Last week Prince Charles, heir to the throne of England, cancelled a planned skiing holiday under pressure from environmental groups to reduce his “carbon footprint.”
The prince had raised eyebrows by flying to New York to accept an award for his environmental activism.
His Highness, it seems, is now engaged on a great social experiment to determine whether it’s possible to lift your hooves out of the carbon without removing your snout from the trough.
Whether or not the prince masters this feat, there is much to celebrate about the evidence that even an unelected public figure can be made to bow to public pressure.
How much more might be achieved by applying similar pressure to the poor sods who have to go back to the electorate every four years for a sudden-death performance evaluation? This year, even George W. Bush and his Canadian pal, Steve Harper, have heard the call: the people demand action on emissions, and Big Oil’s political champions have to take at least enough action to appear to be taking action.
How is it that, years after the science was conclusive, the danger real and obvious, nobody was willing to take the climate crisis seriously?
Why did Stephane Dion, Liberal leader and self-proclaimed champion of the planet, ignore the issue for more than a decade in cabinet and two years as environment minister? Why did Harper once think he could get away with dumping the meagre environmental programs the Liberals had put in place, and promising a plan that would do more to protect oil profits than to address global warming?
Simple. Public pressure, and therefore political will, were weak or non-existent, in large part due to the false perception that there is scientific controversy about the relationship between greenhouse gasses and global warming.
Recent reports by Britain’s Royal Society and the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists show how oil giant ExxonMobil has for decades spent millions on a “sophisticated and successful disinformation campaign” to create the illusion of controversy. Just as tobacco companies once financed researchers who denied the link between smoking and cancer, ExxonMobil spent $16 million US to buy a phoney debate over climate change.
This comes as no surprise.
ExxonMobil is the biggest publicly traded company in the world. By delaying action on the climate crisis for a decade, they’ve protected billions of dollars in oil profits. What may come as a surprise is that, not satisfied with copying the methods of the tobacco companies, ExxonMobil has often used the same “scientists,” and the same public-relations firms.
Steven Milloy’s Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, created by Philip Morris to play second-hand-smoke-and-mirrors during the ‘90s is now a member of Exxon’s Global Climate Science Team. Frederick Seitz, chair of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, once drew a salary from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. His job was to distribute research funds to projects that would “refute the criticisms against cigarettes.”
These are only two examples of the many professional deniers who made the transition from tobacco to oil. They are joined in the sleaze line by dozens of conservative think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and George Mason University’s Law and Economics Centre, who have taken large donations from tobacco and oil companies, and gone on to spread the false impression of controversy about cancer and climate change.
It worked for tobacco companies for years.
By delaying action on the health risks of cigarette smoking, giant corporations guarded billions in profits from harmful regulation, and contributed to untold numbers of cancer deaths.
The profits from oil are even greater than those from tobacco and the death toll threatens to be commensurately higher.
At present, 39 island nations, Tonga and Tuvalu among them, are at serious risk of disappearing under the rising oceans. We also face the clear possibility of mass species extinction, millions of environmental refugees, the loss of some of the most fertile land on the planet, and increasingly deadly droughts, storms, fires, floods and pandemics.
ExxonMobil is one of the big players in the Canadian oil sands.
So are we, the Canadian public, who subsidize the industry to the tune of billions in tax breaks and turn a blind eye to the environmental cost.
We’re strip-mining the boreal forest, planning to turn nearly a quarter of Alberta into toxic moonscape, sequestering millions of litres of water in giant toxic ponds, and cranking out catastrophic levels of greenhouse gasses.
The system is so inefficient that the real energy return is somewhere between extremely low and non-existent.
Canada needs none of this oil, even if we don’t curb our extravagant consumption.
The projected output of the tar sands for the next 10 years is equal to projected sales to the US.
Public pressure made Prince Charles take a serious look at his own behaviour and its effect on climate change.
Public pressure can force Stephen Harper to take real action on the oil sands, to penalize polluters rather than reward them with tax cuts.
It can make Stephane Dion be honest about the challenges ahead, so far from being a simple matter of “making megatonnes of money” on alternate technologies.
It can force automakers to design efficient cars and make construction companies build efficient houses.
In short, it can change the world.
The prince plans to publish his carbon footprint along with his next budget.
No doubt in anticipation of that publication, he’ll be managing his behaviours to minimize that footprint.
Sooner or later, governments and corporations will be doing the same.
Only public pressure can make that sooner, rather than too late.