Corporate Canada's change of heart on global warming

Better late than never. Like St. Paul seeing light on the road to Damascus, Canada’s business leaders last week demanded tough action from the federal government on dealing with climate change.

"The world must act urgently to stabilize the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and minimize the global impacts of climate change", proclaimed a letter to Prime Minister Martin from such Canadian corporate giants as Alcan, Bombardier, Falconbridge, and Power Corp.

This conspicuous corporate flip-flop in advance of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal is a welcome change from previous foot dragging from the business community.

Just three years ago the “Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions”, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and 40 other business groups began an on-line petition to the Prime Minister opposing the ratification of the Kyoto protocol.

The corporate epiphany last week may simply be a realpolitik admission that action on climate change is inevitable and it is more seemly to catch up to the bandwagon before it gets too far down the road.

However, it might also be a genuine recognition that climate change menaces the entire world, including the business community, their families and their children.

Whatever the reason, this latest development now only leaves one significant interest group that needs to demonstrate their commitment to dealing with climate change: the federal government.

Canada has the ignoble distinction on ranking dead last in the G8 in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That shoddy record may be difficult for Paul Martin to gloss over as he hosts the United Nations in Montreal, where our filthy linen will be on display for all the world to see.

Canada has pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions by 6% below 1990 level by 2012. They have instead risen by 24%. Ottawa spent over $3 billion of taxpayer’s dollars on various voluntary compliance programs to achieve this negative result.

One reason for our lack of progress is that Canadian government is both sucking and blowing on fossil fuel consumption.

While publicly proclaiming the urgent need to reduce emissions, Ottawa shovels $1.4 billion of your tax dollars annually to the oil and gas industry. This is much more than current government support for sustainable energy technologies that will no doubt become the cornerstone of our future economy.

It is impossible for the Canadian economy to move in a progressive direction when Ottawa intervenes in the marketplace with such antiquated, expensive, and perverse subsidies.

Meanwhile other governments around the world are seeing Kyoto as an opportunity to become global leaders in emerging energy technologies. The UK for instance has already managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990, while their economy grew by 36%.

Germany has become a world leader in wind-power generation – a rapidly growing sector now worth over $28 billion worldwide. Like other renewable energy sources, it produces no pollutants to cause smog and diseases such as childhood asthma. In Europe alone, the wind power industry employs more than 80,000 people.

Here in BC, the World Energy Council has estimated that our province has the greatest potential for wind power in the world, yet we have not built a single commercial wind turbine here. Country-wide, Canada currently produces less than 0.1% of its electricity from wind power compared with 20% in Denmark.

The sad irony is that climate change actually presents a fine opportunity to improve our economy and our quality of life. A recent study by the David Suzuki Foundation showed that investing in clean renewable energy could actually contribute $9 billion to Ontario’s economy by 2010, while creating 25,000 jobs new jobs.

With this newfound support from the business community, the Canadian government should now join the global movement towards sustainability. Improved emission standards for vehicles, clear and enforceable caps for industry, progressive tax reforms that encourage innovation and investment in emerging energy technologies are just some of the policy tools that already working elsewhere in the world.

Canada risks being left behind in this shifting world economy. A recent example is the wind turbine prominently installed on Toronto’s waterfront. There are currently no Canadian companies producing such technology and the city instead had to cut a cheque for $1.6 million to a Danish company that is no doubt doing a brisk business around the world.

What is driving this global transformation is a remarkable consensus that climate change is real, it is happening now and it is very dangerous. It is not just another political hot potato to be “managed”; it is a global emergency that will define this century.

The Canadian business community should be applauded for it’s recent change of heart regarding climate change. Now that the captains of industry have seen the light on the road to Damascus, there is a serious challenge for Mr. Martin. He no longer has any excuse for inaction.

Published on The Tyee, in Nov. 2005


Galileo in Kansas - "intelligent design" and the renaissance of ignorance

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
- Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642)

Galileo might find the political mood in 21st century America strangely familiar.

The Renaissance astronomer was famously convicted of heresy by the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for rest of his life. His crime? Maintaining that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Science seems similarly assailed 400 years later.

The evangelical Rev. Robertson suggested last week that the town of Dover, Pennsylvania might expect divine retribution for voting out their entire school board who supported the neo-medieval notion of “intelligent design”.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God… you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there,” Robertson said on his daily television show.

