Cost cannot be an obstacle to combating climate change

Kyle Carruthers Special for the News With the exception of some resistant pockets of dissent, most reasonable people have come to accept the reality that human activity is warming the planet. The science is at once dead simple and incredibly complicated.

Kyle Carruthers

Special for the News

With the exception of some resistant pockets of dissent, most reasonable people have come to accept the reality that human activity is warming the planet.

The science is at once dead simple and incredibly complicated. The basic mechanics of climate change are not overly complicated: increases in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are trapping more heat from the sun. That added heat is melting ice, whipping up increasingly violent weather and changing weather patterns around the world.

The details of and timeline for these changes are beyond the scope of my education, so I am forced to rely on is the say-so of those with a deeper understanding of the science. Unfortunately, those people seem nearly unanimous that this is a problem of today, not tomorrow, and that urgent action is required now.

Climate change used to be an issue that made me depressed. I accepted it to be true but felt powerless to stop it. So I pretended “it wasn’t that bad” and carried on with life hoping that my expiration date would predate the worst of the disruption caused by climate change. (Optimistic, I know.)

Then something changed – my son was born. Suddenly, my horizon had moved and I became concerned for the continuation of humanity extended beyond the 2060s (my estimated departure time from this rock we call Earth). Now climate change makes me angry.

There are two groups in society that hold the rest of us back from taking real action to combat the threat of climate change – those who deny the very science of climate change, and those who accept the science but propose we do nothing meaningful about it because “it is too expensive.” The first group is a shrinking minority in our society with whom I have given up trying to reason with.

The second group is much more problematic because “it is too expensive” is an incredibly powerful political argument. Few issues move votes in politics like pocketbook issues. How does this affect my paycheque and my household budget? We are all in favour of better health care, better education, and better support for the truly needy in society until we see how much it costs. Then we get worked up, plead poverty (“I can’t pay any more”) and get indignant about “waste,” “fat cat” politicians and entitled bureaucrats. Nothing motivates us to “throw the bums out” like a new tax or an expense indirectly imposed by government regulation.

Just look at the effect that the GST had on the government of Brian Mulroney. The GST alone cannot explain Mulroney’s epic collapse from 151 seats in the House of Commons to two, but it was unquestionably a significant contributing factor. And for what? A (then) seven per cent tax that is not charged on many of the necessities of life, that should only be a minor nuisance for most everyday purchases (unless you are purchasing a new vehicle or home), and that pulled the country back from the fiscal brink?

Unfortunately when it comes to climate change, “it is too expensive” is simply not going to cut it as an excuse for inaction. Al Gore called climate change an “inconvenient truth.” It is hard to imagine a descriptor that could be more apt. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will be expensive and disruptive.

But the time to pay the piper is here. (If it has not already come and gone. The piper may have already sent the debt to a collection agency) It was a great carbon-fueled party while it lasted, but it is time we face reality. The best-case scenario for climate change: the long-term costs of coping with the effects of climate change dwarf the medium-term cost of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Worst-case scenario: we all die! The choices could not be more stark.

Sacrifices will need to be made. Treasure will need to be spent. Rules will need to be created that may hit us in the pocketbook and hurt the economy. Would we say “it is too expensive” if we had the misfortune of being an uninsured American in need of a triple bypass? No. We would sell our house, sell our car, cash in our savings and run up the credit line to get it done. Given the stakes involved, no cost should be too high to combat climate change.

Unfortunately this is one of those issues that government will need to take the lead on. The utopian lefties who think that if we lead by example everyone will follow and naive right-wingers who think that the free market will straighten it out are both wrong. There is no way that voluntary, individual action is going to fix this problem.

There is only one institution in society that can fix this problem, and it is the one with the power to make rules that are binding on everyone and that can force compliance: government. Until governments step up and show that they take this issue seriously (and they haven’t) there is no hope.

I’m not prepared to let politicians off the hook. Both our federal and territorial leaders have demonstrated an outrageous lack of leadership on this issue – making long-term promises for minor reductions in CO2 output that they have no intention of keeping. But at the same time we live in a democracy, and there is no doubt that politicians have recoiled from real action out of fear of the electorate’s wrath. After all, we have an aversion to anything that affects our pocketbooks.

So while this is an issue that may inspire a feeling of helplessness, we do have the power. The next time someone tells us that “it is too expensive” to fight climate change, I would suggest we say, “No, it isn’t.”

Kyle Carruthers is born and raised Yukoner who lives and practices law in Whitehorse.

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