Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

No special treatment for tar sands

No special treatment for tar sands
Sep 16, 2009
James Hansen

In 1988, when I addressed the U.S. Congress on the dangers of global warming, I warned leaders that it was time to stop waffling. Humans were changing the climate in new and dangerous ways and we needed to take action. At the time, I knew we could expect stiff resistance from the usual suspects, but if you had told me that 20 years later, one of the most stubborn holdouts would be a self-interested Canada, I wouldn't have believed you.

That's because then, as now, Canadians are a compassionate people, concerned about the environment and the role their government plays on the international stage. And yet, there are few countries I can think of that have done more to undermine international efforts to fight climate change in recent years, than Canada. The evidence is easy to find:

In California, as recently as April of this year, Minister of Natural Resources Lisa Raitt personally lobbied the governor of California to oppose a law that would curb California's appetite for carbon-intensive fuels, and would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Bali, Indonesia, Canadian officials worked behind the scenes to scuttle a potential climate deal by insisting that developing countries make emission cuts they couldn't afford to make. This, while the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, home to some of the world's first climate refugees, was pleading its case to the international community.

Further afield, in Bonn, Germany, Canada recently refused to join the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) whose membership includes almost every developed nation, including the United States, and whose stated goal is: "... promoting the adoption of renewable energy worldwide."

In your own backyard, 74 per cent of Canadians believe the government should do more to protect the environment (Harris/Decima, Aug. 23, 2009), and yet this past month, Environment Minister Jim Prentice made a pitch for a pipeline project to send tar sands oil from Alberta to British Columbia, where it would be loaded onto supertankers and shipped to Asia, all in a bid to avoid North American climate regulations and to, in his words, "keep the market honest."

How is all of this possible? Does the Canadian government know better than its own people what is in the best interests of the country? That's a dangerous delusion, and it's one I've seen before in my own country. "It's not time," "Wait and see," "It's someone else's turn" – these stalls are the opposite of leadership, and in the climate era, they are downright dangerous.

There's a small price for being too early, but a huge penalty for being too late when it comes to fighting climate change. The huge penalty, in Canada's case, ranges from species extinction and extreme weather events, such as raging forest fires and tornadoes, to losses in agricultural productivity and new security threats posed by terrorism and the prospect of climate refugees.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets with President Barack Obama in Washington this week to discuss clean energy and climate, I hope the Canadian public and media keep him honest. Close attention should be paid to any special treatment Harper attempts to gain for Canada's tar sands, your country's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a problematic industry linked to serious environmental degradation and human health issues. If he's still lobbying for "intensity targets," or pitting one part of the country against the other under a hard cap, you'll know he's stalling.

When it comes to fighting climate change, the will of Canadians is clear. The world is waiting to hear your voice and to see your country take action. You just need a government that's willing to actually represent you, free of distortion, beholden to no other special interest besides the best interest of Canadians.

That's true leadership, and in the climate era, it's a prerequisite for survival.

James Hansen is a world-renowned climatologist and adjunct professor at Columbia University. He is the 2009 recipient of the Carl-Gustaf Rossby Research Medal, the highest honour bestowed by the American Meteorological Society.


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