Stephen Harper on low carbon technology

by Milan on September 24, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Economics, Renewables

In an ironic statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently said that: “Ultimately, a transition to alternative fuels is inevitable and I’m convinced that the way to handle it is to develop new technologies in an orderly way, not in a crisis.”

I agree. The transition is inevitable and there is every reason to start soon and work with ever-increasing seriousness to move beyond fossil fuels.

The irony in Harper’s statement, of course, is that what he proposes is the opposite of what Canada’s government is doing. Canada has never had an effective federal climate change policy. As such, there is nothing driving the gradual development and deployment of low-carbon technologies. Rather, Canada’s government is doing everything it can to protect fossil fuel industries and promote the expansion of the oil sands.

Unless humanity sharply curbs its emissions of greenhouse gases, climate change will eventually be an obvious crisis all around the world. It would be at that point – after years of inaction and delay – that moving to new technologies would need to be done “in a crisis” rather than in the orderly way that is possible if we start now.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan September 25, 2010 at 9:38 am

Why is this ironic at all? The forces placed upon his position dictate that he should act against the survival of the species long after he’s realized what the “right thing to do is”. It’s the same problem as the CEO of RBC has – if he were to do the right thing, he would be thrown out.

Stop thinking anyone is “in charge”.

Milan September 25, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Industry has been opposed every time environmental policy was ever tightened. They claimed that stopping acid rain or ozone depletion would bankrupt them. And yet, politicians were convinced to push forward with legislation, and it ended up costing a lot less than industry had claimed.

We can do the same thing – on a bigger scale – with greenhouse gases.

Tristan September 25, 2010 at 6:28 pm

That’s a naive view for reasons I’ve pointed out before – in the past it’s been one wing of the business party against the other. In the case of global warming, there stands to be profit losses across the board, in every industry – increased energy costs means decreased consumption and decreased profits. It also means an increase in the savings rate, which capitalism hates because the decreased savings rate is the only thing feeding the consumer economy since real wages have stagnated for 30-40 years.

The entire business community is, for good reason, opposed to policies which will hurt the entire business community on the time scale it cares about (short term profit). The values are institutional – they are not a product of many business people being bad people and hating their children. But rather, if they acted otherwise, they would (in general, there are always exceptions) be fired.

Tristan September 25, 2010 at 6:29 pm

It beggars belief that your political analysis of climate change still seems to be based on the model of your analysis of particular accumulation in the Arctic, or “acid rain”. The political situation could not be more different.

Milan September 26, 2010 at 2:22 am

The most comprehensive, credible economic analyses have concluded that the cost of mitigation is relatively low.

You can keep pointing out reasons why it is politically difficult to deal with climate change, or you can accept that the arguments for action are very strong and need to be made convincingly to politicians and policy-makers alike.

Tristan September 26, 2010 at 1:33 pm

And you can keep pretending that political and business leaders strive to act in the medium or long term benefit of the common good, or even just of the “economy”. The reality is the precise opposite: business is totally against policies which are good for the economy if they stand to hurt them in the short term.

Look, for instance, at the absurd anti-Keysian position the financial lobby, and even the mainstream business party have taken in response to the economic crisis. Look at Stephen Harper at the G8 pushing austerity! This is not in any big-picture long term or medium term interest, this is in the interest of a tiny minority who are attempting to keep hold of power they have no inalienable right to. According to Krugman, even Obama’s “massive” stimulus package melts into air when you look closely at state budgets and all the cuts happening at the same time – all he’s succeeded in doing is preventing outright contractionist economic policy.

Political leaders, business parties, act regularly in ways totally against even their own (as a group) long term interest. You can’t convince them to act in a way a normal person would consider rational because the overriding value is individual short term profit. So, any policy which will shake things up, which will benefit one part of the business party against the part which currently holds sway, is politically impossible.

