Alberta Climate Policy a Step Forward

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posted November 8, 2002

Just when it seems that the muddle over the Kyoto Protocol can’t get more muddled, Alberta’s scientists have thrown their lab-coats into the ring. David Schindler, an ecology professor at the University of Alberta, says that Alberta’s climate scientists are anxious to meet with Premier Ralph Klein to share their knowledge and concerns about the province’s position against Kyoto. The scientists of Alberta have declared the Kyoto Protocol “a modest and reasonable proposal.” But this sentiment shows exactly why scientists are not generally invited to take leading roles in policy discussions: their prescriptions tend to be frighteningly naïve and two-dimensional. Seen in all its gory details, the Kyoto Protocol is about as modest a proposal as that put forward by Jonathan Swift’s solution to child poverty and hunger in Ireland: simply eat the children.

Of course, it’s not hard to understand why most scientists think this way. Science, after all, is the quintessential ‘linear-thinker’s métier.’ So it’s not surprising when scientists, thinking they’ve identified the cause of what they view as a problem, come out with a simplistic prescription of just eliminating the suspected cause. Because they’re neither policymakers, nor trained in public policy, it rarely occurs to them that there might be other ways of addressing the problem. People might want to continue to benefit from the behaviour that entails risk, while only addressing the risk itself. Or the cost of the prescription may simply be too high. Or the scientist’s prescription might compromise some of the intangible values that make up “quality of life.” Scientists are generally oblivious that the key question in policy debates is not “how can we undo the past,” but “how can we move into the future keeping the good that fate throws at us, while ameliorating the bad?”

Though the prospect of rapid and severe climate change is very worrisome, and clearly to be avoided if possible, many factors suggest that the Kyoto Protocol, the first step on the “undo the suspected cause” pathway, is not the best way.

The Kyoto Protocol embodies an increasingly outmoded environmental approach based on the view that people in industry and energy production are the enemy, to be beaten into submission using mandates from governmental bodies at the national and global level. Kyoto rests on a “scientific consensus” that is more public relations than reality. It embodies the simplistic “turn back the tide” idea that the only solution to global warming is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It sets hard targets and picks favoured technologies before there is sufficient evidence in hand to know if any of the prescribed actions will actually remedy the feared harms. It carries an agenda of wealth redistribution, and punitive impacts to the industries that have been newly-labeled as bad actors in social development. Basically, it guarantees that the resources best used to help the environment will be used to wage lawsuits.

Fortunately, alternate approaches being put on the table reflect a new environmental vision that favours nuanced approaches that are flexible, cooperative, and more reliant on local knowledge than distant mandates. The approach put forward by Alberta focuses on harnessing the creative powers of a strong market economy and taps into the power of trading systems that can guide environmental investments toward the biggest bang-for-the-buck. Rather than mandating one-size-fits-all technological approaches, the Alberta plan seeks to empower people to express their environmental ethics through energy-efficiency improvements in their daily lives. And instead of a tunnel-vision focus on reducing emissions, the Alberta plan would foster innovative approaches to bind up atmospheric greenhouse gases as well as finding ways to emit less of them.

Opponents argue that the problem with Alberta’s plan is that theoretically population and economic growth could outstrip the trend toward greater efficiency producing an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions. They argue that without government mandates nothing will happen. But environmental trends of recent years suggest that this fear is misplaced. Despite increases in population, consumption, transportation demand, and a host of other factors, environmental quality in the developed world has improved dramatically for over 30 years.

As for government mandates, the trend from burning wood, to burning peat, to burning oil, to burning natural gas was not sparked by government regulations. It happened because market-based economic systems naturally inspire people to find ways to do more with less. What the scientists pushing Kyoto don’t seem to consider is all the real-world evidence that shows the real danger to our planet is from non-market economies ruled by distant, detached leaders – it’s those countries still burning wood and peat and dung for heat that are causing environmental destruction and human health degradation on a wholesale basis.

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