Trevor Hancock: Political heads stuck in the (oil)sand

Two weeks ago, I wrote about successive Canadian governments systematically ignoring for the past 45 years the evidence that poverty and other social, economic and environmental factors were much more important determinants of the health of Canadians than health care.

As a result, we have more ill health and premature death than would have been the case if they had paid attention to and acted upon the evidence. I think this was largely due to the fact that taking the issue seriously would have been way too threatening to neoliberalism and the laissez faire capitalism it has spawned.

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Now I turn to a second major threat to the health of Canadians — and people around the world — that governments are systematically ignoring because to take it seriously would mean questioning our entire way of life and economic system: climate change. While we might not have active denial by Canadian political leaders that humans are having a significant impact on the Earth’s climate (unlike Donald Trump and those around and behind him), we do have a significant failure to recognize and take seriously the potential — and increasingly likely — severe adverse impacts of climate change on our well-being and our entire society.

In recent weeks, we have seen several reports highlighting the likelihood that our current path is much more dangerous than we have assumed. The National Centre for Climate Restoration in Australia, an independent think tank, issued a report on the scientific approach to assessing climate change risk. The lead author is a former senior executive in the fossil-fuel industry.

The report suggests we are seriously underestimating the risk of climate change because of a combination of “scientific reticence — a reluctance to spell out the full risk implications of climate science in the absence of perfect information” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s tendency to “least drama,” conservative projections as it seeks consensus among all its member scientists and countries.

Also in August, an article from some of the leading experts on global ecological change based largely out of the Stockholm Resilience Centre reached a worrying conclusion: “Our analysis suggests that the Earth system may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions — Hothouse Earth … a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.” They suggested the threshold could be “within the range of the Paris Accord temperature targets,” and that Hothouse Earth’s impacts on “human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt and undoubtedly disruptive.”

Then there is a July 2018 paper from Prof. Jem Bendell, director of the Institute of Leadership and Sustainability at the U.K.’s University of Cumbria. With 25 years of experience in sustainability management, he has concluded that climate change cannot be averted and that we face “an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change.”

In his foreword to the Australian report, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a noted German climate scientist, ominously concludes “climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”

These and other dire warnings are beginning to mount, and you would think we would take them seriously. But the current energy policy priorities of the Canadian, Alberta and B.C. governments ignore them. Instead of doing all they can to move us away from fossil fuels, they are committed to expanding production and export of the Alberta oilsands through the Trudeau-Morneau pipeline and creating a large LNG industry in B.C., thus further increasing Canada’s contribution to global climate change.

The prudent thing today is to stop expanding production of fossil fuels and switch as rapidly as possible to a policy of energy conservation and a zero-carbon economy. This is also economically prudent, because fossil fuels could well become “stranded assets” — resources that can’t be extracted and burned, and therefore are worth very little, while a zero-carbon energy system will create many new jobs.

Common-sense advice when you are in a hole is to stop digging! But it seems nobody is listening; they have their heads stuck deep in the oilsands.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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