The federal Liberals believe that “putting a price on pollution” is the best way to save the planet from catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW). By “pollution,” they mean “carbon,” and by “carbon” they mean CO2 molecules in the atmosphere. By allowing the Liberals to frame the issue in those terms, opponents have unwittingly given up a large part of the game.
To begin with, CO2 can no more be equated to “carbon” than to its other constituent component, “oxygen.” The Liberal policy could equally be described as putting a price on oxygen. Conservatives used to joke that Liberals would tax the air we breathe if they could get away with it; now they have succeeded, using the simple trick of mislabelling. Orwell would be impressed.
Newspeak aside, CO2 is anything but pollution; it is essential to all multi-celled life on the planet. Biologists have known for centuries that plants breathe in CO2, and use the power of sunlight to combine it with H2O to form carbohydrates (C6H12O6) and oxygen (O2). Below 150 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, plants starve and die, followed shortly by all animals that live on plants (and on plant-eaters). Plants, in fact, would flourish at CO2 levels up to three to four times as high as the current level of about 400 ppm. This is not only because CO2 is plant food. Just as important, higher levels of CO2 allow plant stomata – the tiny openings on leaves used for the exchange of gases – to breathe in sufficient nutrients in less time. Plants in CO2-rich environments therefore lose less water through transpiration, resulting in better growth where water is a limiting resource.
All the hype about hurricanes, droughts, flooding, and wildfires increasing due to global warming is easily countered by simple historical observation. There is no proven correlation between atmospheric CO2 levels and extreme weather now or in the historical record. Even the IPCC concedes potential effects are not yet evident. On the other hand, the greening of the planet since 1950 is readily apparent from satellite images. So, rather than “putting a price on pollution,” the Liberal policy is one of taxing plant food.
Maybe that’s why advocates of a “carbon” tax tend to avoid the basic biology of CO2 and instead focus on the basic physics. They insist “the science is settled”: we have known about the radiative properties of CO2 for 150 years. Curiously, though, the 19th century Swedish Nobel Prize winning scientist Svante Arrhenius, discoverer of the physical properties of CO2, thought it would be good to increase atmospheric levels as it would make the planet more pleasantly warm and productive. He recognized the obvious truth that cold kills far more people than warmth does, and that human civilization flourishes during warm periods and suffers under colder ones. Cold episodes like 1816 – the infamous “year without a summer” – as well as longer periods like the Little Ice Age were truly miserable not merely in Europe but in parts of Asia and North America.
Climate alarmism has little to do with the radiative properties of CO2. Rather, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scary projections derive from conjectured “positive feedbacks,” mostly from water vapour, that are presumed to dangerously amplify the otherwise welcome effects of radiative warming by atmospheric CO2. But again there is no proven correlation between higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations and these hypothetical feedbacks, including moist vaporous ones.
Moreover, the climate models used to predict temperature trends by the IPCC have consistently “run hot,” meaning that observed temperatures for the past couple of decades have been significantly lower than model predictions. However much we might wish for a return to the clement temperatures the planet experienced as recently as the Holocene Climate Optimum – you know, when agriculture and civilization was born – observations of global temperature over time are more in line with what the discoverers of the basic physics of CO2 expected than with the IPCC predictions. So bundle up Canada because virtually none of the model warming predictions has come true, which should be sufficient to invalidate or at least cast serious doubt upon the overall theory.
None of the foregoing rests on esoteric knowledge. I’m trained in philosophy and law, not science. But further scientific support is easily obtainable using simple key-word searches coupled with the names of prominent climate scientists such as Judith Curry, Roger Pielke Jr., Roy Spencer, John Christy, Patrick Moore, Don Easterbrook, Bjorn Lomborg, Bob Carter, Richard Lindzen or Matt Ridley.
Of course, observational science doesn’t matter much in today’s overheated political climate. It’s anathema for any political party to come right out and say that taxing plant food is ridiculous. Rather, pragmatists – those who don’t want to destroy civilization to “save the planet” – must pay lip service to the alarmists while doing as little as possible to address the alleged problem. Whenever the Liberals’ plan of “putting a price on pollution” is attacked, they strike a self-righteous pose and ask, “So then, what’s your plan?” Any Canadian political party that doesn’t have a plan to halt global climate change is deemed to be composed of troglodytes at best. But the rush to formulate a made-in-Canada plan makes no sense if CAGW is in fact a global phenomenon.