Milan September 26, 2010 at 8:21 pm

What approach would you recommend, for driving the emergence of sound climate change policy in Canada?

Tristan September 26, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Grass roots democratizing activity. Capture pacification campaigns (“try to be a more sustainable consumer) and turn them into political campaigns (“vote for the survival of the species”).

Run grassroots candidates with no big business support who speak clearly and truthfully about the existing aristocracy, and the perversity of societies based on pushing the value of short term financial gain above all other human values. Promote other essential human values, like caring for others, and not seeking personal benefit at the expense of tyranny and domination.

I don’t see a difference between the motives that should make us act on climate change, and the motives that should move us towards libertarian socialism, or any sort of society based on the values of traditional liberalism. Trying to force these projects apart simply increases the chance humanity will destroy itself through the conflicts which are produced by and benefit elites.

Tristan September 26, 2010 at 11:11 pm

And what do you mean “Canada”? Canada is just another state, built on genocide, racist exploitation, class war, and the production of consent for state sponsored murder and slavery. It might be well above average – but it’s nothing to be proud of, and it’s something to work, in the long run, towards dissolving. Sure, things like carbon emissions will need to be centrally administered – but most other state functions (policing, defence, administration of resources, labour practices, community projects etc…) can and should be passed onto the communities that they affect.

We’ve been taught since childhood that we need a “state”, and right now we do, but we can also seriously work towards institutions and administrations that leave more and more of life up to the people doing the living.

Milan September 27, 2010 at 7:57 am

That doesn’t seem promising to me.

Climate change seems like just the sort of problem that states are well equipped to deal with, once they are inclined to do so. Individual communities are not well placed to design or build the kind of massive renewably-based energy generation, storage, and transmission systems we require. Nor can they apply the kind of across-the-board economic incentives that are needed.

Furthermore, climate change is a complex technical issue that isn’t well suited to being addressed through the bottom-up activities of individuals. We need to be tracking emissions and land use changes at a global level, and coordinating the reduction of emissions at the same scale.

All that said, people are very welcome to try to tackle climate change in a disaggregated way. Such efforts may dovetail with efforts at the state level.

Milan September 27, 2010 at 9:00 am

The electricity grid seems like a good demonstration of how even provinces aren’t large enough to deal with climate change. A global approach would be better, but is infeasible at this point. Later, we can aspire to having national systems knit together in exchange for dropping tariffs.

I admit that the electricity grid was designed before climate change was a major policy issue, but the way it is all split up and uncoordinated seems similar to how locally-driven climate policies would look.

We need to have incentives set at the highest level where strong coercive power exists – states – and then let smaller institutional structures handle much of the implementation.

. September 27, 2010 at 11:28 am

“Indeed, the standard argument against strong action today from people who almost understand the science (and those who don’t understand it at all) is that humans are simply incapable of doing what is necessary — or that unrestricted burning of fossil fuels is necessary for continued economic growth. In fact, unrestricted burning of fossil fuels is the one guaranteed path to collapse (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“) And it is not beyond the capability — or desire — of most Americans to act, it is mainly a failure of leadership, along with a shameful disinformation campaign”

Tristan September 27, 2010 at 12:02 pm

As usual, your response reveals a catastrophic misreading of my comments.

“Sure, things like carbon emissions will need to be centrally administered – but most other state functions (policing, defence, administration of resources, labour practices, community projects etc…) can and should be passed onto the communities that they affect.”

Milan September 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm

But you think the community level implementation can happen before the state level incentive setting?

Tristan September 27, 2010 at 12:20 pm

TO return to the earlier topic, it is in a sense deeply mysterious that business is not overwhelmingly in favour of climate change mitigation. According to Krugman, most of the analysis shows that the result of serious CC legislation would stimulate the economy in the short term.

To understand what prevents the legislation, therefore, it is simply necessary to understand why business votes against its own interest – i.e. in attempting to block (in effect successfully) Obama’s stimulus bill.

