Climate change is very much in the news these days. A decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline has been delayed by President Obama in the U.S. The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through Northern B.C. is experiencing strong opposition from aboriginal leaders and environment groups.
The European Union is proposing to penalize oil coming from Alberta oilsands because of environmental concerns. Canada's position at the UN Climate Change talks in Durban, South Africa, is being widely criticized, both internationally and within Canada.
The federal and provincial governments and the oil companies see all this debate primarily as a "branding" problem requiring increased advertising budgets and hiring more lobbyists and publicists. This is unfortunate and short-sighted at a time when real "on-the-ground" changes are urgently needed.
There is an increasing international consensus that the threat of harmful climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions is real. The International Energy Agency warns that without significant changes in global energy policies in the next several years, "rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change."
Catholic voices are speaking out. The day before the UN Climate Change Conference opened, Pope Benedict said he hoped "that all members of the international community will agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrying and complex phenomenon, taking into account the needs of the poorest populations and of the generations to come."
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, president of Caritas Internationalis, led a Caritas delegation to Durban to speak on behalf of poor countries that suffer from the serious impacts of climate change, and to insist that urgent action is necessary.
Caritas speaks of "climate justice" for those poor countries "who suffer the most from the impacts of climate change and have contributed the least to it." Caritas points out that food security is very much being put at risk in poor countries due to climate change.
This year Development and Peace is educating Canadians about this important link between climate change and the availability of food.
Meanwhile, Canadian government and industry leaders are seeking to postpone any binding agreements to reduce energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid costs to the economy at a time of fragile economic recovery.
The International Energy Agency argues that this delaying action is a false economy. Modest costs avoided today will lead to major financial burdens being imposed on the next generation.
These international debates about climate change relate directly to decisions being made today about oilsands development in Alberta. Often today, the debate becomes unhelpfully polarized between oilsands – "yes or no."
Bishop Luc Bouchard in his 2009 pastoral message addressed his ethical criticism to the environmental impacts of the scope, scale and pace of present and proposed oilsands developments.
The National Energy Board predicts oilsands production will triple in the next 25 years. The Pembina Institute observes that the oilsands "are the fastest growing industrial source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada."
There is a crucial ethical question for us today in Alberta: What environmental and regulatory standards will govern the design and operations of this next generation of oilsands plants presently on the drawing boards?
These industrial plants will last for a generation. Once built, these plants will be retrofitted for greater environmental efficiency in the future only with great difficulty and expense.
Some initial steps for an adequate environmental framework are now being put in place in Alberta. A regional land use plan for the oilsands region is being developed. The provincial and federal governments have made public commitments to improve the monitoring of pollution and water quality in the Athabasca River watershed.
Yet, there is no overall regulatory plan to regulate and establish limits on cumulative greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands.
Global greenhouse gas emissions cannot be allowed to continue to increase year after year. Last year alone the global increase was more than five per cent.
Effective change needs to start now. Regardless of the outcome of the international talks in South Africa, significant advances can be made in Alberta.
Let's move quickly to complete an adequate forward-looking environmental regulatory framework for future oilsands developments, and see that it is actually enforced.
Let's spend dollars on meaningful environmental research and improved technology, rather than for publicists and lobbyists.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)