There is little doubt that America is a strange place, and Mr. Robertson is one of its weirder fixtures. He called feminism a “socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” He has also opined for the abolition of Halloween and the assassination of Hugo Chavez.

But is he fringe? Hardly. His TV show claims to have an audience of over one million world-wide, translated into over 70 languages. As far as US public opinion, a recent poll found that 53% of Americans believe that humans were created “exactly as the Bible describes". Lets not kid ourselves – the States is weird.

Last week, the state of Kansas adopted new science standards to not only allow the teaching of intelligent design as science, but to subtly redefine the word “science” in the classroom to potentially include the supernatural.

This throwback to the infamous Scopes Monkey trial was accomplished under the pretext of a scientific controversy about the theory of evolution - perhaps the most robust scientific theory in history. So offended were real scientists about this ruse that they declined to even make submissions to the kangaroo court in Kansas –perhaps to the delight of their opponents.

Duly elected school boards should of course be allowed to teach students whatever the hell they want, but they should not truss up intelligent design as science, let alone redefine the word to accommodate their own superstitions. High school is confusing enough.

This is just the latest example of how the troubling assault on rational thought in George Bush’s America is becoming ever more mainstream. There have been even more alarming examples where brute political force was used to in an attempt to shoehorn scientific reality into a predetermined worldview.

This summer, the Republican controlled congress launched a far-reaching inquiry into the careers of three prominent US climate scientists. In a bizarre throwback to days of McCarthy, these scientists were required to provide details on their entire careers dating back decades, including all publications, sources of funding, whereabouts of raw data, and computer source codes.

Their presumed transgression? Holding scientific opinions on climate change that were at odds with the uniquely “conservative” view that unlimited burning of fossil fuels poses no threat to the planet.

Career politicians demanding to scrutinize raw scientific data is like Paris Hilton demanding to take the controls of her Lear jet. It’s not just stupid, but dangerous.

This dubious investigation is being led by Joe Barton, chairman of the House of Representatives committee on energy and commerce, and a Texas Republican long associated with the fossil fuel lobby. In his eleven years in this position, Mr. Barton has the distinction of opposing every single piece of legislation designed to combat global climate change.

Even Republican Sherwood Boehlert, the chairman of the house science committee wrote to "express my strenuous objections to what I see as the misguided and illegitimate investigation…to intimidate scientists rather than learn from them."

Controlling “truth” is of course an ancient political ploy favored by despots throughout history. Having the opportunity to objectively explore this beautiful world is a luxury that has not always been possible, or prudent.

Which brings us back to Galileo. The father of astronomy and icon of the Renaissance was also a devout Catholic. Sacrifices by him and others like him allowed rational thought and spiritual belief to peacefully coexist for over 400 years - for perhaps the first time in human history,

Is the US taking a detour towards the Dark Ages? Lets hope the Renaissance does not have to be fought for all over again.

Mitch Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Hurricanes, oil and the politics of denial

Slightly more than halfway through the 2005 hurricane season and the US National Hurricane Center is already running out of letters in the alphabet.

The latest is Hurricane Rita, the third most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean with winds of over 280 km/hr, currently bearing down on the beleaguered Gulf Coast. This, even while the gruesome accounting of Katrina’s deadly wrath is still being itemized.

The obvious question is: what the hell is going on with our climate?

Given what we know about hurricanes and climate change, it looks like we could be in for nasty weather.

Simply put, hurricanes are heat engines. When tropical ocean temperatures heat up due to human induced climate change, hurricanes have more fuel and can become much more powerful. Ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are now the second highest on record.

Professor Kerry Emmanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported in the journal Nature in August that warmer oceans worldwide are making devastating storms such as Katrina and Rita more likely, by making hurricanes on average more powerful and longer lasting. He found that the destructive power of Hurricanes worldwide had increased by 70% in the last 30 years.

Another paper was published this month in the prestigious journal Science, backing up Emmanuel’s disturbing findings. These researchers found that the number of deadly Category 4 and 5 storms worldwide has almost doubled in the last 35 years.

This is no act of God. The authors of both these papers attributed this disturbing trend at least in part to human-induced climate change.

Professor Emmanuel states that “ future warming may lead to an upward trend in tropical cyclone destructive potential, and taking into account an increasing coastal population a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the twenty first century .”