“Think globally, act locally” has been an environmentalist mantra for decades. So let’s try that – especially the first part, about thinking globally. First, we have to decide what assumptions to make about future emissions and warming. This isn’t as simple as it might seem, since the alarmists’ “worst-case scenario” is an ever-receding dystopia. Before there was the Paris Accord, there was the Kyoto Protocol. After the Kyoto Protocol was ditched by the Bush and Harper governments, the alarmists set new deadlines at a 2009 conference in Copenhagen. On the eve of it, no less an authority than Green Party leader Elizabeth May declared, “We have hours to act to avert a slow-motion tsunami that could destroy civilization as we know it.” Hours. If you take these dire predictions seriously, then it is already a decade or two too late to start acting on climate change. If we’re doomed anyway, why not enjoy ourselves and see what happens?
Of course, yesterday’s alarmism will never do. We must always retain hope. The IPCC’s current position that we now have until 2030 to reverse CAGW. Mercifully, then, over the last decade we have moved from only having hours to solve the problem to only having ten years. But wait, the Doomsday Clock has just ticked down to two minutes left to reverse CO2 emissions and bring them back to 1990, or 1998, or 2005, or 2010 levels. My point is, targets and timelines are ever-shifting, based on political expediency rather than science, although the IPCC’s recent proposed emission reductions of 30 percent by 2030 or 50 percent by 2050 at least have the advantage of being easy to remember. So if we aim for those goals, what is the best plan for Canada?
Canada alone can’t save the world
The atmosphere is a commons, equally accessible to everyone. Limiting global CO2 emissions is therefore a problem of collective action – in game theory terminology, a prisoners’ dilemma. What makes sense for Canada to do “locally” depends crucially on what the other nations are doing “globally.”
All international “agreements” to reach CO2 emissions levels by specific dates have been plagued by at least three major problems. First, the biggest emitters are not part of the solution: either they are not signatories, or the accord gives them a pass for at least the next several years, by which time it will ex hypothesi be too late for the planet. This category includes the big three of China, the United States, and India. Other nations with a much bigger carbon footprint than wee Canada include Saudi Arabia, Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Brazil.
To get a sense of this problem’s scale, consider that China’s CO2 emissions increased by 1,382 megatonnes between 2010 and 2016, compared with just 9 megatonnes for Canada. Increases in Canada’s CO2 emissions since 2010 are a mere rounding error (0.65 percent) of China’s. Thinking that such an immaterial reduction in CO2 emissions is worth a massive disruption to our economy is elevating symbolism over substance to an extraordinary degree, even for a virtuous Liberal.
The second problem is enforceability. Of the Paris Accord’s signatories that have reduction obligations, roughly all of them are behaving pragmatically, in the same way conservative-leaning parties in Canada are criticized for doing. That is, they are paying lip service to their “commitments” while proposing or implementing policies that won’t meet their targets. This makes Liberal-ruled Canada equivalent to the lone lunatic choosing cooperation in a prisoners’ dilemma, while essentially everyone else plays the save-their-own-skin strategy.
Third, scores of undeveloped countries aspire to appreciable improvements in living standards as soon as possible. Massive amounts of energy-intensive industrial growth will be required to achieve this; and since these are poor and often populous countries, the energy will have to be cheap – meaning fossil fuel-based. To reach the Paris Accord’s global targets, either these countries will have to be bribed by countries like Canada not to industrialize, or developed countries will have to offset development in poor countries by slashing their emissions far beyond their current commitments. None seems willing to do that. We can expect China to keep right on building coal-fuelled power plants at an astonishing rate at home and abroad to help meet this demand.
Viewed from a global perspective, then, the Liberal climate change plan for Canada is harmful, self-righteous nonsense. That isn’t negated by pointing out that other political parties have no plan at all, since no plan is better than the Liberals’ scheme. All the plans floated so far share the twin characteristics of having no effect on global climate while doing untold damage to Canada’s economy and to the prosperity and freedom of Canadians.
