A federal election for the planet

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      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 Green party’s Elizabeth May (left) and Adriane Carr, who is running in Vancouver Centre, say a carbon tax will boost pensions and cut student debt.

      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.



      Jerry Boyle

      Sep 26, 2008 at 12:29am

      Howdy friends!

      With less than 3 weeks left until the federal vote, I’d like to invite everyone to participate in a little electoral mischief.

      The idea is to undermine Stephen Harper's control over his image through creative vandalism, to rebrand him through a grassroots, viral and distributed stickering campaign.

      I’ve created various promo stickers combining Harper's blandly psychotic face with micro-slogans pitched somewhere between intrigue and mockery. ("Dinosaurs don't evolve" "Alberta Taliban" etc.) For variety there are a bunch of absurdist quotes - fake headlines well-suited to being slapped on newspaper vending boxes. Examples of both can be seen posted on my Facebook wall, or downloaded from the link at the end of this message.

      Please join me! In hopes of reaching a critical mass, I've tried to make participating as easy as possible:

      1.------------ “The people, divided, shall never be defeated!”

      I’ve created a couple of Microsoft word files which can be downloaded from the link at the end of this message.

      Each file is formatted to print a batch of anti-Harper stickers onto standard 4” x 3 1/3" Avery inkjet labels (label ID# 05164). Both Office Depot and Staples stock Avery labels in this size, 100 sheets (600 labels per box) for around $35 (cheaper for a smaller number of sheets). If you have a computer and a printer, you’re in business.

      While not weatherproof, the Avery labels stand up pretty well to rain, and their adhesive backing sticks to most surfaces. The sticker designs I've posted for download are black and white, both for economy, and because greyscale inkjet printing seems to smear less than colour when wet. The labels are partly perforated, but I find it easier to cut them up with scissors. I like to print about 10 sheets at a time, and slap them up on my way to work, or whenever I'm passing through a different neighborhood.

      2.-------------- "Crowd-sourcing Dissent"

      I hope this action will be open-source as well as distributed, for those who want to participate more fully. To kickstart your own sloganeering, my original Photoshop files for sticker designs can also be downloaded and modified.

      Feel free to change the slogan, swap the picture, add colour, or whatever else you think might make for a punchy message.

      When you’re done save a copy of the new sticker as a PICT or JPEG (rotated 90 degrees to fit the Avery label template) and drag-n-drop it into the Microsoft Word document to replace an old design. Then post your new version to Facebook for others to download and modify. I've created a new discussion board topic called "Sticker Virus" in the facebook group "Canadians United Against Steven Harper" for exchange of designs and other ideas. I suspect we can quickly evolve a sharp and potent message with enough participation.

      3.--------------- "Sloganistas unite!"

      Please forward this message to anyone you think might be sympathetic. Everyone is welcome to join this action. I consider it a non-partisan effort motivated by a revulsion for Stephen Harper which transcends political affiliations. I suspect even one-time Reformers and Progressive Conservatives may share this feeling.

      Unlike Harper, most people can't afford to buy airtime for TV ads. This is a way for ordinary folk to get their message out there for a very small cost. But it needs you to get involved. As one person, I doubt I can have much impact with 600 stickers. But there's over 10,000 people in this group. If only 1 person in 5 participates, that's 2000 folks stickering; 2000 x 600 doses of ridicule; 1.2 million cracks in Harper's smooth and brittle facade.

      Best Regards,
      --Jerry Boyle


      All files can be downloaded from the following location:


      For convenience, this link has also been posted to my Facebook page.

      Alternatively, use the following web-addresses for direct download:

      Description: Microsoft Word stickers - sheet one (mostly slogans):
      Filename: "harper_labels_6_mostly_slogans.doc"
      Size: 0.8 MB
      Tiny-url: http://tinyurl.com/4x2cqt

      Description: Microsoft Word stickers - sheet two (mostly headlines):
      Filename: "harper_labels_6=5_mostly_quotes.doc"
      Size: 0.9 MB
      Tiny-url: http://tinyurl.com/3ufmbo

      Description: Zipped folder of jpeg images used in Microsoft word documents (so you can swap them around if desired and just print your favorites):
      Size: 1.9 MB
      Tiny-url: http://tinyurl.com/44tyfk

      Description: Zipped folders of photoshop images for modification:
      Filename: "Harper_photoshop_upload_all.zip"
      Size: 17.6 MB
      Tiny-url: http://tinyurl.com/5yemp6

      Facebook Wall: http://www.new.facebook.com/home.php#/profile.php?id=1489465173&ref=name


      Sep 26, 2008 at 5:08pm

      I'm really annoyed by the fact that this NDP candidate gets a huge picture at the beginning of an article about climate change and the election, even though the article goes on to quote experts saying that we need both cap and trade and carbon tax. Mike Byers makes himself sound like a total flake by expressing his great concern for the environment and then going on to make a foolish remark about how it would be unreasonable to implement carbon tax now because the cost of fossil fuel is higher than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Is he smiling in his photo because he doesn't know what the hell is going on and is just parroting back his party's stupid lines? Yes, it would have been nice if we could have implemented a carbon tax 10 or 15 years ago, if we had had the foresight. But the situation is urgent now and it is needed, even if fuel costs more. The Green Party, who advocate both cap and trade and carbon tax as suggested by the experts and are rated as the best environmental platform by the Sierra Club (note: the NDP is third place, behind the Liberals) should have a big picture of one of their candidates at the beginning of the article, beside the headline "An election for the planet", rather than on the second page of the article (which happens to be the page where the experts point out that we need both cap and trade and carbon tax).