Imagining hurricanes becoming more powerful is like imaging Don Cherry with a louder wardrobe. Even an average sized hurricane packs 200 times more energy than the electrical generating capacity of the entire planet.

While this cold statistic is hard to imagine, the physical evidence of that massive power sadly is not.

The city of Biloxi lay directly in the wake of Katrina and was almost wiped off the map. In one neighborhood virtually every building was entirely gone, swept away by a 20 metre wall of water and winds in excess of 250 km/hr.

The emerging science raises an obvious point: our addiction to fossil fuels is making future disasters like Katrina more likely. Yet President Bush commented this summer with no sense of irony that he chose not to sign the Kyoto protocol because if would have “wrecked the economy”.

It is hard to imagine that the unprecedented destruction of hurricanes like Katrina is a bargain in the eyes of the President. This is already the most expensive disaster in US history – with up $35 billion in insured property losses.

Estimates of total economic losses from Katrina are as high as $300 billion - as much as the combined US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last four years, with fully 400,000 lost jobs. If our best science is correct, we can expect more such expensive and deadly calamities in the future.

While the US administration continues to believe that we cannot afford to deal seriously with climate change, the simple fact is that we cannot afford not to.

In the same way that initial Katrina relief efforts were woefully inadequate, the US government’s response to the looming crisis of climate change is similarly meager. The US government spends less than $5 billion annually on alternative fuel research – less than 2% of what Katrina might ultimately cost.

Canada is arguably faring even worse. Of all of the G7 nations, Canada ranks dead last in reducing our emissions. Ottawa has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. They have instead increased by 20%.

The bottom line is that there is no free lunch. Oil has been remarkably lucrative source of cheap energy for a long time but we are beginning to see some of the externalized costs of our massive consumption.

The bright side - if there is one - is that Mother Nature is trying to tell us something very important. We have an opportunity to both learn and act. Weaning ourselves off our oil addiction will have to happen sooner or later. Further delay it is only going to cause this inevitable transition to be more expensive, and ultimately more tragic.

While no single storm can be attributed to climate change, Katrina and Rita have an important message for us. We ignore that message at our peril.

Will 2005 be remembered as the year of the hurricane? Actually, that was last year…

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. (Published in the Toronto Star, September 2005)


Africa and the hypocrisy of climate change

Want to help Africa? Stop driving your car. That may be unwelcome news to those who burned through a tank driving to the Live 8 gig, but the simple truth is that the fate of Africa depends as much on dealing with global warming as it does with increased aid.

The recent report “Africa: Up in Smoke?” co-authoured by Oxfam with a preface from Archbishop Desmond Tutu makes that very point, and details the many reasons with the world’s poorest continent is also the most threatened by the impacts of human induced climate change.

Fourteen countries in Africa already endure devastating water shortages. This number is expected to increase to twenty-five by 2030. Recent research shows that global warming will reduce overall rainfall in southern Africa 10% by 2050.

Small-scale farming produces most of the food in Africa. It also provides employment for 70% of the working people. Global climate change will dangerously undermine the ability of Africans to feed and support themselves by making these droughts far more likely.

“In our models, the Indian Ocean shows very clear and dramatic warming into the future, which means more and more drought for southern Africa,” said Dr. James W. Hurrell, author of a recent study by the US-based National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Dr. Richard Washington, of Oxford University is somewhat more blunt: “When the rains fail, people die.” The last major drought in southern Africa in 2002 left over 14 million people in need of direct food aid.

African coastal areas are also at risk from extreme weather and rising sea levels. We can expect more frequent disasters like Mozambique’s devastating floods of February 2000, which affected the livelihoods of 1.5 million people and cost $550 million in reconstruction and emergency relief.

It is no small irony that human induced climate change is as much of an imposition on the developing world as oppressive economic policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

The average American produces sixty five times as much carbon dioxide per capita as someone who lives in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, between 1980 and 2001, Africa was one of very few areas of the world to experience a decline in per capita carbon dioxide emissions – not because of conservation efforts but due to increasing poverty.

Incredibly, the developed world actually provides far more aid to their domestic fossil fuel industries than to impoverished Africa. In the late 1990’s, rich countries subsidized their domestic, fossil-fuel industries to the tune of $73 billion per year.

In contrast, the recent debt relief program announced with great fanfare will amount to only about $1.5 billion per year shared between eighteen debtor countries.

