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July 24, 2013

Canada stuck in idle when it comes to climate change

Gus Van Harten

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has a plan. When it comes to coping with the effects of climate change, his plan consists of getting your family in your car and turning on the air conditioning.

At least, that is what Ford reportedly did when the power failed at his house during Toronto's recent severe storms and flooding.

His approach, of course, is attractive because it is both simple and versatile. For example, you could also use it if you were facing a forest fire — get in your car, roll up the windows, making sure you didn't forget to bring along a fire-resistant suit in case the car explodes; or if a tsunami is headed your way — again, get in your car, roll up the windows but this time drop the anchor.

The mayor's simple-minded approach, unfortunately, also reflects Canada's own steady-as-she-goes, wilfully blind, hope-for-a-miracle non-strategy to climate change — a catastrophe that is building into perhaps the greatest threat to human civilization.

Canada has, for decades, avoided making any type of systematic plans that would help prevent the dire consequence of climate change. It has opted, instead, to tackle each new incident as it occurs with a quick fix only — even if, in the end, the fix ends up adding to the wider problem. But in light of the recent disasters in Calgary, Toronto, and Lac-Mégantic, and the connections between the predicted consequences of climate change, major oil and gas development and lack of planning by government, that approach is no longer good enough.

If the Lac-Mégantic tragedy taught us anything it is that the federal government is facing a situation of inadequate pipeline capacity, due in no small part to both its and the energy industry's failure to anticipate demand and then plan accordingly. As a stop-gap measure for this lack of foresight, governments allowed the oil to be loaded onto trains en masse and rolled through our communities.

It is clear that we all should have been paying more attention as to whether our governments were shielding us from the risks of transporting oil by rail.

The same goes for Canada's non-strategy on climate change. Climate change is, in fact, the "everything" issue — it is law and order; it is the right to life; it is getting to work on time; it is looking after your house and your kids, because climate change puts almost everything anyone cares about in serious jeopardy.

We must ask if there is a government in Canada that will take prevention seriously even if it means saying no to the oil industry. Will governments even discuss the option of pumping less oil, both for reasons of climate change prevention and to ensure public safety?

For it is only government, and especially the federal government, that can organize the country to respond to climate change. It is clear that we need serious action, most likely based on the spurned but straightforward option to tax greenhouse gas emissions, if we are to invest heavily in prevention and mitigation.

Yet there is only this sound of engines idling.

Gus Van Harten is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. (Troy Media/

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