Granted, however, millions of Canadians are uncomfortable with their governments doing nothing. Some kind of plan is, therefore, at minimum politically essential for any party hoping to win an election. Fortunately, there’s an array of available initiatives and policies that could better define the phenomenon of climate change and prepare Canada for a range of scenarios without wrecking the nation’s economy – and that would have practical benefits regardless how accurate the IPCC’s models turn out to be.
Dr. Brown’s better plan
If we must tax “carbon”, we should tax most the products using the most fossil fuels to create. These happen to be products – including “green energy” components – produced using energy from coal in China. Canada’s climate plan should include import tariffs on Chinese-manufactured goods, which would have the added benefit of levelling the playing field with Canadian manufacturers. Canada could also “put a higher price on pollution” by building more oil and natural gas pipelines to tidewater plus LNG export facilities. This would also allow more economic activity in Asia to be powered by relatively clean oil and natural gas, displacing some coal. This approach works. The U.S. has achieved massive reductions in its CO2 emissions through its mainly market-driven switch to natural gas.
For the sake of argument let’s say the IPCC’s projections are correct, and the planet will become much warmer in the coming decades. Adapting to new climate conditions will be necessary. The wealthier a country, the better it can adapt. This reinforces the case for price-maximizing energy export policies, and suggests adopting a slate of high-growth policies is in Canada’s environmental as well as economic interests. The widely published statistician and author Bjorn Lomborg has made a career out of demonstrating that adapting to future climate change is the best approach while seeking to eliminate current harms with policies that have much higher benefit-to-cost ratios.
Pursuing a high-growth policy means we need to stop scaring away investment, reduce regulatory delay and burdens, and impose interprovincial free trade on the provinces, so that we can get our natural resources to world markets at higher value. We need to define Indigenous constitutional rights once and for all and settle as many land claims as possible, so that First Nations with an interest in development can negotiate pipeline routes and natural resource development without creating a national drama over each individual project. If First Nations have veto power over development on their lands, then they should also have the right to move forward with developments they support.
Liberals like to tout the alleged employment gains powered by “renewable energy”. They call it a growth sector and imply it can grow the economy as a whole. This further betrays economic illiteracy. Energy isn’t an end in itself; it’s an input factor – a cost – for all other human activity. The more the government subsidizes low-density, high-cost energy sources like solar and wind, the higher the cost of living and doing business in every other sector of the economy. Higher energy costs necessarily entail lower standards of living and less economic activity. This is doubly true as long as renewables aren’t reliables. Every unit of energy we produce from wind and solar requires a unit of energy back-up from conventional sources for times when the wind is blowing too forcefully or weakly, and when the sun isn’t bright enough. Wind and solar are the energy sources of the future – and always will be.
Governments should, of course, continue to fund basic science on climate and the environment – but with no political agendas or preconceptions. Many billions of dollars are spent annually worldwide searching for confirmation of the CAGW conjecture. This is not the way science advances; the scientific method is to seek falsification of testable hypotheses. Before we can do that, we need to improve our basic observational science by studying natural phenomena like hurricanes, droughts, glaciation, ocean “acidification” and other topics to measure what is actually happening and to find out why. We should invest further in satellites and more accurate land-based measuring systems to obtain better, more reliable data that doesn’t need constant adjusting. We should study ocean currents, cloud formation, Milankovitch cycles, cosmic rays, and other influences on climate, rather than just CO2. We should fund science that improves our understanding of past natural climate variability, such as how northern Canada’s treeline advanced and retreated, along with sea ice.
Lastly, environmental pragmatists need to get smarter about politics. We need to stop sending delegations of hundreds to extravagant planet-saving conferences with planet-degrading impacts. We need to cease promotion of international protocols that we know most other countries will spurn. Most important, we need to end foreign interference in Canadian politics and natural resource development approvals. If a lobby group receives even one cent of foreign funding, it should be barred from lobbying government, from making submissions to regulatory bodies, and from advertising during an election period. Regulatory bodies should accept submissions only from those with actual skin in the game – land or other direct interests in the development zone. Traditional folk religion should have the same relevance to environmental decisions as Christianity or Zoroastrianism: none. Political and regulatory decisions should go back to being based on science, economics and the national interest.
Now that would be a plan.
Grant A. Brown has a DPhil from Oxford University and an LL.B. from the University of Alberta. He taught applied ethics and political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge in the 1990s, and practiced family law in the 2000s. He currently runs a B&B in Stratford, Ontario.