The past six years of federal Conservative government have transformed Canada in profound ways. Our social safety net, the rights of workers and the very institutions of our democracy have all come under attack by Stephen Harper. In all these arenas, the Prime Minister is succeeding in his promise to remodel Canada in a conservative image, expunging its “Northern European Welfare state” elements. Most dangerous of all, he has pitted Canada’s prosperity as dependent on an ongoing war against nature, one which all citizens are sure to lose.
Global Environmental Crisis
It is important to acknowledge that there is a global environmental crisis. Loss of biodiversity, global warming, and resource shortages, including basic essentials such as water and food, will pose an unsupportable burden to future generations, unless we change course. It is not alarmist to say that environmental catastrophe threatens to tear apart the fabric of social life in the coming decades. Many scientists and policy makers view this as the biggest challenge our civilization has faced since the Second World War.
In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought together the expert opinion of 2,500 scientists from 130 countries to examine the likely effects of climate change. They found that unless we are able to slow down greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperatures from rising:
“Climate change is likely to lead to some irreversible impacts … As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40 to 70% of species assessed) around the globe.”
We now know their estimates of the rate of climate change were overly conservative. Arctic sea ice, for example, is melting 30 to 50 years ahead of schedule.
Also in 2007, a group of US generals released a report titled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. The report warned that global warming could cause political upheaval and failed states. “The chaos that results can be an incubator of civil strife, genocide, and the growth of terrorism.” A 2003 Pentagon report delivered an even more stark assessment: “Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life, … once again, warfare would define human life.”
This is the context Stephen Harper inherited when he became Prime Minister in 2006. It is a situation that governments of all political leanings around the world over a number of decades have fostered, so no one party owns this crisis. The question is, how has Harper reacted to this crisis and confronted it?
Canada – the Fossil Power?
Since 2006 Canada has taken significant steps backwards in environmental protection. And with each step backwards, the government has used the full weight of its power, not to regulate industry or protect the environment and Canadians but to demonize environmentalists.
Since coming to power, Stephen Harper has been single minded in expanding petroleum and resource extraction to the detriment of other economic or social policy goals. His stated aim has been to make Canada an “Energy Superpower.” Alberta-based sociologist Gordon Laxer has criticized this claim pointing out that superpowers are entities that project economic, political, and cultural power on a global scale. Under the Harper government, Canada is becoming a resource satellite, increasing dependent on the United States and on the petrochemical corporations that set his agenda. To satisfy these interests, Harper is systematically dismantling the progress of previous decades.
Last December, scientists, environmentalists, heads of state and officials from 195 countries gathered in Durban, South Africa to negotiate a follow up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol. In the Durban International Convention Centre delegates stayed up 60 hours straight negotiating to save session. Rather than taking leadership, Harper sent Environment Minister Peter Kent to try to disrupt the talks by announcing on the very eve of negotiations that Canada would be the first country in history to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. So much for our international power projection.
Read also: Enbridge, Harper and the Canadian Petro-State
Killing Environmental Assessments
The second arena in which Canada’s environmental reputation has been shattered in recent years is the area of environmental assessments. Canadians have worked hard to develop standards for assessing how industrial projects impact the environment. Gradually over the past 30 years we have come to realize that if we do not draw on the perspectives and expertise of the communities who will be most affected by new industrial developments, we risk making mistakes that will be impossible for future generations to rectify. Our assessment process has improved to consider aspects such as the cumulative impact of numerous projects in a region. Over the past decade, there has been an increased respect to our constitutional duties to consult with First Nations and Aboriginal peoples who will be affects by projects, and there has been an increased awareness of the precautionary principle, that we should not rush ahead with projects whose long-term impacts are unknown especially when these projects have the capacity to have devastating irredeemable effects of human health and the environment.
Read: Checklist for strong environmental laws (West Coast Environmental Law).
Unfortunately, all these principles come into conflict with the unrestrained development of Stephen Harper’s favorite industrial project – the Alberta Tar sands. Cumulative impact is an understatement when describing a series of industrial developments that plan to literally unearth an area of the boreal forest the size of Florida. We can have no concern for future generations if we are to prioritize the maximization profits over all else. In other words, the unrestricted development of the tar sands makes a mockery of existing environmental assessment legislation.
With this in mind, Stephen Harper has systematically dismantled environmental assessments over the past several budgets.
The cap on this process has been the elimination of the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Here, we are not just going back on institutions that date from the 1960s. We are tearing apart legislation that goes back to the 1880s, some of the earliest legislation our country has for protecting the environment.
Hidden away in the massive omnibus budget implementation bill is legislation that redefines navigable waters, to no longer protect the water, but rather only navigation. Only a handful of lakes and rivers, largely in Conservative ridings, will be protected; 99 percent of water ways in Canada will not. The Minister will no longer automatically be required to look into projects such as bridges and damns that by their nature have effects on water ways. Significantly, pipelines are exempt from consideration or protection. Canada is going back to the nineteenth century in environmental protection.
Harper vs. Science
The third front in Harper’s war on the environment has been waged against science. Evidence that undermines his agenda is not merely disregarded. It is defunded, censored and slandered. This process was first experienced early on in the Harper administration. Scientists work has long depended on open access and freedom. Government scientists were muzzled, prevented from speaking to media or the public about their work and shadowed by political scrutiny never before seen in Canada.
Over the past 44 years, Canada has been at the forefront of whole eco-system aquatic research. The gem of Canada’s water research program has been the Experimental Lakes Area of Northwestern Ontario. Last spring, the federal government announced that for saving 2 million dollars per year, that would cancel the program and close down this world class facility.
This unique region contains 58 lakes in a relatively pristine environment in the Great Canadian Shield region. Remarkably this region is within easy reach of major universities. Scientist have been able to conduct research that would not be possible anywhere else in the world, because they are able to conduct experiments on a large scale.
Since the 1960’s scientist have used the facility to make major breakthroughs in numerous fields. It was by using the ELA that scientists such as David Schindler discovered the role that phosphorous plays in creating toxic algae blooms of the sort that have plagued Lake Winnipeg in recent years. The ELA were essential for determining the effects of acid rain. When Harper announced the cuts last spring, there was ongoing research into topics including the effects of nanotechnology – we may want to know what those chemicals that make anti-bacterial free socks do to the fish and other organisms in our lakes and rivers – and also was conducting research on the effects of US coal regulations. These are crucial areas of applied and basic research that will be lost, not for any substantial savings, but for what amounts to an ideological disregard for science.
Across the scientific community, researchers are standing up to Harper’s agenda. Even the prestigious journal Nature has weighed in with an editorial last summer. About Harper’s cuts to science they wrote:
“Governments come and go, but scientific expertise and experience cannot be chopped and changed as the mood suits and still be expected to function. Nor can applied research thrive when basic research is struggling.”
Harper’s war on Nature cannot be won. It is the very definition of hubris, and will surely result in tragedy. The only question will be how far we let his own downfall bring the rest of us down with him.