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Climate Fix: Who Plans? Who Pays?

Labour left off premier's action team.

By Tom Barrett 3 Dec 2007 |

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee with a special focus on climate change politics and policy. Read his previous reports.

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The provincial government' climate action team, contains "some of the province's best minds," according to Premier Gordon Campbell's announcement on Nov. 20.

The team, which will advise the government on how to reach its climate change targets, contains plenty of high-powered academics, several business executives, a municipal politician and a First Nations leader.

No one from labour.

This upset B.C. Government and Service Employees Union president George Heyman, who wondered in an interview with Sean Holman's Public Eye Online whether Campbell's government is "ideologically blind" when it comes to fighting global warming.

Heyman had complained about labour's exclusion from the climate change process earlier this month, before the action team was announced, challenging the government's chief climate change bureaucrat at a Vancouver conference.

Graham Whitmarsh, the head of the government's Climate Action Secretariat, told Heyman that members of the action team would be picked for their expertise. "It's not a democratic organization," Whitmarsh said.

The tiff highlights the various interests that are at stake as B.C. attempts to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent or more by 2020.

Nukes and carbon taxes?

A recent report by the Pembina Institute, sponsored in part by Heyman's BCGEU, states that cutting emissions "will encompass all areas of our economy and will significantly transform our society."

Says the report: "This transition will have deep effects on communities, workers and families. We will need to find ways to cushion the effects on those of us who will be disproportionately impacted, and ensure that workers and communities do not bear an unfair share of the burden of change."

The conference where Heyman faced off against Whitmarsh was an attempt to bring many different interests together to talk about climate change. The conference, known as Take the Lead, had representatives from business, labour, religion, First Nations and the environmental movement.

Plenty of people said things that made others at least a little uncomfortable. Repeated talk of carbon taxes left business representative Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the Business Council of B.C., joking that he'd suddenly remembered another appointment.

Andrew Weaver, from the University of Victoria school of earth and ocean sciences, talked about the positive side of emissions-free nuclear power -- not a popular topic with the environmental movement. ("I'm not an advocate for it," he said, but added that he doesn't see why nuclear power isn't being discussed in connection with climate change.)

Criticism from some enviros

Anyone who expected the conference participants to act as uncritical third-party validators for the government might have been surprised. The conference opened with the release of the Pembina report, which concludes that government proposals to date will cut B.C.'s emissions by only 5 million tonnes -- 31 million tonnes short of the 2020 target.

And Sierra Club B.C. executive director Kathryn Molloy complained that the provincial government continues to encourage drilling for coalbed methane and is still looking to twin the Port Mann bridge, despite its green rhetoric.

"There's a real contradiction, there's a real gap in the activities of the government," she said.

'Who's going to pay?'

B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair talked about how business and labour have a "proud history" of fighting each other in this province.

However, he said, cutting emissions requires that "everybody goes forward and nobody loses. If there be winners and losers in this debate then it can't work.

"We all have to be winners in our own right. That means making sure there are decent jobs, there are transitions. And when we make the tough choices, all interests will be considered." Sinclair said there is a perception that "if we fix the environment it'll be a disaster for the economy. Or if we want to keep our economy we've got to destroy the environment.

"This is not the story that works for working people. The story that works for working people is we roll up our sleeves, we look at questions of social justice."

Asked about the government's climate change legislation, Sinclair said:

"Pass all the legislation you want, but at the end of the day you better get us all in a room and we'd better start talking tough with each other, dealing with tough issues."

"My question is who's going to pay," Sinclair said.

The government, he said, could cut gasoline consumption by doubling the price.

If that happens, "the people with money will drive and the people without money won't. There's a social justice issue about how we do this equitably."

Sinclair added that he heard a lot of business leaders at the conference talking about social justice as well.

Business 'chased' away?

There was one area of agreement between business and labour: both Sinclair and the Business Council's Finlayson warned that strict regulations won't work if they simply drive business elsewhere.

"For example," Finlayson said, "we could reduce our emissions from industry substantially if we simply chased out from B.C. industries like cement and chemicals and pulp and paper and have that stuff produced elsewhere.

"I don't think that's going to achieve anything."

If these industries leave B.C. to pollute in more lax jurisdictions, net greenhouse gases will probably increase, Finlayson said.

However, he said, businesses will likely have to pay some sort of price for emitting.

"I think as we move forward we are going to see a price attached to carbon emissions," he said. "I think it's inevitable that we're going to be functioning in what economists call a carbon constrained world."

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