Michael Byers will never forget the day he was travelling through the Northwest Passage and felt the fear of more than three dozen scientists. The expert on Arctic sovereignty was on the CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, cruising into Bellot Strait at the northernmost tip of the Canadian mainland, more than 71 degrees north of the equator.
It was late October in 2006, normally a time when the strait separating the Boothia Peninsula from Somerset Island would be locked in ice. But as they entered the narrow passage 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, all that Byers could see was open water.
“This was the first time that I could see climate change with my own eyes,” Byers, the federal NDP candidate in Vancouver Centre and a UBC political-science professor, said during a one-hour talk and slide-show presentation at the Vancouver Maritime Museum on September 19.
He claimed that the scientists—who hailed from Canada, France, the United States, and Denmark—were collectively terrified. “I’ve smelt fear before, once in a church in Gdansk, when Solidarity was standing up to the Polish military,” Byers recalled. “I smelled fear on this ship that day.”
He added that the captain didn’t believe it and sent Byers up in a helicopter with a spotter to look for ice. They couldn’t find any ice in the strait. By the following September, another 1.2 million square kilometres of ice had disappeared from the Arctic Ocean, according to satellite images. On September 16 of this year, the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center reported 4.53 million square kilometres of Arctic sea ice, the second-lowest recorded amount since 1979. This was 2.24 million square kilometres below the average minimum recorded between 1979 and 2000.
At the museum, Byers explained that when he started paying attention to this issue five years ago, scientists were predicting the loss of summer ice in the Arctic by 2100. “Last year, people like David Barber at the University of Manitoba [a specialist in sea ice] started to talk about 2013 to 2015—total summer melt-out,” Byers said.
Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that there was a slight increase in Arctic ice this year because of the ocean-atmosphere phenomenon dubbed La Niña, which creates colder-than-average surface-water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. “What happened last year was so dramatic, it blew away the scientific community’s projections,” Weaver said.
He noted that this year’s summer Arctic ice level, even with La Niña, came close to breaking the record again. “Realistically, we’re at a critical juncture,” Weaver said. “I think this is the defining issue of our time.”
There hasn’t been much media coverage of climate change during the election campaign, despite efforts by Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and Green party Leader Elizabeth May to make this a central issue. “I’m very worried about the consequences of climate change on our way of life, and the future of our children and our grandchildren,” Dion told the Straight on September 23. “I’m very pleased that you’re asking me these questions because many of your colleagues think that during an election, you don’t discuss these issues.”
The previous day, the Liberals unveiled their platform, anchored by the Green Shift plan. It puts a price on greenhouse-gas emissions, starting at $10 per tonne and rising to $40 per tonne within four years. Unlike the B.C. Liberal government’s carbon tax, this levy wouldn’t be applied to gasoline at the retail level, which is already subject to a 10-cent-per-litre federal tax. Joyce Murray, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Quadra, told the Straight last month that the federal gas tax is the equivalent of a $42-per-tonne carbon tax.
“[We’re] taking that excise tax and broadening it across all of the different fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases in proportion to their carbon-dioxide emissions,” Murray said.
Dion and Murray both emphasize that their proposed carbon tax will be offset by income-tax cuts and other savings. For instance, by the fourth year, the low-income tax rate will be cut from 15 to 13.5 percent—a 10-percent reduction. The middle-income rates will fall from 22 to 21 percent and from 26 to 25 percent.
A new universal child tax benefit worth $350 per year will be added, and those who earn less than $50,000 per year will end up with $250 more as a result of a change to the refundable employment tax credit. The Green Shift also includes a one-percent corporate tax cut over four years, a rural tax credit of $150, and larger tax deductions for northern residents. All of this will be paid for by revenue from the carbon tax, the Liberals claim.
“It will be good for the environment because we put a tax on pollution, on greenhouse-gas emissions, and it will be good for the social fabric because we have focused on tax cuts for middle- and low-income Canadians,” Dion said.
Last June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper bluntly stated that a carbon tax would “screw everybody across the country”. Harper, who didn’t make himself available for an interview, has claimed more recently that the carbon tax is a “catastrophe” that will cause a recession and raise the risk of a revival of Quebec separatism.
Meanwhile, NDP Leader Jack Layton has declared that his party will never introduce a carbon tax, claiming it is “ineffective and unfair”. Byers told the Straight on September 19 that he thinks it’s important to put a price on carbon, quickly adding that now isn’t the right time.
“I think a carbon tax would have been a really good idea when Jean Chrétien became prime minister in 1993, but he ruled it out categorically at that time,” Byers said. “It might still have been a good idea when Stéphane Dion became environment minister. The reason I’m saying this is because the price of fossil fuel was much lower then, so the incremental burden upon ordinary Canadians would have been substantially lower and we could have had gradual adjustments over time.”
Byers said that recent fuel-price increases raise important questions of social justice, and claimed that those who don’t pay income tax won’t enjoy the benefits of income-tax reductions.
