Friday, December 23, 2011

Kyoto and Canada

Coming right on the heels of the Climate Change Conference in Durban, Canada has announced its decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

The decision has been met with a wide range of reaction, both within Canada and internationally. Many are calling the decision Canada's "lowest point" environmentally speaking, or "shameful" while others hail it as "positive" or opine that we should go one step further and withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that governs the Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto was put in place in order to counter the progress of harmful human-made climate change. Certainly the consensus (along with a lot of finger-pointing) is that Canada will be unable to meet the goals it agreed to earlier. It strikes this writer that problems do not go away if we ignore them. The decision, however, has already been made, so the question that remains now is, what is to be done? Issues raised in trying to answer that question inevitably touch on questions of social justice and human rights. What are the responsibilities of people and governments when it comes to the environment? What are the consequences attendant on the choices we make, as people, as groups, as nations? These are questions too big to be addressed in one little post, of course, but a necessary step toward addressing them is public discussion of all they entail.

Such discussion is happening all over Canada and the world at large, and there will be additional posts here on the topic as the weeks go on, but it never hurts to prime the pump. So, in addition to the questions on responsibilities and consequences raised above, I will throw out a starter question for our discussion here. Where are some of the places that social justice and environmental policy meet, and what might a concept of environmentally-oriented social justice look like?


  1. Without much originality I would suggest that the issue is between responsibility (whether to the environment or any other social cause) and unfettered economic expansion. The idea being that these are counterproductive initiatives and cannot work in cooperation.

    The Canadian government seems to have taken seriously the idea that being responsible to the environment would be detrimental to our national agenda for growth. And you know, I can’t help but wonder if the government is right, for isn’t any turn toward responsibility NECESSARILY a turn away from productivity, or at least from maximal productivity?

    My leaning is toward a compromise position that couples these initiatives so that they become one and the same. That is, I would suggest that social justice and environmental policy meet where the bottom line, both environmental AND financial, is improved. (For instance, finding ways to utilize waste products so as to create new income AND reduce pollution.)

    But even so, I can’t help but feel that the result would be a fettered economy. A far more responsible and sustainable economy, yes, but stifled nonetheless. The compromise would more-often-than-not be lukewarm and therefore not all-that-palatable. It still leaves me, at least, wondering whether another way is possible. (And undoubtedly leaves the government believing there is no other way to achieve unfettered growth than by shirking responsibility as much as it can.)

  2. I think the point you raise about the perceived (and possibly quite real) tension between environmental responsibility and what you called "unfettered" economic development is worth looking at. The first question I'd ask is what is "maximal productivity"? Or, a little more specifically, by what standard is "maximal productivity" measured? If maximal productivity is measured solely by how many products/sellable services the Canadian economy can produce, and how high a profit Canadian companies can turn on them, then it is likely that responsible choices will always lead to a decrease in "maximal productivity" simply because responsible choices often seem to cost more up front.

    Such a definition seems to miss the bigger picture and its attendant complexities, however, and there are other definitions for maximal productivity that would not necessarily entail the need to shirk environmentally responsible choices in order to achieve the desired results. The problem as I see it are that equations that rely on conventional definitions of "maximal productivity" like the one above don't take into account the "wear and tear" on the environment and the accumulating cost being environmentally irresponsible represents.

    As an analogy, when you buy a car to commute somewhere and are planning for how much it will cost you in your overall yearly budget, in order to be realistic you can't just count the cost of gas and your monthly payments, because those are not all the costs that will be associated with running that car. You need to count the wear-and-tear and up-keep on the car itself into your budget. If you drive it any real distance, it will need oil changes, and things like new tires. You will need to keep its fluids checked and filled, and every 50,000 kilometers or so get a tune up. The older the model (and our environment isn't exactly new) the more likely the chance that you will need to put money into repairs simply from driving, and the poor treatment possible previous "owners" gave the car. Then there's the almost inevitable fender-bender and possibility of a real accident, and money should be set aside for those as well. What I am saying is that when compiling numbers for "maximal productivity" and economic growth, it has been my experience that companies and governments concerned with demonstrating growth right now ignore the very real "wear and tear" costs that come with what they are doing: the numbers end up being inflated and not reflective of the "real" cost. Perhaps that is what you were talking about when you mentioned leaning toward a compromise position that couples environmental responsibility and creating new income?

  3. You nailed it. “Responsible choices often seem to cost more up front.” Or indeed, they often DO cost more up front. I think the result is an endemic short-term-ism in our society. Or a privileging of the present over the future, which is to say of immediate gains over long term costs (hence why personal savings have diminished and debt loads have risen?).

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that “such a definition [or attitude] seems to miss the bigger picture and its attendant complexities.” That is because it is without responsibility. It doesn’t care about future costs but only about profits now. It wants an economy unfettered by such concerns. It wants to generate as much wealth as it can without having to worry about being responsible.

    The problem is: how do you change this attitude? How do you convince an economy to slow down and to act more responsibly, especially in a time of minimal and perhaps even negative growth? (How do you get people to give up the lifestyle that they have become accustomed to and now expect?)

    Yes, I do believe there are good compromises that can be made. There are initiatives that are both responsible AND profitable and both of these in a maximal sense (as I mentioned, finding a use/market for waste products: even the most ardent capitalist and environmentalist would be happy with that I think). Such initiatives should be pursued wherever possible. What worry me however are the lukewarm compromises where nobody really gets what they want. Where the action is only partially responsible and profits suffer because of it. I can't entirely say why but I don't so much like these.

    It seems to me the only way forward is through the narrow way of the first kind of compromise, where there is a true coupling or wedding of responsibility and interest. Maybe this is the idea? Loving others as you love yourself? I’m open to other ideas! Thanks Allyson,

  4. Note a small correction to the original post...Canada has written a letter announcing its intention to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Advance notice of withdrawal must be given to this legally binding agreement. I believe there is a year before Ottawa is officially out, so some argue for a massive citizen response now to force the federal government to rescind this decision.

  5. Of course others would argue that the massive citizen response happened already and was called "an election".

  6. Thank you for the correction, Anonymous.

    Yes, I think a massive citizen response is still possible, and may sway the government, though so far they have not responded to citizen protests-- such as citizens' negative reaction to the earlier choice to prorogue parliament. I think it is still worth responding, though.

  7. As the economic situation gets worse, more and more people will be departing from their commitment to the status quo. Also, when the spring comes, North America will likely feel a resurgence of Occupy, and movements like it. We'll just have to make sure we make a big enough outcry.

    The economic cost of capping climate change is currently only around $600bn. That's at least 1 order of magnitude smaller than the bailout we just gave the banks. Which just goes to show how broken the system is. We need to not only take that money back (by re-regulating the abusers), we need switch the minds of people so that we pay it. Otherwise we'll either need to pay as much as 20 times that in a few decades, or simply make earth unlivable for human life to continue. $600bn sounds like a bargain - we've just got to convince people to take it now! [] is also worth reading, as it is somewhat related to this topic.