The simple reason why these decisions should be made by the people, and not by the business aristocracy, is that normal humans – when not motivated by short term greed – are quite good at deliberating about long term consequences, making sacrifices for future goods, and recognizing their good in common with the common good. Normal humans know it’s wrong to enslave children. But, humans who work for most chocolate firms implicitly act as if it is ok. The problem is the structures of domination – there is nothing inherently wrong with the people who happen to find themselves in these positions.

Milan September 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm

So what practical things should people like you and I be doing to reduce the gap between what Harper said and what Canada is doing?

Tristan September 27, 2010 at 12:57 pm

“But you think the community level implementation can happen before the state level incentive setting?”

I think “the state” is the apparatus which the people need to capture, so that the most important current projects can be put into play (stopping environmental and nuclear crises). Devolution can’t happen until the structure of private tyranny has been tamed and replaced by different economic structures. At present, those calling for devolution tend to be big corporations – and for good reason, it is much easier to banana-republic a state government than the federal government.

Most of the functions which I think can and should be, in the long term, devolved, do not concern energy or carbon emissions – and for good reasons. In fact, you’ve already pointed some of them out:

“The electricity grid seems like a good demonstration of how even provinces aren’t large enough to deal with climate change. A global approach would be better, but is infeasible at this point. Later, we can aspire to having national systems knit together in exchange for dropping tariffs.”

Tristan September 27, 2010 at 12:59 pm

“So what practical things should people like you and I be doing to reduce the gap between what Harper said and what Canada is doing?”

Grassroots organizing, activism, and education about the catastrophe which the current political order is bringing us towards.

The fact that our current leaders believe in climate change means that the primary block is not ideology in people’s inner life (i.e. the story Hitler told about himself), but ideology in the structures of domination and control (despite everyone’s moral inner beliefs, we continue to plow on towards destruction).

Milan September 27, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Right now, many educated people in Canada believe that the science behind climate change is dubious, or that the cost of dealing with climate change would be ruinous. Saying that we need to abandon capitalism feeds the latter belief. It is also inappropriate, given the strong arguments in favour of incremental change based on increasingly strong incentives.

It seems to me that the most important task, right now, is to convince influential people that we need to take action on climate change and that the problem can be solved with the tools and technologies we already have, and without imposing intolerable changes or burdens on people.

If those things become widely believed, perhaps we will finally be able to create the necessary laws and regulations.

Milan September 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm

We don’t really disagree all that much.

You think a wider group of people should be targeted, and that the message should be that only radical changes in our political and economic system can deal with the problem. I think it makes sense to be more focused, and to highlight how we can make a strong start without major costs, and without sweeping institutional changes.

Tristan September 27, 2010 at 11:08 pm

“Saying that we need to abandon capitalism feeds the latter belief. It is also inappropriate, given the strong arguments in favour of incremental change based on increasingly strong incentives.”

“Capitalism” refers to the political system which is opposed to incremental change, because each increment makes their shareholders more unhappy. The tumultuous period of adjustment which capitalism is fully capable of undergoing is therefore opposed by all capitalists – in exactly the same way that capitalism eschews competition whenever possible.

You can’t just say “give them strong incentives” – you’d have to say “they should give themselves strong incentives”. Because there is no gap between the capitalists and the government. That’s why this is a time of troubles.

Tristan September 28, 2010 at 6:01 pm

“You think a wider group of people should be targeted”

What group do you think should be targeted? People who would be fired if they put your advice into practice?

Milan September 28, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Both politicians and industry leaders need to recognize that restrictions on emissions are ultimately necessary. While you’re right to say that a CEO would have a tough time implementing large unilateral cuts in their firm’s emissions, having large numbers of executives pushing for fair and effective carbon pricing mechanisms would change the political situation dramatically.

Firms in Europe are already doing far more than those in North America, and seem to be doing less politically to block tougher regulations down the road.