Dion scoffed at Byers’s comment, noting that the plan includes a tax credit for low-income Canadians: “He never read our document,” Dion claimed.
Byers said the NDP prefers promoting a cap-and-trade system, which has been adopted by the European Union. It is also being promoted by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, Quebec premier Jean Charest, and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Under a cap-and-trade system, emissions allowances are traded in a free market. The NDP has called for a halt to Alberta oil-sands development until a cap-and-trade system is in place. “We don’t want to be the odd man out, the odd jurisdiction out, leading with a carbon tax when our major partners are actually taking a different approach,” Byers said.
Dion said that a cap-and-trade system takes years to develop, noting that western states and provinces won’t have one in place before 2012. “That shows that to build a cap-and-trade cannot be done overnight, as Mr. Layton pretends,” Dion said.
The Liberals and the Greens have also proposed a cap-and-trade program, which targets heavy industries that are responsible for half of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions. In addition, the Greens are promoting a $50-per-tonne carbon tax, which will eventually increase to $150 per tonne.
In a September 20 interview with the Straight at a furniture store, May said that she didn’t pick this number out of thin air. It came from economist Nicholas Stern’s report to the British government that outlined devastating economic consequences that will result from climate change. She also noted that SFU resource economist Mark Jaccard, a strong proponent of carbon taxes, wrote a report for the federal government looking at the impact of a $50-per-tonne levy.
“The results were mildly positive to GDP by 2015,” May said. “So we figured this was the way to go.”
She said that a $50-per-tonne fee would generate $35 billion in revenue. May said that the Greens would use this to increase the guaranteed income supplement to seniors by 25 percent, cut existing and future student debt in half, and ensure that nobody who earns less than $20,000 would pay any federal income tax.
“It gives us the money to give a GST rebate to people in rural areas who are disproportionately impacted by high energy prices,” May added. “And you cut payroll taxes, so everybody’s paycheque every two weeks is up.”¦For employers, your cost per employee goes down.”
The NDP and Conservative opposition to a carbon tax doesn’t impress Chris Hatch, program manager with PowerUP Canada, which was created by several nongovernmental organizations to encourage positive actions to address climate change. Founders include the Pembina Institute, the Tides Foundation, ForestEthics, and Environmental Defence. Hatch said there has been a “phony debate” over the merits of cap and trade versus a carbon tax, arguing that Canada needs both measures to combat climate change.
“The parties on both the right and the left are doing a real disservice to the country and are poisoning the well by driving this debate, because we are going to need both in the future,” Hatch claimed. “They’re spending millions of dollars on a lot of airtime convincing Canadians that we don’t.”
Hatch claimed that a carbon tax is the most efficient means to reduce emissions. He said that a carbon tax will shift behaviour and possibly persuade automakers to build nonpolluting vehicles. “Right now, you don’t have the option of buying an electric car or getting alternative energy to your house,” Hatch said. “So carbon pricing is a way of harnessing the marketplace to drive that transition.”
SFU business professor Boyd Cohen, a staunch environmentalist, acknowledged in a phone interview with the Straight that the public often resists “any additional perceived taxes or increased costs of living”, particularly during challenging economic times. However, Cohen supports a cap-and-trade system as well as a carbon tax to deal with the climate crisis. “Cap and trade is more targeted at industry,” he said. “Carbon tax tends to be more focused on consumers.”
Canada is responsible for 2.2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, according to Andrew Weaver’s new book, Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World (Viking Canada, $34). Weaver writes that the world emitted 9.9 gigatonnes of carbon in 2006, which was outside the most extreme scenario presented six years earlier by the United Nations-supported Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He notes that the impact of the melting of permafrost, which holds somewhere between 350 billion and 950 billion tonnes of carbon, wasn’t included in any IPCC projections. He writes that if there are 950 billion tonnes of carbon in permafrost and just one percent escaped per year, this would double global annual emissions in the atmosphere.
May said that Harper’s party must be defeated because of his climate-change policies. She cited the International Energy Agency’s projections to support her claim that to avoid a runaway global-warming effect—which could be triggered by the release of methane from northern permafrost—global emissions must peak no later than 2015 and then decline. She said this can only be achieved through negotiations at a global climate conference in Copenhagen, called COP15, in November 2009.
“Mr. Harper must not be the person sending negotiation instructions to the Canadian delegation at COP15, because the UN system is consensus-based,” May said. “And Canada, working with OPEC nations, could derail negotiations that are important for the entire planet, for future generations. That, to me, is the single most important reason why he must not win this election.”
Weaver points out in his book that Canada refused to back the European Union’s call at Bali for reductions of 25 to 40 percent by 2020. He adds that the Harper government also blocked efforts to ensure global emissions peak within 10 to 15 years-precisely what’s necessary to avert a runaway global-warming effect, according to May.
At the Bali climate conference in 2007, the international environmental organization Avaaz bestowed on Canada four “Fossil of the Day” awards for obstructing positive actions. It was the most such awards for any country.