Review: All Wrong On Climate Change

Cabinet’s climate change program is a demonstrable fiasco swallowed in acrimony, evasion and costly litigation. Authors of Public Deliberation on Climate Change ask, is it possible Parliament is incapable of getting the big jobs done?

The Commons finance committee was in session May 1. MPs noted the finance department had a 2015 memo detailing the cost of a carbon tax to Canadian households, but censored all the numbers. How much would it cost? “I would prefer not to expand,” replied Gervais Coulombe, a department tax director.

On March 22, the Commons environment committee met. MPs asked, what’s the impact of the carbon tax on emissions? “I don’t have that number offhand,” replied Deputy Environment Minister Stephen Lucas. He coughed up the data five weeks later. It’s 55 percent short of the emissions target.

Here is Parliament’s climate change debate in a nutshell, a hodgepodge of secret math, evasive testimony and exasperated MPs. In the absence of coherent leadership it’s become “a proxy for political battles”, as Public Deliberation puts it.

Authors recount the experience of a series of research projects and workshops called Alberta Climate Dialogue to a) identify the problem and b) ponder solutions. Public Deliberation is not a scientific paper; it’s a compelling, human explanation of how the whole climate debate has gone wrong.

In Parliament this is a clash of competing narratives, where one side asks, “Why should Grandma pay 14 percent more for home heating oil?” and the other side replies, “Okay, what’s your climate plan?”

“People tell stories to get a handle on a complex and uncertain world,” writes contributor Gwendolyn Blue, a Climate Dialogue researcher. “The language we use and the stories we tell do not innocently reflect reality. Rather, our stories actively shape the ways in which we perceive, understand, discuss and act in the world.”

Public Deliberation identifies a natural tension in the climate change debate. It is real. “Deliberations focused on wicked issues present an additional layer of complexity,” note authors. “Intractable problems that involve competing values and tensions – where time is not costless and those most responsible for the problem have the least immediate incentive to do something about  it – challenge existing public policy engagement processes at many levels.”

That’s a damning indictment of a multi-billion dollar question. Two contributors to Public Deliberation, Tom Prugh of the Worldwatch Institute and Public Agenda’s Matt Leighninger, warn there is more at stake here than a 14 percent hike in home heating oil. “There are signs that twenty-first century public institutions are not up to the challenge of dealing with wicked problems like climate change,” they write. “For this failing, and a host of other reasons, the trust and confidence citizens once had in their public institutions is in very sharp decline.”

Incompetence is not inevitable. Skillful leaders can address complex issues with time and care. Proponents of free trade systematically dismantled a century of industrial tariffs by appointing a 1982 Royal Commission with cross-country hearings, opening negotiations in 1986, putting the question to voters in 1988 and bringing free trade into force in 1989. It was so methodical even free trade critics were left to say, “Okay, if that’s the way you want it – ”.

On climate change, cabinet opted for the shotgun approach instead. They should have read Public Deliberation.

By Holly Doan

Public Deliberation on Climate Change: Lessons from Alberta Climate Dialogue, edited by Lorelei L. Hanson; Athabasca University Press; 242 pages; ISBN 9781-77199-2152; $34.95

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