It’s the environment and the economy, stupid

On Monday, December 10th, 2012 in Articles by Elizabeth

One of the most persistent and confounding fallacies of political discourse is the idea that we must choose between environmental protection and a healthy economy. According to years of polling, Canadians reject the idea. Poll after poll shows that Canadians think that both can be achieved. Lest anyone assume this is based on an unreasonable desire to have our cake and eat it too, the empirical evidence is all in support of the good sense of Canadians.

Work at Harvard from Michael Porter made the case in 1995 that those countries with the toughest environmental laws and regulations also score highest in competitiveness. In the groundbreaking analysis, co-authored with Class van der Lindt, “Green and Competitive: Ending the Stalemate,” Porter made the case that those countries with the toughest environmental regulations are those rated highest in competitiveness.

“Properly designed environmental standards can trigger innovations that lower the total cost of a product and improve its value.”

Those types of “good” regulations and standards are those that Porter classifies as “innovation-friendly.”

Put simply, pollution is a sign of market failure. It is a waste of energy, value, and resources. And it can create long-term liabilities. The most pressing of all issues (and this is not intended to be narrowly read as all “environmental issues”) is the threat of the climate crisis. The dumping of pollution in the form of greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere is at no cost to polluters because the cost is not internalized.

However, that is not to say there are no costs. The costs to societies are real. Costs are felt in billions of dollars of insurable losses, and billions more uninsured in poorer regions, due to increasingly severe and frequent severe weather events.

A report of the now-shuttered National Round Table on Environment and Economy estimated that annual costs in Canada are already serious and could climb to a significant portion of GDP on an annual basis. If any other economic trend line suggested the economy would suffer, government would be expected to have taken action.

Tragically, the warnings appear to have no impact at all on the Prime Minister as he is so deeply rooted in the binary notion that we can either have the environment or the economy not both.

The first step, carbon-pricing, is accepted as necessary by virtually all international agencies from the World Bank to the International Energy Agency. Even CEOs from major oil multinationals, such as Shell and BP, have called for carbon-pricing, yet still the Prime Minister rejects the idea.

Carbon pricing has been consistent with increased economic growth. Sweden adopted a carbon tax and has reduced greenhouse gases to below its Kyoto target while, over the same period, experiencing substantial growth in its GDP.

As suggested above, the climate crisis is no longer an environmental issue. It is a security threat. As it is ignored year after year, the current warnings of scientists are for levels of global warming that put in doubt the survival of human civilization. Some scientists now speculate about the possibility unimaginable a few decades ago that inaction could result in human extinction.

British scientist Sir Martin Rees puts odds of homo sapiens surviving into the next century at 50-50. I think it is premature to talk about extinction of humankind, but it is not re-assuring that any scientists think the possibility is now open. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine how human civilization, our institutions and rule of law, would possibly survive the chaos of a planet besieged with the events unleashed at 4 C warming.

And that is the level of warming now projected based on the range of anemic actions of industrialized and hugely polluting developing countries. And we are told we cannot take the actions necessary to act on the climate crisis because it might hurt the economy.

It is totally false to say that we cannot reduce greenhouse gases and move to a low carbon economy without killing our economy, but the flip side is definitely true. If we do not act to move to a low carbon economy we could destroy our children’s future. Inaction will cost our economy more than the prudent actions to address the crisis, but shouldn’t we be motivated to act knowing that our failure could rob our own children of their future?

Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada.
Originally printed in the Hill Times.

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  • docleslie

    Another insightful and educational essay. If only we could get more people to read these in places that would put the lie to the received view.

  • Darren Gregory

    I’ll say it louder: The more we hear from you-the more we want to hear! I hear the voice of many fence-sitters in your words. Keep going; keep speaking! We will do all we can to spread the word. We have a ways to go: and fresh faces are popping up across the political landscape. Your voice: is strong! STRONG! It is refreshing conversation! Thank You! :0)

  • Terence Stone

    Once again, Elizabeth, you make your points eloquently. I also understand your need to keep hope alive by saying “it is premature to talk about the extinction of humankind.” I don’t consider myself a pessimist, but I think it is way past due to talk of extinction. After all, every IPCC assesment has underestimated the speed at which global warming is happening; and an increasing number of scientists are predicting not 4 degrees of warming by the end of the century, but 6 or 7 degrees.
    Three decades ago, many of us were saying definitively that smoking kills. At that time the tobacco industry was claiming “no harm”, even though they had the evidence confirming that tobacco did indeed kill. In the middle were the majority who permitted themselves the softened opinion that smoking could cause illness.
    Right at this time I believe we all know at some level there’s a higher than 50-50 probability of humankind’s extinction. And frankly I think it unhelpful to gloss this terrible reality. It leaves people sitting around twiddling their thumbs and declaring, “Well let’s just hope…”
    For me it’s a motivator. No matter how slim the chance of saving humankind, we’d better get on with the job right away, because we’re not the most important element in the equation–millions of other species are, and they are going extinct at an alarming net rate! We need to get away from an anthropocentric mindset. We are not at the centre with the enviroment around us. We are it, and we are dying! But even if we do go extinct, let’s go there never ceasing to build a better world, caring for each other and the environment from which we are not separated by our skin, or subject-object perception.

