No 94 Posted by fw and Helga Wintal, December 10, 2010
“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.” Howard Zinn from Failure to Quit
“I’ll throw you out of my office on your ear.”
Today, reading about the Toronto woman who received a threatening email from former Stephen Harper adviser, Tom Flanagan, brought back unsettling memories of a day in November 2009 when one of Harper’s MPs stood up, leaned across the desk in his constituency office, glared at me — a senior citizen — and in a loud, angry tone, threatened: “I’ll throw you out of my office on your ear!” (For an account of the Flanagan story, see Tom Flanagan threatened me over WikiLeaks comment Toronto woman says.
My wife, Helga Wintal and I, were two of a delegation of five people who had been granted an appointment to meet with a Tory MP to share our concerns about the Harper government’s climate change policies. Since the MP did most of the talking, Part 1 of this two-part post focuses primarily on his recitation of the Harper government’s position on climate change. Part 2 presents an opposing viewpoint prepared primarily by Helga with some input from me. In fact, the bulk of the content in both parts was prepared by Helga, who had taken extensive detailed notes during our meeting with the MP.
It’s important to note that when our delegation showed up at the MP’s constituency office, his assistant remarked that we would probably have, at most, about half an hour with him. This time factor influenced the manner in which I presented my questions to the MP. As it turned out, however, we were in his office for over two hours.
OUR ACCOUNT OF EVENTS
Our delegation’s opening remarks
Our group, three representing Kairos, and two, Helga and I, attending as concerned citizens, made the three opening points:
- We emphasized the need for speedy passage of Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act
- We urged the MP to sign the Politician’s Pledge, committing to Kyoto Plus targets
- We expressed the view that the Conservative government’s position on climate change was out of touch with many religious communities that advocated acceptance of responsibility for stewardship of the earth
Declining to sign the Politician’s Pledge, the MP indicated that he was very familiar with the Kyoto and Kyoto Plus objectives, through his involvement with the Environment Committee. He emphasized that the Harper government had been studying these matters for three years. He went on to make these points:
- The Committee had heard presentations from climate scientists and researchers, including Dr. John Stone, who had contributed to the Fourth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change and Dr. David Suzuki. Although he did not dispute their scientific expertise, he did not feel compelled to accept their recommendations on policies which should be decided by politicians – for example, their “scientific targets” which were based on an “equity interpretation”. He had not heard a satisfactory explanation for these equity-based targets.
- He objected to differentiated targets which considered the historical polluting record of countries and allowed emerging economies a “pass” of a certain time period before requiring compliance with stringent emissions targets. He was not convinced that a historical responsibility for global carbon dioxide emissions could be accurately calculated.
- He favoured intensity-based targets, based on the total emissions produced by a country. The largest absolute polluters (e.g. China, India because of their population size) must commit to emissions targets as a precondition to Canada’s commitment.
- The Harper government’s plan specified intensity-based targets for industries such as oil and gas.
- He objected to the use of fear to sell action on cutting greenhouse gas emissions – “if you have to sell something based on fear, there must be more to the story”. His approach, he said, was “To ask a lot of questions. We have to ensure that we get this right – globally.”
- He mentioned a study sponsored by the TD bank, and conducted by the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation, comparing the costs of the Government Plan versus Kyoto Plus/Bill C-311. As he saw it, the study had been “sprung” on the Environment Committee. The cost estimates were approximately 1 – 2% of GDP – “A lot of money!” in his words. He believed that further questions needed to be asked regarding the presuppositions made on what could be a variety of costs. (For example, there could be alternate policy pathways to achieving results.) He also felt there were flaws with the modelling – for example, social benefits had not been fully considered, such as the cost of carrying workers on extended unemployment insurance if they could not transition to the new economy.
- He preferred a medium to long term approach – focusing on 2020 – versus the NDP approach of paying whatever it costs for shorter-term (2012) goals.
Playing dice with the future of the planet
At this point in his recitation of the Harper approach to climate change he made, what I thought, was this astounding admission:
“If we get this wrong and if doomsday kicks in — in the future — then it kicks in. We couldn’t do anything to change it at that point.“
Continuing his review, the government’s plan included:
- Major investment in green infrastructure for hydroelectric production
- Retiring coal-fired generation plants
- Developing systems which were compatible & harmonized with our largest trading partner, the United States, with targets similar to Obama’s so that our industries would remain competitive.
