what were they thinking

This could be our "What were they thinking?" moment. I'm talking about the Durban climate change debacle, where the planet's governments made a deal to continue to work towards another deal that might come into force in a decade or so. Or maybe not.

This could be our “What were they thinking?” moment. I’m talking about the Durban climate change debacle, where the planet’s governments made a deal to continue to work towards another deal that might come into force in a decade or so. Or maybe not.

Reading history, one often wonders, “What were they thinking?” Vietnam, the Trojan War, the appeasers in the 1930s or even the British villagers who threw down their swords to defend their village with prayer from marauding Vikings (it didn’t turn out well, in case you didn’t learn that one in school).

Barbara Tuchman wrote a book on this called March of Folly. Her definition of folly had three parts: there had to be people pointing out what a bad idea it was at the time, not just in hindsight; there had to be a feasible alternative plan; and there had to be a group involved, not just a single mad leader.

Climate change policy meets Tuchman’s first test. There has been a huge amount of publicity and debate over the last decade over whether we should reduce carbon emissions and what might happen if we don’t. If climate disaster strikes in the future, we won’t be able to say we didn’t know about it.

However, we don’t know for sure if the dire predictions of climate change analysts will come true. The fact that so many scientists think something serious is going on makes me worried. However, there is, I suppose, the possibility that we can continue to burn fossil fuels in huge quantities with no serious consequences. The growing weight of scientific opinion makes this easy escape less and less likely, but let’s think about it for a moment.

The environmental debate of the 1970s is an interesting example. Back then, the “environmental establishment,” if I can call it that, was campaigning against resource consumption. Reprising Thomas Malthus’ 19th-century arguments, environmentalists were worried that rapid population growth and environmental degradation would result in calamitous food shortages. Like the climate change advocates of today, they had plenty of convincing studies, data and charts.

But the threat never materialized. Thanks to more land being cultivated and better seeds, pesticides and technique, food production has boomed. We have so much food on the planet that we now make fuel for our cars out of it (although fair food distribution remains an issue).

Some climate change deniers like to recount this story to discredit today’s climate change advocates. But from a “folly” point of view, the two situations are quite different. The key point is the risk of being wrong. Policy makers in 1970 could afford to move slowly on food production, because they knew that any food shortages would cause a systemic positive response; ie., shortages would lead to higher prices which would spur investment in food production. The planet has significant unused food-growing capacity. Think of all the fallow land, golf courses, flower nurseries, not to mention the amount of food fed to animals.

Climate change is different. If we ignore the issue and are wrong, there is no positive response mechanism. In fact, it’s the opposite. The carbon we pump into the atmosphere has a lagged effect, so the billions of tonnes we’ll put into the air over the next decade will hurt us in future decades even if we suddenly decide to take the issue seriously.

Furthermore, the downside risk is big. Consider just one example: the Himalaya glaciers. Huge rivers the size of the Yukon River flow north, south, east and west out of that giant mountain range. Estimates vary, but around three billion people in about 20 countries live in the watersheds of these rivers. Consider the mayhem if some of these rivers dry up, or even just change their seasonal behaviour.

Tuchman would ask next if we had a feasible alternative. Clearly we do. Hydro, wind, nuclear and solar power all exist and are already in commercial production. Same with electric heat, electric cars, and so on. These technologies may cost more than oil, coal and natural gas, but they represent a feasible alternative. And it’s worth remembering that while they may cost more now, the cost of climate change later could be even higher.

Tuchman’s last point on group involvement applies very well to climate change. We had over 180 countries involved at Durban and here in Canada the issue has been debated prominently in the last several federal elections.

In Durban, some Canadian youth activists were ejected from the Canadian minister’s speech for protesting while wearing “People before Polluters” T-shirts (silkscreened by the Yukon’s very own Malkolm Boothroyd).

I fear these shirts go too easy on the “people.” In Canada, in many ways, the people are the polluters. We are the ones who burn gas to drive, burn oil to heat our homes and buy SUV-loads of energy-intensive products.

Canadian politicians have picked up on this. The Tories run what is said to be the most sophisticated voter-opinion research in the country. They know in excruciating detail how important (read: not that important) reducing carbon emissions is to millions of Canadian voters. The NDP under Jack Layton also campaigned ruthlessly – and cynically – against Stephane Dion’s carbon tax in the 2008 election. The B.C. NDP also scored easy political points fighting the carbon tax in B.C. Since their 2008 federal election defeat, the federal Liberals have shied away from carbon taxes.

In effect, the three big political parties think that Canadian voters have heard a lot about climate change, and won’t support a platform that has tough enough carbon policies to significantly change our behaviour in the near term.

So we had better hope the scientists are wrong on climate change. Because if they’re right, we’re all going to be in the sequel to Barbara Tuchman’s book.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.