      Charlie Smith

      Sep 26, 2008 at 6:49pm

      The comment above deserves a response. I can understand the irritation when reading this on the Web site. In the newspaper version, it's more understandable. Byers leads the article, so his photo appeared on the lead page. Elizabeth May's comments appeared on the turn page, so she and Adriane Carr appeared on the turn page. Stephane Dion's photo appeared in a separate story in the same paper, in which the Liberal leader slammed Stephen Harper for being a "dangerous ideologue". So if you pick up this week's edition of the Georgia Straight, all three opposition parties in B.C. get a fair shake, in my opinion. The article points out that the NDP opposes a carbon tax. I elaborated on that in this blog posting: http://www.straight.com/article-164132/hard-questions-ndp-leaders-carole...
      Here's the link to the article about Stephane Dion:

      Charlie Smith
      Georgia Straight


      Sep 26, 2008 at 8:09pm

      I sincerely appreciate the response. I initially read the story in the newspaper version and then came to the website to respond. I suppose this leads me to the question of why Byers leads the story in the first place. If the story is intended to be about climate change as it relates to the federal election, I would expect that the party that receives the most prominent placement in the story would be the one that has the best environmental platform. Readers who make it to the second page of the article will be rewarded with information that will help them to make an informed voting decision as far as climate change is concerned. However, those who give the newspaper a cursory glance over will only see a large photo of Byers next to the headline. I suppose I just don't see the logic behind choosing an NDP candidate over a Green or even a Liberal candidate.

      Charlie Smith

      Sep 27, 2008 at 1:18am

      Byers leads the story because his presentation provided one of the most vivid anecdotes of the importance of climate change. I wrestled with this because I'm aware that the Greens and the Liberals are arguing for a carbon tax. But Byers's description of the scientists' fear was a good way to get readers' hooked into this issue. I wanted people to get to the end, and sometimes the best way to do this is by engaging people emotionally at the start of a feature article. I might have led with Elizabeth May or Stephane Dion had those interviews yielded this type of anecdote, but they didn't. Michael Byers has been speaking out forcefully about climate change for many years, so I felt he was a legitimate person to include off the top of the article. The piece contained some criticism of the NDP's climate-change policies, so I don't feel it was unbalanced. I had considered putting Stephane Dion's photo or Elizabeth May's photo at the start of the piece, but I liked the image of Byers standing in front of a map of Arctic ice. I don't think the previous comment lacks legitimacy, however. The writer makes some good points that I will keep in mind for the future.
      Charlie Smith


      Sep 27, 2008 at 4:21pm

      I appreciate the fact that the author, Charlie Smith, has responded to concerns about leading this web version with Byers picture. It is extremely frustrating that someone like Byers, who I assume is intelligent and understands the urgency of addressing climate change, is actually working against Canada doing anything. The NDP's cap and trade will take years to implement (EU took about a decade to get a near-working system and the Western Initiative is hoping to cut that down to 4 or 5 years). Meanwhile, the NDP's cap and trade plan is very sketchy and would require enormous effort just to turn into a credible plan that one could have any confidence in implementing. Their targets are completely disconnected from their cap and trade plan itself.

      I communicated with Byers, hoping that as an intelligent person he would elevate the NDP above their silly political carbon pricing sloganeering which is misleading at best. Unfortunately, his response showed me that he is a politician first. Is it impossible to be an honest and credible politician and discuss carbon pricing these days? Dion and May seem to be trying, but the first is ridiculed and the second is ignored in the MSM.


      Sep 27, 2008 at 5:33pm

      What I'd like to know is, if virtually "everyone" is on the Green bandwagon, then why do they avert their eyes when discussing the Green Party. Every other party has demonstrated in the past (the Conservatives and Liberals federally, and the NDP provincially) that election promises are considered "optional" in their implementation. So what is the objection to voting Green -- if only to see if this party is just "more of the same", instead of "none of the above"?


      Sep 28, 2008 at 11:31am

      Rick, there are committed Green Party voters. Beyond this, there are lots of reasons environmentalists vote for other parties.

      I plan to vote Liberal simply because of Dion. I know he is committed to the environment and his plan is similar to the Green plan, but starts slower. He explains this is to bring Canadians and the economy along and I agree, since I know every country with carbon pricing has adjusted it multiple times. A plan which negatively disrupted the economy in the first couple years would likely cause more harm than good. The most important thing is to start right now with a thoughtful plan.

      I have concerns that Dion is more committed than the LIberal party as a whole, but I fugure it is important to support them just at the time they have a leader committed to the right values. Otherwise I would feel a responsibility if the Liberals moved away from this commitment in the future. Similarly I feel to continue to support the NDP with Layton's lack of commitment, would encourage the NDP not to recommit to taking a principled stand on climate change.

      Some environmentalists have abandoned the NDP because of its opposition to any carbon tax while others remain because (in my view) they haven't seen the erosion in Layton's commitment or don't yet know what to make of it or think he will be more committed after the electioneering is over.

      Some environmentalists will try to vote strategically riding by riding because Harper is a serious threat to taking action on climate change.