The Roman emperor Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned. Our current emperors, the political and corporate elite who run Canada, are imitating Nero — but with far greater consequences.
Our children and grandchildren are likely to remember them the way we remember Nero, equally infamous for caring little for their fellow citizens or the place — this time, the whole planet — where they live. If that sounds a little extreme, consider the facts.
While it is true that the planet is not literally burning, parts of it are, the result of climate change resulting mainly from human-created greenhouse-gas emissions. We have seen unprecedented forest fires in Western Canada, the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. And if it’s not burning, parts of the planet are drying up, overheating, storming, flooding, melting ice and raising sea levels in a way not seen in the 5,000 to 6,000 years of recorded civilizations, and at a scale and rate not previously experienced by humans.
Our elites can’t say they weren’t warned. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been issuing increasingly dire warnings for years. Its 2018 report on the impacts of 1.5 C warming above pre-industrial levels (well below the 2 C target set out in the Paris Agreement) notes we are likely to reach that amount of warming “between 2030 and 2052 … at the current rate.” Then in early April, the Canadian government released its own assessment: “Both past and future warming in Canada is, on average, about double the magnitude of global warming. … Northern Canada … will continue to warm at even more than double the global rate.”
The IPCC notes human-induced warming “will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system,” and this will result in increased “climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security and economic growth”; these risks are even greater at 2 C of warming.
But limiting warming to 1.5 C — something the federal Liberal government supported in Paris — “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” and — importantly — will require “deep emissions reductions in all sectors,” noted the IPCC. Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, acknowledged that Canadians face “serious risks to our health, security and economy” and that “the science is clear: We need to take action now.”
So how do our modern-day Neros respond to this bad news? They largely ignore it, or mouth the appropriate platitudes and then apply spin while carrying on regardless. Their policies will further boost our already excessive greenhouse-gas emissions by expanding the exploitation of dirty oil in Alberta’s oilsands and liquefied natural gas in B.C., Alberta, New Brunswick and elsewhere.
And to do so, they chuck great wads of our cash at the fossil-fuel industry. First, the federal government spends billions to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline so it can expand oilsands oil exports, while putting itself in a conflict of interest as the body tasked with assessing and approving its own pipeline.
B.C.’s NDP government is hardly a paragon of virtue, either. While it has been strong in opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, it has just combined with the opposition B.C. Liberals to bring in billions of dollars in subsidies for LNG. Meanwhile, both the old and the new Alberta governments continue to assert the province’s right to pollute the planet and threaten B.C.’s lands, rivers and coastal waters, all in the name of profit.
But anyone with half a brain knows that when you are in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging. And in this case that means, for starters, no more support, subsidies or tax breaks for the fossil-fuel industry. Instead, those subsidies should be dedicated to supporting conservation and clean, renewable energy systems. More dramatically, it means recognizing that most of Canada’s coal, oil and gas has to stay in the ground if we are to have any hope of keeping global warming below 2 C, never mind the far more ambitious target of 1.5 C.
So why are our modern-day Neros still digging, drilling and pumping?
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.