All hair, no cattle: Why Trudeau’s pipeline policy makes no sense

It’s another example of climate-change double-think so prevalent in our political class.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau recently accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of being “all hat, no cattle” on oil pipelines. He’s right about Mr. Harper’s pipeline policy — but wrong about his own, which tries (and fails) to have it both ways.

As seen in iPolitics.
As seen in iPolitics.

Mr. Trudeau says he supports expanding Canada’s oil pipeline network in a manner “that fits into a long-term strategy of a sustainable environment”. But you can’t square that circle: Expanding the pipeline network would lead to an increase in oil production — which can only worsen the impacts of climate change.

The scientific consensus is clear: Climate change is happening and humans are causing it by burning fossil fuels. Global temperatures are up, sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting and the Arctic is thawing. None of this is in dispute. In fact, new global temperature records were set just this summer. Temperatures are projected to rise much more by the end of this century.

Left unchecked, the rapid rate of warming will cause widespread extinctions, and pose severe risks to food and water security. This is a global problem — and no nation will be left untouched.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can still avoid the worst of it by reducing our dependence on oil, gas and coal. Our options include gradually transitioning to renewable energy sources (hydro, wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, biomass), improving energy efficiency, putting a price on carbon, developing energy storage and using more nuclear power. Many nations are making great progress on developing and deploying green technologies. Canada can and should become a low-carbon energy superpower.

Still more good news: Limiting the damage from climate change remains possible without damaging the economy, so long as we take action now. We’ve solved major environmental crises in the past. The world came to Canada to sign the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer in 1987. Rain acidity has declined since 1980 because of pollution controls. Toxic contaminants in our lakes and rivers have been much reduced since the 1970s.

Environmental degradation is not inevitable. The main thing preventing a solution to the climate change problem right now is a lack of political will.

And ignoring the problem would be very costly. The National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy projected the cost to Canada would be $5 billion annually by 2020 and a whopping $21 to $43 billion per year by 2050. Accompanying these numbers will be considerable human misery: a loss of economic opportunities, the escalating costs of dealing with more frequent “natural” disasters, and more hospital visits owing to heat waves and degraded air quality.

U.S. military researchers consider climate change to be a severe risk to national security and a catalyst for political conflict around the globe. The insurance industry is also sounding the alarm.

Building new pipelines that would be expected to operate for 50 years or more is simply not consistent with a long-term strategy to combat climate change. Unfortunately, Canada is awash in plans for new pipelines, including Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, the Trans Mountain expansion and Energy East. Why are these needed? There is more than enough existing pipeline capacity to ship all of Alberta’s bitumen.

The only reason to build more pipelines is to pump oil faster. That inevitably would increase fossil fuel usage and exacerbate the climate change problem. It also would lock us into fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when countries are making plans to move in another direction — in their own best interests. Our capital and human resources can be spent in better ways.

This should be a call to action for all of our political leaders. Climate change is, after all, an election issue. A poll last year found that 59 per cent of Canadians think climate change should be a top federal priority and that Mr. Harper is not doing enough on the file. Another found that 73 per cent of Canadians think that the protection of public health, safety and the environment should be the federal government’s top priority.

Who are environmentally aware Canadians going to support in the coming election? A reasonable guess is that it won’t be anyone who is engaged in climate change doublethink.

Thomas J. Duck is a professor of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie University.

The subtitle for this story did not appear in the original.

(Updated 15 September 2015)