    • Terence Stone
    • Breanna Bre

      Author Ronald Wright figures there could be a billion or so humans left after a collapse like the Roman Empire, but no one can know. It’s undoubtedly coming; complex systems inevitably succumb to diminishing returns, or so says history. The great opportunity is that we can look back on past ‘collapses’ in the past few thousand years–those experiments where we continued to consume after surpassing a maximum demand on the ecology. Obviously the hinterland was not global in those experiments. It’s not hard to see that with past civilization disasters, the particulars differ, but not so much as we might like to think. We have so much opportunity to study what went wrong and change our course of action. Specialization always seems to be a dead-end and many technologies have had their unintended outcomes–a lot of ‘progress traps’ scattered throughout history. The time to act is now while we still have a functioning society. We have the innovation, money and resources… what we need is the will-power and political will. I am doubtful that we haven’t already been mind-numbed into a way of living that we don’t question nearly enough, but I am hopeful that those of us who are aware of our actions and impacts on natural systems can take the opportunity to respectfully educate as many people in our lives as possible.

      You can fight without ever winning but you can never win without a fight. That’s how I look at it: fighting to educate even if the prognosis looks dim. And I must say, it looks very dim, at least from the material I’ve studied the last 2 years….and seeing governments in power that have no respect for science or the precautionary principle.

  • Jennica Vegelahn

    It’s true , you are inspiring… We must lead the way by living as green and sustainably as we can in our own lives until we have a government that will also show the same kind of commitment.

  • anonymous

    in the second paragraph, you write the same sentence twice. in the second paragraph, you write the same sentence twice

  • Andru McCracken

    Well said. I wonder if you’ve read ‘The End of Growth’ by Jeff Rubin. It’s a book oil companies dreamed about being written. The key being that limited energy supply will reduce carbon emissions unlike carbon pricing. I would love to hear your take on it.

  • JF Prieur

    Just basic common sense, But the powers to be just want to allow corporations to pollute with out any regulation or consequence to there profit margins.

    The thing is that corporation will pay and abide to laws anyway because the want are resources, So why make it easier !

  • hannah

    The other evening I watched a documentary about Pete Seeger, who sang at Peace Rallies throughout the 60′s and 70′s, to protest the war in Vietnam. He was on fire! In hindsight he said that it was because of the 1000,00′s of people who came out to these(mostly) peaceful protests, the US gov’t had to pay attention and bring the troops home, they would have kept the Vietnam war going, otherwise.
    Elizabeth, thank YOU for being so on fire and igniting us with the facts of what is going down in our great country. Each of us who reads your messages is charged to get the word out so that Canadians are informed and our corrupted leaders pay heed!!

  • Linda Belanger

    In fact, former CIBC Chief economist Jeff Rubin in his must read book, “Why your world is about to get a whole lot Smaller” says that not putting a price on carbon is advantageous to high polluting economies as they can produce goods without the burden of paying the price and ship them cheaply around the world. He maintains that if there were a price on carbon, some industrial production would have to become more local to reduce shipping costs. It doesn’t make sense to ship raw materials to China, get them to make products and ship it back on super tankers. If energy were priced correctly this would not happen.

  • Anne Lindsey

    I agree with almost everything that you’ve said here – but the continued need for “competitiveness” and “growth” rankles. For the sake of argument, I need to comment that it is these two elements of the industrial paradigm that have led to the tragedy that now confronts us. David Suzuki spoke in Brandon, MB recently, and one of his comments really stood out for me: that we are now losing some of the very gains that we made, environmentally speaking, in the 80s, precisely because the paradigm has not changed. (Actually, he said “we didn’t change the paradigm”. I’m not sure who the “we” in that sentence refers to). He’s right. The prevailing paradigm hasn’t changed. My first inklings of Green politics were Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point, and Capra’s and Charlene Spretnak’s Green Politics – where I began to understand what is meant by a paradigm shift. Maybe I need to go back and reread them in today’s context. Despite working “in the trenches” for the past 25 years, I still struggle with the need for transformation vs. the need to work with people where they currently are. Anyway, as far as your comments go, they’d still be absolutely correct without the references to growth and competitiveness! Thanks again for all your work!

  • Carrie Ann Taylor

    Thank you, Elizabeth!! The voice of truth rings clear – and your bold, smart delivery is refreshing and invigorating. You are so important to Canada and to the world!!!

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