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Stop Everything #15: If government won't cut carbon, will industry?

rebecca mcneil


Welcome to the new age of the environmental movement. We don’t chain ourselves to trees and sing protest songs—we use blackberries to notify the press about the latest report findings. With the exception of a few spirited protestors who scaled the parliament building or occupied a minister’s office, most of the effort from organizations in the fall leading up to Copenhagen concentrated on studies and reports and media-savvy communications tactics.

Increasingly, more people make full-time jobs out of protecting the environment, and many more still are involved in a part-time or volunteer basis. All of this collective energy isn’t for nothing—just like any other industry, we demand results. But it often seems that no matter if we’re talking about water protection, the Boreal or, in this case, climate change, we seem to measure whether we’ve been successful or not by one single measure—policy change.

In many ways using policy change as a measuring stick makes sense. Policies are tangible, measurable and, in theory, binding. Governments can either follow policies, or not, and suffer the consequences of public scorn if the issue’s hot enough. There has been no single more-demanded climate change outcome from the public than a clear, thorough, and meaningful climate change policy. But the federal government has made it clear: that shit ain’t happening.

In the heat of Copenhagen, when I was griping about some ineptitude of our Prime Minister in terms of battling with the carbon crisis, a reader suggested in the comments section of this series that my “obsession with leadership” was puzzling. Touché, reader. It certainly is frustrating, disappointing and possibly futile to expect that after all the hoopla leading up to Copenhagen that should have impressed upon our Prime Minister that Canadians indeed want a firm stance on climate change that he will suddenly draft the policy of our dreams after the fanfare has fizzled.

In a rerun of the Rick Mercer report that ran this weekend I heard the comedian quip that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, or in Canada’s case, the federal government.” Well then the Prime Minister and I must be two peas in a pod, because I keep coming back to the same thing in every blog post: this country cannot make any serious strides towards carbon reduction without a strong federal policy committing us to actual reductions.

Our reader’s point that the focus on the federal government was “puzzling” could also imply something I’ve suspected for some time: that I may be flogging a dead horse. But, I ask, what other conclusion can I come to than to insist that a federal climate policy is necessary?  We know that despite being sold green issues of Vanity Fair and hybrid SUV’s for the past several years, personal reductions pale in comparison to industry’s contribution to carbon emissions and that the problem has become too severe to expect that simply purchasing your next cut of meat from a local butcher will reduce the carbon load enough. Pardon me for not trusting myself or any other individual with the responsibility of making enough personal reductions while we teeter on global crisis.

But, perhaps where individuals are seemingly incapable of collectively making the right choices, there lies another body capable of making the tough decisions: industry. If there is a serious flaw with concentrating on policies, it is assuming that just because they are drafted and created (which is enough of a battle) that they will be followed, both inside government and out. It would not be enough for the Canadian government to create a strong climate change policy, commit it to paper and walk away, they would have to work with the private sector and ensure that they are able to work towards these targets. Policy won’t lead to industry standards, but industry just may be better poised to raise the bar on climate reductions where government has failed to do so.

While we have generally concentrated on accepting that the federal government needs to create legislation, there’s also no policy-making formula. Perhaps if industry leaders were to raise the standards the government would be shamed into creating the policies that the rest of the sector would have to follow. The swell of attention around climate change in the fall has been unprecedented by any other issue in the past several decades, and yet the federal foot has been put down, and it remains clear that policy won’t be leading us out of the gate. So we will either have to find new ways to create and measure our success, or if policy is to remain our yardstick, then perhaps we need to rethink who we are asking to lead us to it.

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