Milan September 28, 2010 at 6:39 pm

The relative importance of industries is also shifting. Since 2008, the American wind industry has employed more people than the coal industry.

Milan September 28, 2010 at 6:49 pm

It would also help a great deal if some problematic libertarian think tanks could be discredited in the way they deserve. On issue after issue, they have argued that regulation was unnecessary because there was no problem: on tobacco smoke (direct and second hand), acid rain, ozone depletion, DDT, etc. Now, they are doing it on climate change.

Of course, the fact that some scientific predictions of danger have proven well founded doesn’t mean that all the worries people have are justified.

Tristan September 29, 2010 at 9:50 am

“having large numbers of executives pushing for fair and effective carbon pricing mechanisms would change the political situation dramatically.”

Don’t you think the most likely way of this coming to reality is public pressure against these institutions? Do you not think thousands of people protesting against RBC makes them look hard for other investments that might pay close to as well? If the education and smear campaign is strong enough, it imposes a real cost on those companies offending – a real cost which will be reflected on their balance sheets when they try to get out of dirty investments that have been exposed.

The reason why I’m right and you’re wrong is you want to situate the rightness of the action in the deliberation of the CEO, whereas I want to situate it in the context we produce for him. I don’t think a CEO can ever act on his conscience – so the only way to prevent corporations from attempting to slowly destroy the world is education, and ideally massive divestment campaigns against corporations that publicly support the destruction of the species.

Now, this is still imperfect – because corporations can externalize risk onto the poor or future populations in ways the public is not educated about at no cost. And, doing this education work is difficult – so they’ll always be ahead of us. But on this one issue (carbon), it is possible to with enough public pressure, force banks out of dirty investments.

Unfortunately, what we really need is a “good” bank to champion, to promote people move their money out of RBC and into.

Milan September 29, 2010 at 10:11 am

One problem with climate change is that it lacks a cohesive block of people who are naturally very concerned about it. The civil rights movement succeeded largely because of the huge numbers of people it was able to mobilize – people who were directly and personally affected by laws on voting, workplace rights, etc.

Most of the people who will be strongly affected by climate change are (a) overseas, (b) poor, or (c) not yet born. By contrast, most of the general public isn’t fired up enough about the issue to do anything about it.

Convincing the elite that action needs to be taken is certainly a necessary task. Having it become socially unacceptable to adopt climate denier and delayer positions would be a significant step forward.

Milan September 29, 2010 at 10:45 am

One way to put pressure on business executives is to threaten them with the possibility of something worse than what is on offer.

I have heard lots of people speculate that the possibility of EPA regulation of greenhouse gases in the United States could drive industry to prefer a legislated cap-and-trade solution. Of course, they will push for a horribly corrupt system based around giving free (but valuable) emission permits to the biggest polluters.

. October 21, 2010 at 1:56 pm

“We haven’t finished all of the analysis,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a crowd at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco Friday evening. “But we are inclined to do so.”

She said the U.S. is “either going to be dependent on dirty oil from the Gulf or dirty oil from Canada.

That will continue to be the case “until we can get our act together as a country and figure out that clean, renewable energy is in both our economic interests and the nterests of our planet,” she said.

“It’s a very hard balancing act,” she said. “But … energy security requires that I look at all of the factors that we have to consider while we try to expedite as much as we can America’s move toward clean, renewable energy.”

. November 10, 2010 at 11:45 am

Yes, really. Stephen Harper, the Honourable Member from Oil Sands and Mordor, said climate change is “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.”

He said that in 2007. Which is only three years ago. Technically, at least. Politically, it feels like the Edwardian era. “It’s crystal clear,” wrote the editor of the Globe and Mail, in January, 2007, that “the environment will be the single most important issue of 2007.” He was right. Canadians told pollsters climate change was their top worry, by a big margin. Two-thirds of Canadians considered it a “very serious” problem. In no other developed nation was concern higher.

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