuels.
The U.K. is particularly instructive as to what can trigger change. The term “decarbonisation” first came into regular use there, and lots flowed in policy terms from this sort of imaginative framing. All new buildings have to be carbon-neutral from 2015 onwards. Policies to invest in wind energy, while never satisfying environmental organisations in the U.K., are nevertheless far more developed than Canada. A network of towns and cities, called Transition Towns, are developing plans to become carbon-free.
Most fundamentally, they’ve been able to see these investments and the social change they will generate as no longer a threat to economic prosperity, but an opportunity for new forms of growth and employment. In response to the economic crisis, European countries are currently considering making their targets more ambitious, because the recession makes them easier to achieve – now is an excellent time for yet more investments in new technologies. By contrast, Harper used the recession as yet another lame excuse to ignore climate change.
There are promising signs in some Canadian provinces. Ontario’s green energy plan is a step in the right direction, as are the carbon tax and other measures in B.C. Quebec has long been the leader in investing in wind energy. But these are baby steps. What we need is to think big – to start with decarbonisation as the end point and think about how we can create investments in jobs and growth that get us to that radical goal.
So to make peace with the climate and the people dying because of our greenhouse gas emissions, we need to imagine a Canada without fossil fuels. It will indeed be a very different place. It entails re-engineering our towns and cities so that distances are much smaller and we can walk or bike to most things we need and take the bus to the rest. It means living in smaller houses (Canadians have the biggest houses in the world, on average) so we need less energy to heat them. And many other similar changes in energy generation, agriculture, and so on.
The changes needed are radical. But without them, we are still causing early deaths round the world. If we object to these changes, then, as philosopher Henry Shue put it 15 years ago, ”whatever justice may positively require, it does not permit that poor nations be told to sell their blankets in order that rich nations may keep their jewelry.”