The BBC has started a project called BBC Future, “which aims to stand back from the daily news cycle … [and] explore what really matters in the broader arc of human history and what it means for our descendants.”
The first article is by the managing editor, Richard Fisher. Prompted by the realization that his daughter, born in 2013, could well be alive in 2100, he explores the challenge posed by our short-term thinking, suggesting that “short-termism” is “civilization’s greatest threat.”
Such thinking is problematic when we face what might be described as a long, slow crisis. While the massive human-induced global ecological changes we face — climate change, resource depletion, ocean acidification, pollution and species extinction — are occurring rapidly in geological and ecological terms, they are slow in human terms.
Which is presumably what led Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to state recently that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.” On that basis — and no doubt influenced by his background as a coal-industry lobbyist (talk about the fox guarding the hen coop) — he suggested we should focus on the issues currently killing people, such as a lack of safe, clean water supply.
Well, at least he got it half correct. Yes, of course we should address the drinking-water problem, but there is no reason we cannot address the issue of climate change as well. We are capable of doing more than one thing at once. Because while the threats from climate change, which at least he acknowledges, might lie far in the future (and even that is not true, as effects are being felt today around the world), their cause is in our actions today.
Carbon emissions today will continue to affect the climate for many decades, even centuries into the future. We have already locked in climate change, and its health and societal impacts for our children and grandchildren; failing to act now makes it worse for them and extends the impacts into additional generations. So shrugging your shoulders and saying, in effect: “Not our problem, they will need to deal with it then,” is both scientifically ignorant and ethically unacceptable.
Which brings me to our current crop of political leaders, and particularly what Maclean’s dubbed “the Resistance” in its November 2018 cover story. These are national Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer and the conservative premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, who are opposed to the federal carbon tax, are fighting it in court and have not imposed or have repealed a carbon tax in their provinces.
What part of “carbon taxes work to reduce fossil-fuel use and greenhouse-gas emissions” do they not get? Why are they fighting against one of the most effective tools we have to reduce global warming, one that if done properly is revenue-neutral and socially just? It’s easy and cheap to oppose taxes, but that in itself is a foolish, short-term approach, because as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted a century ago: “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.”
More importantly, why are they not thinking beyond the next election and considering the future for our children and grandchildren on a rapidly heating planet? Good leaders — those with honour, ethics and a will to serve rather than a will to power — do not encourage and support the electorate in pursuing short-term benefits that constitute long-term folly, nor do they pursue policies that create short-term gain for long-term pain.
What “the Resistance” is really resisting is evidence, common sense, their duty to future generations and an acceptance of responsibility for their well-being and that of Earth itself. Far from being the resistance, they are the obstructors, or perhaps the ecological radicals, content to alter our ecosystems radically for the sake of making money today, while undermining the well-being of future generations.
If they are not prepared to think beyond the election, to be true leaders rather than short-term profiteers, they should get out of the way and let others lead who are prepared to do the hard work of creating a healthier, more just and more sustainable future.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.