Carbon Free by 2100: Stephen Harper’s Non-Committal Commitment

By H. Grant Timms

Most governments are exercises in contradiction between electoral platforms and performance, and often they try to convince people that the apparent contradiction isn’t one. Take, for example, the Harper government’s positioning on the military; they want us to believe they are pro-military, that they honour military service. To be sure the PM is sure to be conspicuously present at Remembrance Day, D-Day and other commemorative ceremonies. But at the same time the government has a well-earned reputation for short-shifting or even abandoning veterans in need by closing Veterans Affairs offices and subjecting disabled veterans to the Victorian welfare doctrine of “less eligibility.”

Then there are examples that cannot be called contradictions, exactly, but require Orwellian ‘double-think’ to accord the government some credibility.
And then there are times when government becomes farcical, or ridiculous.

In light of the above the PM’s performance on the issue of carbon emissions at the recent G7 is tough to characterise. One could suggest that to believe the present government has shown an interest in emission reductions, and has been working hard on a ‘made in Canada’ solution while emissions rise requires some double-thinking. To believe that the PM and his government takes seriously the issue of global warming, and believes the carbon-burning activity of human beings is the chief cause, requires the ability to deny that a contradiction is one — because at the same time the government has in place a long-standing policy of de-funding and censoring independent scientific work. Additionally, one cannot be sure if the PM intended his ‘commitment’ to a carbon-free Canada to be taken seriously; perhaps he too realised that the 2100 date was farcical.

Germany, France, Britain, and even the USA, it seems, wanted the G7 to focus on global warming, and were prepared to discuss, if not commit to, the goal of completely eliminating carbon emissions by the year 2050. There appeared to be a commitment to new, hard reduction targets, to start now. However, Canada and Japan refused to accept the 2050 date and insisted it be pushed back to 2100. Canada along with Japan also refused to accept proposals for reduction targets; that is, Mr. Harper refused to accept any targets.

The PM excused his reticence by noting that Canada is a resource-based (or resource dependent) economy. Just so. It always has been the case. First furs, then timber, minerals and cod, now oil and gas. The PM wants us to know that he is a practical man and a realist. He is, as well, a neo-liberal, and one recalls that it was the neo-liberal economists who, beginning in the 1990s, insisted that the resource-based economy was being obsolesced. They scolded organised labour and those who had jobs in resource industries advising them to re-train because change was coming whether they liked it or not. It was an issue of technological survival of the fittest. They were wrong – or at least premature. What was demised was Canadian manufacturing connected to the resource based economy. The country has done little or nothing to wean itself off its dependence on resource jobs. Instead, we wait for the resources to be exhausted.

As I watched the press conference, a tweet scrolled across the screen noting that in 2100 Stephen Harper will by 147 years old. I suppose it is possible he will still be alive then, however remote the possibility is. But the Tweeter’s point was well taken; by pointing this out, s/he indicated how ridiculous, and meaningless, the PM’s 2100 date was in contrast to the 2050 date.

The 2050 date meant that significant action on emission reductions would have to be taken now; 2100 is a formula for deferral, for doing nothing. The 2050 date is soon enough in the future to make it relevant for the present, because 2050 is the foreseeable future. Some of us that are of Stephen Harper’s generation might still be alive; most of our children will be, and certainly our grandchildren will be. A 2050 date is real. However, in practical terms the ‘commitment’ for 2100 is as meaningless to Mr. Harper as it is to me or anyone of our generation – or the next, or perhaps even the one after that. The ‘commitment’ is meaningless because it is pushed far enough into the future that neither he nor his government – even if re-elected in the fall, and even re-elected again in 2019, 2023, 2027, 2031 and yet again in 2035 (by which time Mr. Harper will be past 80) will be committed to do anything to meet reduction targets — because, well, there are no targets.

What seems clear is that under pressure from the other leaders Mr. Harper could no longer publicly deny that global warming is a critical issue, and that carbon emissions are the main contributor to it. But by deferring the target date for the elimination of carbon emissions to 2100, he sent a clear message to the carbon industry that, with respect to new hard targets his position has remained ‘not as long as I am Prime Minister.’

In any event, the Canada’s ‘commitment’ is a kind of, sort of commitment, a gesture toward a commitment at some future but as yet undetermined date at which time we’ll begin reducing carbon emissions. To call this a commitment requires some double-thinking: its a non-committal commitment. Or it is a parody of a commitment, it makes a joke, a mockery of the word commitment.

A number of journalists and commentators opined that at least, finally, Mr. Harper acknowledged that carbon was a problem, and that we had to rid ourselves of carbon dependency. Who would have expected that from Mr. Harper even a year ago? The PM had never said anything like this before.

But then Mr. Harper has never said that Canada will set up a colony on Mars by 2100 either.

[Photo Credit: Gerard Van der Leun/Flickr]