By Max Rau and Ali Cherri, Opinions Contributors
The primary responsibility of any government is to protect the well- being of its citizens. The benefits of global warming to Canada should, in the eyes of the Canadian government, greatly outweigh the damages caused in the developing world. Canadians will benefit from climate change because of greater agricultural yields, a reduced winter mortality rate, lower heating costs, and potentially even a boost to tourism. We are one of the very few countries for which this is the case. There are also enormous costs to reducing our relatively negligible (less than two per cent of the total) greenhouse gas emissions. Completely rebuilding the infrastructure of a large, sparsely populated country is no trifling matter. Large sectors of our economy, such as the production of lumber and oil, would be seriously harmed. We would need to spend more to consume less; the gross domestic product, net exports, and general quality of life in Canada could drop precipitously. Any group pushing for greater action on climate change has an enormous burden, namely to prove that the small impact that our emissions may have on other countries outweighs the very real benefits of such warming to Canadians and the substantial costs associated with all emission reduction schemes. The Canadian Government should choose not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the Canadian government’s responsibility may lie primarily with the prosperity of its citizens, we must consider whether the emissions of the ‘western world’ bring extreme hardship impoverished groups in developing nations. The consequences they face vary from starvation due to an increase of droughts and floods that wipe out crops, to an increased prevalence of disease leading to five million extra illnesses a year. Those who are most impoverished are the ones least equipped to handle the negative global externalities of global warming, we thus damn the weak to perish by our actions. Let us concede that Canada will be able to grow more apples, receive more tourist, and have a few more weeks of summer. Those stated benefits to Canadians do not outweigh the devastating effects extreme weather patterns will have on developing nations.
We must take issue when proponents of inaction describe Canada’s contribution to global warming as ‘negligible.’ The political significance of our refusal to engage with this global problem is that other nations who have relatively much higher green house gases will also refuse to reduce greenhouse gasses by the same logic: self-interest. Canada is part of the G8, was an enthusiast of the Kyoto Accord, and is neighbours with one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitting giants. We like to think we are relevant internationally and contribute to global stability. Global warming is one of the most encompassing global threats the
present and future generations face.
Max: Even if we accept a responsibility to improve the well-being of all of humanity, is this the best approach? Why don’t we spend the billions saved by not reducing emissions on providing education, clean water, and food security to the poorest places in the world? A major Canadian effort to fight malaria or the spread of HIV/AIDS would likely have a much more immediate and beneficial impact on humanity than shutting down the tar sands for a fraction of the cost.
There’s no reason to believe that the Kyoto protocol or indeed any other multi-lateral approach to climate change will be successful. Western consumers and voters are understandably reluctant to sacrifice so much for such an abstract harm. Emissions in the developing world are rising in lockstep with the industrialization and show no sign of abating. A global reduction in emissions is in many people’s interest, while national reductions are in no-ones. We will not see a multi-lateral solution to global warming.
“We don’t know how extreme the consequences of global warming will be, and to think we can continue our unsustainable energy practices and just throw malaria nets at the problem is wishful thinking.”
Ali: Max is correct to characterize the multi-lateral approach as being difficult. His folly is ignoring how important the approach can be in particular issues. Clearly he’s unaware of successful international treaties like the Montreal Accord. The global community was able to agree to phase out CFCs because they were harming the environment, specifically thinning the Ozone layer. The accord is lauded as one of the most successful international treaties, with 196 states having ratified it. This treaty involved establishing an environmental problem that would have affected most people negatively, and it also involved Canada playing a leading role. But Canada’s irrelevant, so we’ll just call that a fluke.
I also don’t feel that Max realizes the severity of the effects of global warming. Floods are sudden and devastating, causing starvation and death. Rising sea levels displace people in dense countries like Bangladesh. I highly doubt condoms, mosquito nets or cash would be useful in those dire situations.
Max: The Montreal Accord was successful because the use of CFCs was cheaply and easily eliminated. The costs were minute and the benefits for all nations were enormous and clear, which made international cooperation possible. Almost every act of production or consumption contributes to global warming, and consequently the kind of demands made by treaties like the Kyoto accord go far beyond anything that has come before them. This is why no amount of statesmanship by a middle power like Canada will change the status quo.
Let’s assume that the apocalyptic scenarios that exist on the pseudo- scientific fringe of public discourse come to pass. In that event any attempt to reduce emissions is too little too late. In the face of widespread catastrophes and unprecedented suffering in the developing world the only feasible solution is adaptation rather than prevention. We should build dams and levies, relocate displaced people en masse, create disaster relief funds, and invest in geo-engineering technologies that could mitigate the effects of global warming. It’s very unlikely that the events that exist on the edge of our models will come to pass, but even if they do the correct action for our government is to not attempt to reduce emissions but rather to reduce the damage caused by these hypothetical disasters in Canada and the rest of the world
Ali: Emitting gasses will be a problem that will only be exacerbated as the global population increases dramatically. We don’t know how extreme the consequences of global warming will be, and to think we can continue our unsustainable energy practices and just throw malaria nets at the problem is wishful thinking. At no point has Max shown that we cannot use both adaptation and prevention in resolving the problems he outlined. Ideally, we prevent an increase of environmental disasters from occurring by creating the necessary shifts in our economy through subsidies and grants, while we implement contingency plans that help the most vulnerable populations deal with the current affects of global warming. I get to have my cake and eat it too.
Max Rau and Ali Cherri are members of Sodales, the debate society of Dalhousie. Debaters are individuals who are at times forced to argue for things that they do not necessarily believe in. Therefore the opinions expressed in Point/Counterpoint are not necessarily those that are held by the aforementioned debaters, Sodales, or the Gazette.
Are you interested (or simply curious) about debating? Want an avenue to express and share your opinions and beliefs? Check out Sodales. They meet at 6 p.m. every Tuesday in the SUB Council Chambers and every Wednesday at 6 p.m. in room 220 of the LSC