The plight of Africa is ostensibly a top priority in the up coming G8 meeting. So what are the leading economies of the world pledging to collectively do to halt climate change? The short answer is absolutely nothing.

A draft communiqué leaked last week for the upcoming G8 meeting in Gleneagles Scotland speaks volumes. The US is apparently seeking to remove even such milquetoast statements as: “Our world is warming", "The problem is urgent", “The increase is due in large part to human activity", and most tellingly, "The world's developed economies have a responsibility to show leadership".

Not content with merely doing nothing about climate change, the most powerful nations on earth also appear intent on saying nothing as well. In light of the very public hand wringing about the plight of beleaguered Africans, this collective cowardice truly explores the upper stratosphere of hypocrisy.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said eloquently in the preface to this report, “The richest countries of the world, as represented by the G8, have a responsibility to help the poorest. This is not just charity, but a moral obligation.”

We need to hear those words and act on them. This means debt relief, increased aid and fair trade practices. Just as importantly, it means dealing with the massive and looming crisis facing the entire planet and Africa in particular resulting from our addiction to oil.

The West needs to help Africa to leapfrog “dirty development” by directing new investment to renewable sources of energy, and removing obstacles to technology transfer. These renewable energy sources also have added benefits for human health by reducing air pollution, and the need to cut local forests for fuel.

There is also an urgent need to provide directed aid to small-scale farmers that will allow them to adapt to some degree of climate change that is now inevitable.

And finally, the developed world needs to drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption. Want to help Africa? Get out of your car.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.


Cancer and Chemicals

Cancer. There is scarcely one of us that have not been touched in someway by this dreadful disease. In Canada, it is now projected to afflict one in every 2.2 men and one in every 2.6 women in their lifetime. In the 1930’s, those numbers were less that one in ten. What’s happening? Why are we now seeing what many are calling a “cancer epidemic”?

Some would suggest that we are simply an aging population and cancer is a disease of the old. Not true. Recent statistics show that the net incidence rate of cancer has increased 25% for males 20% for females from 1974 to 2005 - after correcting for the effects of aging.

Children are increasingly the victims. Researchers in the UK have shown that certain childhood cancers such as leukemia and brain cancer have increased by over one third since the 1950’s.

In Canada, hundreds of millions of dollars are raised and spent for cancer research and treatment. It has become a shared Canadian value to run, wear ribbons, and donate money - all towards mitigating cancer.

The elephant in the room however is the contribution of environmental toxins, and whether many of the cancers striking Canadians can be avoided rather than simply managed.

The World Health Organization estimates that fully one quarter of cancers worldwide are caused by occupational and environmental factors other than smoking. You don’t have to look far for some potential chemical culprits.

There are over 85,000 chemicals that are currently licenced for use in North America. Less than half have ever been tested for human health risk, and even fewer for potential environmental impacts.

The US Centers For Disease Control and Prevention recently turned their attention towards pollution detection – not in the environment, but within the human body. Their study in 2002 found the presence of 81 different toxic chemicals, including PCBs, benzene and other carcinogens in their sampling of 2500 people tested.

It is somewhat of a no-brainer that reducing exposure to known carcinogens will reduce the risk of developing cancer. Surprisingly, this simple logic seems to have been lost on our federal government.

Many chemicals that are scientifically demonstrated carcinogens or otherwise toxic are freely used in Canada here without any legal obligation to even identify them on the label. Some of these same chemicals are entirely banned elsewhere. A trip to your local supermarket reveals a small sample of these hidden poisons:

- Mothballs contain either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene, both of which are carcinogenic. A recent U.S. study linked mothball use to an increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

- Polycarbonate plastics used in food-grade plastic containers such as water bottles can leach Bisphenol A, an estrogen-mimicking chemical linked to a variety of disorders including hormone-related birth defects, learning disabilities, prostate cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

- Several leading perfumes, nail polishes and other cosmetic products sold in Canada contain the endocrine-disrupting phthalates DBP and DEHP, both of which have been banned for use in cosmetic products in European Union countries.

- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs are very commonly chemical fire retardants found in everything from foam mattresses to computer parts. They have similar properties to the now outlawed PCBs, and are known neurotoxins and hormone disrupters. The most dangerous forms are now banned in the European Union, though they remain completely legal here in Canada.

- Many leading brands of household laundry detergent contain trisodium nitrilotriacetate, another suspected carcinogen as well as an environmental pollutant.

