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The Alberta provincial election is a case study of the collective Canadian avoidance of climate change.
Albertans are told to focus on either cutting various government programs or making deficit expenditures on new social programs, arguing about the pros and cons of taxes (especially carbon taxes), and a generalized hope for a return of high oil prices and thus provincial royalties.
Both major parties focus on the oil industry as the assumed economic driver of the next four years. The broad-scale economic diversification needed to wean the province from oil and an already warming future is simply voiced, at best. No serious planning is being done.
While there are discussions of climate change policies, they’re seen in a rather narrow context. And they don’t factor in the impact of Alberta oil sales to other countries where downstream combustion and carbonization ultimately occurs.
There’s even room for climate change denial by candidates of some parties.
And, most disturbing, while economic diversification is ritually mentioned, there’s no detailed, peer-reviewed and actionable plan for voters to consider. The debate is philosophically framed at best.
All this makes you wonder if democracy is up for the major challenge facing us all: we’ve recently been told that we have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn’t mince its words. If we want to keep global temperature increases between 1.5C and 2C by the end of this century, we have to mount a global mobilization parallel to that of preparing to fight the Second World War.
A growing public literature now joins the peer-reviewed science on this topic. For the laity, which includes about 99 per cent of politicians, the best in class is David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019). Its first sentence is becoming famous: “It’s worse, much worse, than you think.”
Such language is absent from our political debate. The collective message in Alberta is more about building pipelines to tidewater and revitalizing the oil patch, whether you’re a horrid socialist or a raging, populist conservative.
What surprises me the most is the degree to which late premier Peter Lougheed’s avant-garde policy thinking is so missing now, when it’s so needed. He led the way to Heritage Savings Trust Fund establishment, and started the conversations and work on economic diversification on agricultural, technological, transportation and tourism fronts, and associated university and technical institute program expansion, in the early 1970s and 1980s.
Somehow, after Lougheed’s departure from public office, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives veered into personal financial and corporate aggrandizement, and away from government’s role in planning for the common good.
It was as if Lougheed had never existed at the height of the Ralph Klein era, when Ralph bucks and hospital demolition drew crowds of supporters to celebrate spending down the Heritage Fund. And throughout, the supposed evils of provincial sales taxes enabled “the Alberta advantage.”
Look where that philosophy got Alberta.
So what to do?
First, we need to do some basic research. The $30-million expenditure advocated by United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney to combat those who would deprecate the oil and gas sector would be better spent reviewing and visiting places worldwide that have gone through successful economic reconceptualizing after resource-based closures have altered their economic base.
Start in B.C. with towns that once relied on world-class pulp mills to drive their economies. In places like Powell River, Port Alberni and Nanaimo, these pulp mills had to be completely retooled, putting thousands out of work.
Today the workforce has redeployed. Skills are put to use in a variety of locally-owned manufacturing businesses. Others have created choral, jazz, visual art, film and symphony festivals. And yet others have developed new ecotourism ventures that enthral international visitors.
The combination of thriving small business, arts and tourism sectors have also enhanced the retirement appeal for thousands of Albertans who have made Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast their new homes over the last 20 years.
In the quest to combat climate change and rebuild a sustainable economic future, there are powerful examples right next door. They aren’t perfect but they’re worthy of close study.
I’m doing that right now with my new neighbours in Powell River, many of whom I worked with in Calgary in the glory days of the oil patch.
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