By the time the discussion got around to my questions, time was running short. Mindful of the “half-hour” advisory we had been given, I said that I had ten questions that could be answered with a simple “yes/no” response. Here are my questions along with the MP’s response to them:
1. Do you believe that human activities are contributing to climate change?
2. Do you believe that climate change is a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of Canadians?
MP: “Yes, it can be. So is pollution.”
3. Do you believe that the reports of the International Panel on Climate Change are scientifically reliable?
MP: “I don’t know. I don’t know if their targets are reliable. I don’t know how to assess the scientists’ recommendations when they talk about social policy issues.”
4. Do you believe that climate change is a serious threat to the health and wellbeing of people living in the developing world?
MP: “Yes. It affects people globally.”
5. Do you believe that CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions originating in Canada have any harmful effect on the health and wellbeing of people living in the developing world?
MP: “Yes. The developing world also produces emissions.”
6. Do you and your government accept moral responsibility for contributing to human suffering caused by climate change?
MP: “Yes, to some extent. The issue is one of degree and how much. This gets into the area of climate reparations. China is a major emitter and has the money for green technology.”
7. Do you believe that your government’s environmental policies and programs effectively protect the health and wellbeing of Canadians from the worst effects of CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions?
MP: “Yes. I am satisfied with what the government has done this far.”
8. Does it concern you at all that if your government’s environmental policies turn out to be wrong, and scientists’ worst nightmare predictions come true, then you/your government will have contributed to global catastrophic consequences?
MP: He hesitated and seemed uncertain how to respond.
In an attempt to clarify the question, I may have said something like this: “Do you think your government is infallible?” or “Do you think you are infallible?”
MP: It was at this point, that the MP said that he understood where “this line of questioning was leading”. He stood up, accused me of ”trying to put words into my mouth”, leaned across his desk and, in an angry tone, said that if I persisted, “I’ll throw you out of my office on your ear.”
His intimidating threat effectively ended my Q&A session. From this point on, the “discussion” was somewhat one-sided as the MP completed his review of the Harper government’s position on climate change:
- The government will balance the interests of the economy with the environment by regulation of large final emitters; instituting a cap and trade system; and various fiscal tools
- China and India must agree to firm targets before Canada will sign any climate change treaty. Having China agree only to a weak target will not be acceptable.
- Canada’s targets must be similar to those of the Obama administration (aiming at 17% below 2007 levels by 2020) in order to remain competitive in the North American market.
- He fears that the mandatory technology transfers being requested by developing countries, to help them to reduce their emissions is, in fact, another form of foreign aid to help raise their standard of living.
- He believes that transitioning takes time: partly because of the social issues (e.g. not everyone will fit into the new economy); partly because of the time needed to develop new technology (e.g it took the automotive sector 5-8 years to develop a non-emitting vehicle) and partly because the domestic pathway takes time (e.g. 18 months to 3 years for new regulations, depending on the complexity).
- He had visited Alberta’s oilsands and found that it was not as big as he had expected. The open pit portion had the most aggressive footprint but the in-situ operation had a much smaller footprint. It was not certain that these processes were affecting the groundwater and causing the downstream effect being experienced by the native population, as these could also be due to old cadmium and uranium mines.
When a member of our group noted that a majority of Canadians listed the environment as their main concern and might support strong government leadership, the MP conceded that while a minority might accept major changes, most people he talked to were more concerned about the economy and lived paycheque to paycheque. The main concerns he was hearing related to the Harmonized Sales Tax.
In conclusion, it was apparent that the MP and the group representing Kairos and concerned citizens had a fundamental disagreement about adopting the Kyoto plus targets and about how far and how fast to proceed in reducing Canada’s CO2 emissions.
Immediately following this meeting, I sent an apologetic email to the other members of our delegation, accepting that it was my questions that provoked the MP’s outburst. I received this reply from one member of our group:
“No need to apologize. You weren’t abusive in any way. There was no reason for [MP’s name] to threaten to throw you out on your ear, although that did make it interesting. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I still can’t get over the doomsday scenario comments. He scared the hell out of me, and I still feel a little disorientated about it.”