Besides being a human tragedy, cancer and other chemical related disorders are also an enormous burden to our public health care system. It is estimated that cancer alone costs the country over $14 billion each year in treatment costs and lost productivity.

Chemicals that endanger human life also go down the drain and impact the environment. A somewhat gruesome example involved a dead orca that washed up south of Vancouver in 2000 that was so contaminated with persistent chemicals that the federal government considered shipping the carcass to the Swan Hills toxic waste facility for incineration.

Like orcas, we are perched at the top of the food chain and are becoming the unwitting receptacles of many of the chemicals designed to make our lives more convenient. Ballooning cancers rates are simply not worth whiter clothes or fewer moths.

Cancer must be fought on many fronts. Research and treatment are undeniably important but so is environmental cancer prevention. It is therefore shocking that our government is not moving faster to ban known and suspected carcinogens, and requiring mandatory “right to know” labeling so that Canadians can better protect themselves and their families.

Anything less is quite simply putting the interests of the chemical industry ahead of human life.

Mitchell Anderson is a board member of the Labour Environmental Allinace Society (www.leas.ca). This piece was published in the Toronto Star in June 2005.


In praise of whistleblowers

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Those words must ring particularly true for Allan Cutler, a career public servant who tried unsuccessfully to blow the whistle on early abuses in the sponsorship program over ten years ago.

Mr. Cutler was a public servant for over two decades. As a procurement manager for Public Works department in 1994, he objected to many irregularities he witnessed and eventually refused to sign his name to flurry of questionable contracts coming across his desk.

His then boss Chuck Guite was not amused. Soon after Mr. Cutler refused to cooperate, he found himself declared “surplus”. That’s bureau jargon for “you’re fired”. Thankfully for Cutler, he managed to be re-hired in another government job. The public however lost a fateful chance to shed some early disinfecting sunlight on the growing political rot.

Ten years later the full extent of abuses is being revealed to the general disgust of all Canadians, and may well lead to the downfall of the now moribund Liberal Party. It is no small irony that this scandal has rekindled interest in Quebec separatism.

Testifying this week at a Commons public accounts committee, Mr. Cutler must feel a certain amount of schadenfreude at the unraveling fortunes of his former bosses. However the larger question remains: how could he have been so easily silenced on an issue so explosive it now threatens to bring down the government?

Easy. Without meaningful legal protection as a whistleblower, he was a sitting duck for retribution from those who did not appreciate his desire to reveal the truth.

Despite all the gallons of media ink spilled on this issue, it is certainly not news that governments regularly abuse power and become corrupt. Cast your mind back to the sickening days of trough-wallowing under the Mulroney Conservatives when fully ten cabinet ministers were forced to resign in disgrace

All institutions run the risk of becoming decadent unless there are meaningful checks and balances to ensure ethical behavior. On that front, whistleblower protection for public servants is absolutely essential.

Scandals like sponsorship do not just happen. They are known by dozens of public employees who, like other Canadians, do not appreciate public institutions being abused. The sad lesson learned by Mr. Cutler and by many others is that unless you are willing to be fired, there is little recourse but to keep your mouth shut.

Incredibly in spite of all that has unfolded, very little has changed. After all the public crowing from Mr. Martin about accountability, and the $80 million likely to be spent on the Gomery Inquiry, Canada remains one of the few western democracies without meaningful legal protection for whistleblowers.

Ironically, the battered Liberals seemed to be moving in the opposite direction. Rather than embracing transparency as governing principle, they are trying to quietly pass a shamefully weak whistleblower bill that would have done nothing to prevent what is unfolding today.

For starters, the proposed bill would force whistleblowers to first exhaust internal department processes before being able to complain to a whistleblower agency - a delay that could literally take years.

This bill also fails to provide whistleblower protection for all government employees. Political staff such as ministerial assistants are on their own, quite likely because they are uniquely placed to expose political wrongdoing.

In 2003 the government also quietly passed the “Public Service Modernization Act” that among other things precludes whistleblowers from accessing the courts, as Health Canada whistleblowers successfully did in 1999 when their employer punished them for telling the truth.

This change was not accidental – nothing in law is. The government knows that if potential whistleblowers realize how limited their legal options are, they will likely choose to remain silent rather than speak out.

Canada needs whistleblower protection laws that we can be proud of. This requires nothing less than an independent public interest commissioner who reports directly to parliament. The courageous people that speak out in the public interest deserve at least that much.

