We are living in a science-fiction nightmare where children are gasping for breath on bad-air days because somebody gave money to a politician. And where my children and the kids of millions of other Americans can no longer go fishing and eat their catch because somebody gave money to a politician. And where the oldest wilderness area on the face of the Earth -- the Adirondack Mountains -- has acidified lakes with sterilized fish because somebody gave money to politicians. And the Appalachian Mountains -- the birthplace of American democracy, the landscapes where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed, the source of our values, our virtues, our character as a people -- are being cut to the ground so somebody can make money.
--Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
A new report released by the David Suzuki Foundation entitled The Maple Leaf in the OECD, rates Canada's environmental performance against the performance of other members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To say Canada rates poorly would be an understatement. Our national myth of environmental responsibility and stewardship is completely debunked by the report.
The truth revealed by The Maple Leaf in the OECD is that Canada is a wasteful and lazy country that puts short-term economic benefits over long-term environmental programs. That long-term prosperity is dependent on looking after our environment now is apparently beyond the ken of our national political leaders and the corporate honchos they pander to.
Carried out by a team of researchers from a variety of disciplines at Simon Fraser University, the study measures 29 environmental indicators. Canada rates 28 out of 30 countries. Canada does not place first in any category. Canada comes in last in volatile organic compound emissions, carbon monoxide emissions, and the generation of nuclear waste. Canada manages second to last in the intensity of energy use, water consumption, sulfur oxide emissions, environmental pricing, and distance travelled by vehicle. Canada has shown no improvement in environmental performance in a decade. Canada failed in 24 of the 29 categories and received a final Environmental Performance Grade of 26.7%.
Typically, much of the reaction our dismal performance has been along the lines of, “Well, at least we're better than the United States.” That's simply not a good enough response. It's the equivalent of an juvenile deliquent pointing to a hardened criminal and saying, “I'm not as bad as him.” The qualifier the deliquent never adds is, “Not yet, anyway.”
That there is little appetite for true environmental change in Canada, especially among the Martin Liberals and the Harper Conservatives, is clear. The first response to environmental issues from those two parties is predictable and shameful. They first cite trade issues, especially with the US. The Liberals then point to all they have done since coming to office. Ten years with no progress. That's what the Liberal accomplishment on the environment is.
The Conservatives speak of vague, made in Canada solutions that put the corporate bottom line well ahead of any meaningful environmental programs. They do not like the Kyoto Protocol, preferring George Bush-style denial and obfuscation over science, and seem to think that conservation is a word that conservatives should have nothing to do with.
The arguments of those who put the profits of their corporate friends before true environmental initiatives are someplace between weak and completely fallacious. They are clinging to old technologies that cost us huge amounts of money every year. Environment Canada's Clean Air Online website shows that the government is aware of at least some of the costs. The website has some interesting statistics:
Health Canada, estimates that 5,900 deaths per year can be attributed to air pollution according to data collected in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Windsor, Calgary and Vancouver.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 1.4% of deaths world wide are due to “urban outdoor air pollution.” That's 800,000 people per year.
More than $1 billion per year is spent on hospital admissions, emergency room visits, and absenteeism, according to the Ontario Medical Association.
Acid rain destroys everything from the soil that we grow our food in, to the siding on our houses, to our historic monuments. It affects forestry, causes damage to our infrastructure, and harms our tourism industry. The damage amounts to billions.
Nobody knows exactly what global warming will cost Canadians. Scientists tell us that climate change will lead to more severe weather including bigger blizzards; more severe thunderstorms; a rise in the frequency and strength of tornadoes; more frequent and severe droughts; and more flooding. We will lose land in coastal areas due to rising sea levels. We will lose arable land to desertification. We will lose species to changing habitats. The cash price for these events cannot be easily calculated, and we cannot know when, exactly, the bill will come due, although the evidence that we are already beginning to pay the price is mounting. That there is a cost to our present actions and the lack of leadership shown by our politicians is a sure thing, though.
We currently subsidise these costs with our tax dollars and through a steady erosion of quality of life. We must do this, those in charge tell us, in order to compete. If we charge the corporations for their pollution, the argument continues, then they will pass those charges on to the consumer and we will be made to pay anyway.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that's garbage. The claim that we must subsidise polluters with our health, our future, and our taxes is a lie promoted by those with a vested interest in allowing the pollution to continue.
If we stop the subsidy will the costs be passed on to us? They may be, but it would give us, as consumers, the choice not to pay to have our air and water polluted. More importantly, pollution is a sign of inefficiency because any process that produces waste is inefficient by definition. The more waste, the less efficient the process. We presently reward inefficiency by paying for it. If a corporation can make more money by polluting than by recycling and reusing waste materials, they will. If a corporation is allowed to harm the environment because it saves them money while costing the people who live in that environment money, they will. If a corporation finds that they can profit by selling us products that pollute, they will. Only by forcing them to pay for their ecological transgressions will corporations cease to pollute.
We are told that trade concerns prohibit change, but that can be dealt with in two ways.
The first is to insist that environmental issues are part of every trade deal. Lax environmental laws are nothing more than a subsidy and once we recognise that, it becomes a factor when negotiating trade deals.
The second is to penalise the offending corporations directly. Developing countries are often handicapped not just by poverty, but by restrictions and demands placed on them by corporate-friendly institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. By targeting individual corporations, we can push up the price of products produced in a non-environmentally friendly fashion. If there are two factories in the developing world, one following good environmental practices and the other polluting, we can and should levy a tax on the product from the polluting factory.
The Canadian government has failed dismally in all aspects of environmental stewardship. They have made us a nation of ecological hypocrites. They consider corporate profits an excuse for inaction and consistently use the falsehoods of effective environmental programs costing too much and threatening jobs when they are protecting a small cabal of their corporate cronies.
I started this article with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. I could have used a quote from David Suzuki or any number of Canadians who have spoken out for the environment. I chose Kennedy precisely because he is an American. When our politicians point south and say, “But the US is number 29 and we have to compete with them,” we should be pointing south and saying, “Then talk to the Americans who want to make the US better.”
Instead of being in third to last place in the race to the bottom, we should be leading the race to the top. Kennedy and Americans like him should be able to point to Canada and tell their leaders to smarten up, as should people all over the planet. That they can't is a failure of the Liberals, our perpetual ruling party, and the Conservatives, our ever-inefficient opposition. It is testament to the innate corporate fear of real competition based on real costs, and the refusal of the business community to take responsibility for their actions.
In the end it is an indictment of the Canadian electorate because we have not pushed our leaders to do better and have allowed ourselves to be frightened into submission instead of standing up and saying that enough is enough.
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on October 25, 2005]
David Suzuki Foundation
The Maple Leaf in the OECD
Clean Air Online website