I have an oped in today’s Vancouver Sun as part of its BC in 2035 series.
Climate change will shape BC in 2035, one way or another
We live on a different planet from the one our parents grew up on, says environmentalist Bill McKibben. Climate change from our rampant combustion of fossil fuels has pushed the world into a new era of bizarre weather anomalies.
In BC, warming has been greater that the global average, with costly consequences, including the pine beetle epidemic, downtime for ferries and highways, raging forest fires and flooding.
The big question is whether carbon emissions can be stabilized at some level by human collective action, or whether we will soon pass critical thresholds that will trigger a runaway climate change scenario.
Canada has recently thumbed its nose at global negotiations, in favour of digging ever deeper into the hole of extreme energy that is causing the problem. Even though climate costs are mounting – in Canada and especially in poorer and more vulnerable countries – the immense profits from our exports of coal, gas and oil dominate Canadian politics.
British Columbians in 2035 will be facing a variety of climate-related challenges to a decent quality of life. Food supplies from California will dry up; storms will be more devastating; animal and plant species will be threatened. Even if we are lucky, climate impacts in other parts of the world could lead millions to our shores.
High and growing inequality undermines trust in our fellow citizens, and threatens to erode the social foundation of this future. As federal and provincial governments tear page after page from the social contract, we are moving to a society where you are on your own.
Our current period of official denial cannot last much longer. It may, tragically, take another Katrina-scale disaster, or two or three, but sooner or later, the realities of climate change will catch up to Canadian and US politics.
BC should not get caught flat-footed, but instead the province needs to be proactive to address our share of carbon emission reductions. The good news is that in doing so we can seize new economic opportunities offered by the transition to green jobs and sustainable production. BC’s baby steps on climate action are a plus, and we have the smarts, the technology and institutions to re-write this story.
BC is ideally poised to show the rest of the world what a 21st century sustainable economy can look like. A wealthy part of the world, blessed with abundant resources, BC has a moral obligation to take a leadership role. But it’s also good economics — despite brash claims about job creation, mining and oil and gas only employ about 1% of BC’s workers. There are far more jobs to be had in green alternatives.
Putting climate action at the heart of BC’s industrial and employment strategy requires that BC rapidly shift off fossil fuels. By 2035 we could be very close to zero carbon. But that means having the political will to say no to the proposed Enbridge pipeline, to shale gas fracking and liquid natural gas terminals. And unlike the current “BC Jobs Plan”, it means aspiring to be more than a peddler of fossil fuels in global markets.
The great transition also requires we break out of a mindset based on individual green consumption towards collective action and structural changes.
First, public control over (largely renewable) electricity infrastructure is a vital advantage for BC in a shift to a zero-carbon future. Conservation and major efficiency gains are low hanging fruit, supplemented by district energy systems and small-scale renewables (like solar hot water systems). Retrofitting BC’s housing stock and commercial buildings will also support thousands of jobs.
Second, we must redesign urban spaces into “complete communities” where people do not have to travel very far to get to work or to meet day-to-day needs, making it possible to walk, bike and use high-quality public transit. These communities include a mix of housing types (including affordable housing options), decent jobs, public services and spaces, and commercial districts.
This way of designing communities levels the playing field for seniors, youth, people with disabilities, and low-income families so they can live and move easily, even if they are not able to drive or cannot afford a car. It also means families are not forced to choose between long commutes by car and even longer commutes by transit.
Building retrofits, public transit and so forth will not be cheap. But there is a logical and obvious revenue source to make it happen: a carbon tax. At $200 per tonne by 2020, this would close the gap between BC and European gas prices, and raise billions per year. A portion of the revenues should be transferred back to low- to middle-income households to ensure none are left behind.
Importantly, we face a political problem not a technological one. We will still have to deal with the fallout of climate change, but done well, a bright green future would go hand in hand with better health, stronger communities, and improved quality of life.