No, Mr. Baird, it shouldn’t agree with you

“It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government. No discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families.”

-John Baird, MP

When Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, a career politician and Harper’s favourite lapdog, admitted that the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was being shut down for disagreeing with the political leanings of the current government, he pulled the curtain back for a rare honest glimpse into the Conservatives’ opinion on science. That is, he showed us that if it can’t be controlled, if there is a chance that an organization will produce reports, evidence, or PR that is contrary to the messaging coming from Ottawa, it will not be long for this world.

As a long-time politician, someone who entered politics straight out of university and can always be counted on to leap to the defence of the latest Harper move, John Baird is exactly the type of cabinet minister you would expect such a quote from. He is also the exact type of cabinet minister we need to get rid of in some sort of Old Testament purge; a flood might be the poetic way to do it, but any old plague will do. He is totally unqualified to talk about anything but politics, which is why he’s the perfect example of a Canadian cabinet minister: he knows when to nod, and when to shake with apparent rage at whatever he’s being told to shake with rage at.

The NRTEE is not the only, or even the latest, example of a scientific institution being punished for its inconvenient truths. The world famous Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario has long published studies on freshwater pollution effects; some recent studies have found evidence that mercury poisoning in lakes can be reversed, contradicting the oil industry’s claim that the lake is beyond help. The University of Alberta’s Dr. David Schindler, an eminent freshwater research scientist who is always good for a statement on these issues, was quoted in the Globe and Mail: “My guess is our current managers don’t like to see this kind of [research] because the oil sands have an exponentially increasing output of mercury. I think the real problem is we have a bunch of people running science in this country who don’t even know what science is.”

Mr. Baird’s assertion that a scientific institution should “agree with Canadians” is perverse. Science should not be asked to agree with anyone. That’s not the purpose of science. Agreeing unconditionally with the ideology of the PM is the purpose of parasitical sycophants like John Baird. A government that does not respect the fundamental need for science organizations – even government-funded ones – to maintain an arm’s length from politics is in a very dangerous position.

The consequences of such an attitude have been seen before, and they aren’t pretty. Try Mao’s Four Pests Campaign to see how well a country fares when it ignores the pleas of scientists, in favour of fantasy. We run the risk of becoming a nation deliberately burying our heads in the sand: dismantling environmental reviews, eliminating the long-form census, or cutting the contaminant science program at Environment Canada do not make the problems go away. They just make it harder to find out about them. Are we going to go the route of North Carolina next, and make sea level rise illegal? Seems a bit crazy, but just like them, we have already started to punish scientists who do the wrong research.

With even the oil elite in Calgary insisting that they want a carbon tax, who the hell is John Baird to dance on the grave of an organization that has been calling for one for years? A carbon tax, by putting a price on carbon, would increase competition within and between industries to reduce emissions, inspiring innovation in a way that blanket regulations and minimum targets cannot.

Now that the feds have admitted that this was a political decision, and not about saving money, we can say for certain that the $2-million annually that the ELA cost likely suffered from the same careful pruning of scientific capabilities; you might say the same for PEARL, Bamfield, the oil spill response centres on the West Coast and others – especially given that the National Round Table cost more than each of those.

When you add up their costs, in fact, it is comparable to the $8-million earmarked for the taxman to investigate the funding of environmental groups. It might be simplistic, but it’s painfully ironic to see money being diverted from essential scientific facilities for blatantly political reasons, only to be used to attack environmental groups for the same reason. It’s a two-pronged approach: bleed inconvenient science while starving inconvenient opposition.

Editorial #13 – Tax it, cap it, trade it

Canada is one of the world’s worst per-capita producers of greenhouse gases, and it seems everyone has a plan to bring our emissions down. There is lots of talk lately about carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems, but what are they? These systems offer incentives for emissions reduction with an economic carrot-and-stick, in the case of cap-and-trade, or just a stick, as in carbon taxes.

After the embarrassing charade that was the Copenhagen Climate Summit, many Canadians – myself included – are becoming disenchanted with the possibility of the international community ever coming to an agreement on how to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. However, this international stagnation leaves Canada in a position to get a leg up on the rest of the world while the going’s good. What we need is a way to make low-energy choices actually appealing to Canadian wallets, not just to their consciences.

The cap-and-trade system is based on an industry emissions cap being set, and credits issued or sold to polluters; these credits can be used to “pay” for emissions over the set level, or sold to the company’s competitors on an open market. This gives two tangible reasons for companies to reduce emissions: the companies can save money on credits, and even make profit off of less “green” competitors by selling credits to them. The downside is that the open-market approach allows prices for credits to fluctuate wildly, and this can hurt smaller businesses.

A carbon tax can be applied either to the consumer goods and services themselves, or to the producers of the goods (with the cost generally being passed along to the consumers). This encourages companies to produce their goods and services in a more efficient manner, in order to pass on a lower cost to consumers and thus make them more competitive. As compared to the cap-and-trade system, the effect on industry is more controlled, being a tax, and the money can be put to whatever use is determined to be best, such as research programs or consumer rebates.

In both cases, a major bonus is that these economic measures level the playing field, giving low-emissions industry a chance to bloom. At the moment, oil and gas are incredibly cheap, despite our moaning at the pump, and the costs for these energy sources do not yet reflect their associated environmental costs or their dwindling supply.

The benefits of manifesting those environmental costs in a dollar amount would therefore be twofold: higher costs for high-emissions goods and services would reduce their unnecessary usage, and the comparative costs for sustainable energy sources would be much lower, giving them a chance to catch on.

For example, solar energy has come a long way, and it is on the brink of being economically competitive with conventional energy: fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. If the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are taxed, this energy will cost more, and solar energy will get the boost it needs to enter the marketplace as a serious energy player.

It is not only alternative energy sources that will benefit, however. More efficient technologies already exist for the burning of coal, for instance, but these technologies are not yet economically feasible with oil at low current prices. If oil were more expensive, cleaner-burning coal plants would become not just the clear choice for the environment, but for the economy as well.

The caveat to all of this is that we have to make these economic incentives large enough to actually make an impact. Half-heartedly appeasing environmentally concerned groups while carefully preserving the business status quo will simply leave us in the dust while other nations, mindful of the potential for green business development, reap the rewards of a responsible economic movement.