If such protections been on the books years ago when Mr. Cutler was trying to do the right thing, recent events might have turned out very differently.

The country could have been spared the tawdry scandal being unearthed daily by Mr. Justice Gomery. The Liberal party might have avoided their looming exile into the political wilderness. And many political insiders might not be looking at a well-deserved trip to jail.

I suspect that even the most corrupt self-dealers behind the current scandal would have preferred that to the fate now unfolding before them.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. Published in the National Post, Arpil 2005


The real price of oil

Incensed about high price of gas? For a quick reality check, take a trip to the corner store and have a look at what liquids you can you buy for a dollar a litre. Milk? Nope. Bottled water? Not likely. Roofing tar? No way. For all the shrill indignation about rising fuel prices, the simple fact is that gas remains by far the most outrageously under-priced commodity in the world.

Consider the long journey that a litre of gas makes from far-away oil fields to your local filling station. Add to that the expensive and destructive military adventures needed to secure foreign oil supplies, and the human and political strife that inevitably follows. Let’s not forget climate change and the mounting externalized costs from increasingly weird and violent weather around the world. Why then should gas cost about half as much as bottled water?

One reason is “perverse” government subsidies that promote things we are actually trying to discourage, such as fossil fuel consumption. Ottawa shovels $5.9 billion of your tax dollars annually to the fossil fuel industry. This is much more than current government support for sustainable energy technologies that will no doubt become the cornerstone of our future economy.

In the absence of either political will or personal restraint, we should be grateful that expensive gas might save us from ourselves. For instance, cheap gas and the continuing oil orgy would only encourage governments to throw more money at the oil sector. This would imperil the future of the Canadian economy by hitching our wagon to the dying horse.

Likewise, there is little doubt that drivers would continue to endanger the future health of our planet by choosing vehicles that that actually get far worse mileage than the Model T did, for the simple reason that gasoline happens to be cheaper than water.

Artificially low gas prices have long stifled conservation efforts and alternative technologies, while fueling a boom in vehicles so grotesquely inefficient that I suspect our children will someday marvel at them in a museum.

SUVs are a fine example of the irrational behavior in the waning days of cheap oil. The only reason such gas-guzzlers are even legal is that technically they are considered “farm implements” under a well-exploited industry loophole. Rather than investing in innovative technologies that would produce more efficient cars, automakers have shrewdly invested in highly successful lobbying efforts in order to ensure that they don’t have to.

The recent accord between the federal government and car makers is a good case in point. After literally years of gentle coddling from the federal government, the automakers agreed to voluntary efficiency requirements that will actually allow emissions to rise by 18% between 1990 and 2010.

The last time Ottawa signed such a non-binding agreement in 1982, it failed completely to improve the average fuel efficiency of Canadian vehicles because there was no legal requirement to do so. It is noteworthy that governments possess a unique power called “regulation” that makes such protracted and fruitless negotiations unnecessary.

Not to fear, the market of Adam Smith will succeed where all else has failed. Higher fuel costs will foster much needed interest, innovation and investment in conservation and alternative technologies.

In fact they already have. After years of flat sales, hybrid vehicles are now taking off. There is now a waiting list several months long to buy a Toyota Prius anywhere in Canada. In Germany and the UK that have much more expensive gas, that wait is more like ten to twelve months. Ballooning gas prices have even caused some used hybrid cars to increase in value from the original selling price.

Oil companies may turn their massive resources to developing these clean energy alternatives rather than choosing to go down with their ship. A study by Shell International found that renewable sources could supply 50% of the worlds energy needs by 2050.

Rather than posing for photo-ops with the car industry, the federal government should seize the opportunity to make some long overdue policy changes. These include shifting gasoline tax revenue to fund public transit, increasing green infrastructure investment in cities, and expanding investment in renewable energy – the fastest growing energy sector in the world.

A side benefit from this vast global shift away from oil is the small matter of the fate of the planet. Aside from a few well-known pseudo-scientists shilling on behalf of big oil, virtually the entire scientific community is united in the knowledge that climate is real, it is happening right now and that it is very, very dangerous.

Still enraged about expense gas? Rather than griping about how much it costs to top up your SUV, consider instead the simple fact that you might well have been an idiot to buy such a vehicle in the first place.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Vancouver. (Published in the Toronto Star in April 2005)