Monday, October 27, 2008

My letter to Prime Minister Harper

Dear Mr. Harper,

I've walked from Toronto to Ottawa to bring attention to the disastrous effects of climate change already occurring in the world.

We are already seeing rising sea levels, droughts, floods, freak storms, desertification, mass species extinctions, an enormous global refugee crisis, disease spread, resource wars and other disasters. This is the tip of the iceberg, with all these issues projected to become much more grave in this century, and with acidic oceans belching noxious gases across dying landscapes as a potential end result if climate change is not brought under control.

In Canada, we're already beginning to feel the effects of climate change, with Inuit communities being threatened with wildlife loss and permafrost melt that destroys their homes. Our forestry industry is being devastated by the spread of the pine beetle. Climate change is bringing on increased rates of asthma, increased disease spread, increased heat waves and their associated threats and other critical health issues as outlined in a recent report from Health Canada.

I want to thank you for committing $100 million to climate change adaptation in developing countries. The amount is far too small, but is a welcome recognition of our responsibilities for this global crisis.

My biggest concern is that Canada enter international negotiations on global climate change treaties in good faith and as a leader, not a laggard.

I noticed that you expressed your opposition to the Kyoto Plus initiative that would ask for Canada to commit to emissions reductions targets of 25-40% below 1990 levels. This is irresponsible. These targets are, if anything, too low. The WWF released a report this morning updating the science in the last report of the IPCC, and recommended, as a result, a 30% emissions cut as a bare minimum by 2020, and to be met without relying on overseas offsetting. This report was endorsed by the new vice chair of the IPCC, Prof. Jean Pascal van Ypersele.

James Hanson, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has been carefully and methodically analyzing climate data for decades, has recently stated that safe atmospheric levels of CO2 must certainly fall below 350ppm, a level we have already passed. Although he recognizes that oceans can still absorb some carbon, they are rapidly losing their ability to do so. The emissions pattern must be reversed in a matter of months, not decades, if we hope to avoid the worst excesses of climate change.

I am concerned that the very real concerns about the economy will create the common but false idea that the environment needs to be put aside for the moment. As you must know, the environment underlies every economy, and the current crisis is not unrelated to environmental, resource and climate issues. The price of foods, for example, is going up because of droughts and competition with bio-fuels. Recently, it was reported that deforestation removes $2-5 trillion from the economy annually. This alone is a threat greater than the current economic crisis. In the United States, where deregulation was the principal reason for the mortgage crisis, a serious secondary factor was that house prices were falling as fuel prices soared, particularly in areas far from job locations. If we do not curtail a pattern of resource depletion with no regard for the costs involved, economic destabilization will continue.

In a study commissioned for the UK government, economist Nicholas Stern estimated in 2006 that the costs of unchecked climate change would be greater than those of both world wars and the depression combined. This last summer, he concluded that he had grossly underestimated the economic costs of climate change and that the true numbers were several times higher.

I understand that you inherited a country that had neglected its international obligations for far too long. I understand that this makes the task harder for Canadians. But I do not believe Canadians are unwilling to take up the task. What they need is a clear understanding of the risks, a clear understanding of the goals, and a clear understanding of the strategies required to get us there.

Al Gore has issued a challenge for the United States to replace all its generation from fossil fuels with renewable power over a decade. Both presidential candidates have pledged to try to meet that goal. Canada has vast hydro resources and thus a much lower dependence on fossil fuels for generation. There is no reason why we couldn't meet a similar target. So we need to implement whatever combination of incentives, regulations and market mechanisms are required to get this done. There are many jobs available in the manufacture and installation of wind turbines, solar thermal, photovoltaic and marine systems. This would help the Canadian economy to grow.

The biggest priority, however, needs to be investing in conservation and efficiency through incentives to support an appropriate regulatory environment and strong market mechanisms.

We need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels. Kairos, a Canadian ecumenical justice organization, is calling for a withdrawal of all subsidies to fossil fuels in a postcard campaign. I would go further. I believe that an economy-wide market mechanism that discourages carbon emissions will be absolutely critical. The carbon tax is one such measure that you opposed without giving a reasonable alternative. Given the crisis at hand, I believe this was irresponsible.

We also urgently need public investment in three critical areas, both of which can help to stimulate the economy as well.

First, we need to immediately stop building all structures that are inadequate for a post-carbon future and work rapidly to retrofit existing structures. Europeans have developed the Passivhaus standard which eliminates the need for mechanical heating systems. Proposed legislation will make this standard mandatory throughout Europe by 2016. The increased costs are negligible, occasionally negative and dropping as expertise increases. Insulation is far cheaper than furnaces and ductwork. California will be making a net-zero standard mandatory by 2020. This standard would force every structure to produce as much energy as it uses. Canada needs to adopt a standard such as one of these if we are to have any hope at all of achieving the required goals. Similarly, we need to embark on a rapid retrofit program, targeting at least 3% of our existing structures annually.

In the fall of 2007, Natural Resources Canada anticipated a shortfall in deliverability of natural gas of 11% by the end of 2009. Canada has not prepared for this crisis, which combines resource depletion and climate change. An enhanced country-wide building code and retrofit program helps to solve both crises and stimulates the economy in productive directions.

Second, we need to build out a public transit system to replace our reliance on the automobile. I'm sure that some electric cars will exist in the future, but energy will become a very precious commodity, so we will undoubtedly be less mobile, and we'll have to move more efficiently when we do. Car-dependent suburbs need to be reoriented with transit hubs or they will not be livable in the future.

Third, we need to reassess our agricultural base to make sure production can sustain Canadians first, rather than be directed at maximizing profits through export. We will not be able to truck fruits in from Mexico in refrigerated trucks in the future (and this is quite irrespective of climate change, simple resource depletion will guarantee it). Many chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are derived from fossil fuel sources and require enormous energy inputs. We need to make sure we have a plan in place so Canada can feed itself as we stop using fossils.

There is more work to be done. I have not touched on industry, except in manufacturing for a post-carbon economy. But we must make the first priority a guarantee of a livable planet for our children, and a close second the availability of food and shelter for all in the upcoming times of change.

Thank-you for your attention. I look forward to your response.

Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu

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