Let's Turn up the heat on Rex Murphy's flawed logic

In his regular column the other week Rex Murphy published a piece entitled Don’t turn up the heat on the West, which also had the great sub title: By making Western provinces pay for adventures in global warming policy we will be playing with Confederation.

For a man that regularly rails against the lack of political imagination in this country it is odd to see him shut down debate and present us with a narrow (Bush-styled) choice he usually loathes: our planet or our country. As a red blooded Canadian the choice for Rex is easy. The costs of climate change can be ignored since they will be born by my children in some hard to quantify future. In contrast, the political costs of acting (which he will witness) are “real” and “reckless.”

What is sad is that we’ve been here before. One wonders what Rex would have said in the 30′s or 60′s about asbestos mining. Here is a mineral for which there was overwhelming evidence that there was a negative impact on miners especially, and citizens generally, that came into contact with it. Indeed as early as 1935 senior executives in two of the largest firms in the industry – Raybestos Manhattan and Johns-Manville – secretly agreed that “our interests are best served by having asbestosis receive the minimum of publicity.” But the growing scientific literature from the 30′s-60′s that suggested asbestos had serious negative side effects didn’t matter. For one there were asbestos deniers (those contrarian thinker-types Rex would love), such as J. Corbett McDonald, a McGill professor who received $500,000 in research funding from Quebec Asbestos Mining Association and determined that contaminants in the environment, not asbestos, cause lung tumours seen in Canadian workers. Phew!

Looking back, we can see now that Asbestos was massively damaging and deeply, deeply costly. Asbestos is so problematic and has created so much exposure to the insurance industry that much of it remains unresolved today. In many countries the government simply had to offer direct compensation packages since the liabilities were too great to be covered. This is to say nothing of site and building cleanups (like out parliament buildings which are currently spending 10s millions to have the asbestos removed from). In total, we are definitely talking about 100s of billions of dollars. Possibly over a trillion dollars in costs over the last two-three decades. And that’s just in Canada.

Of course, back in 1960s and 70s talking about shutting down the abestoes industry would have posed a threat to national unity too. Most of Canada’s asbestoes mines are located in Quebec and so confronting this future risk (that science strongly suggested was imminent) would have required political leadership and tackling regionalism.

Thank god we didn’t. Our inaction spared us having to address the political consequences. Instead we’ve only had to deal with billions of dollars in lawsuits, tens of thousands (likely many more) lives cut short by cancer and other illnesses, and locking parts of our economy into a dying industry which the world was less and less interested in.

What’s most sad? We haven’t stopped. Prime Minister Harper continues to try to block a UN environmental agreement (the Rotterdam Convention) that would list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substances. His political quote on the issue: The Liberals are being “duped and manipulated by extremist groups,” and that the other national parties are urban-focused and don’t understand regional issues like asbestos. Of course, by blocking the convention Canada can continue to sell asbestos without informing purchasers – especially those in developing countries (one of the few markets left) – that it is hazardous. Yeah us!

Rex flawed logic is summed up when, in his article, he says:

Should some global warming action plan attempt to put the oil sands and Western energy development at significant disadvantage, or draw taxes out of the economies of the Western provinces to pay for adventures in global warming policy, we will be playing with Confederation.

In short, it doesn’t matter how serious an issue is. If it the politics are too difficult – we shouldn’t act. Indeed, I can imagine him using the same logic back in the 70s writing about asbestos, saying something like:

Should some asbestos regulatory regime place Quebec asbestoes mining at significant disadvantage, or draw taxes out of the economy of Quebec to pay for adventures in health and safety policy, we will be playing with Confederation.

Yes, we would have. And it would have been the right call. That’s what political leadership is Rex. I’m sorry you’re not interested in it.

17 thoughts on “Let's Turn up the heat on Rex Murphy's flawed logic

  1. Kim Feraday

    Here's a thought. Have everyone watch Mark Critch's “Rex” just once. No one will ever take him seriously again. The problem is that many people view Rex as an intellectual, which he might have been at one time, but now he seems to have become a ranting lunatic, especially on climate change. We had a writer friend over a couple of weeks ago who had that opinion — I showed him a couple of Rex's recent rants and he was left speechless. What would be nice would be if the G&M would at least balance Rex (and Margaret Wente's) anti-climate change op-eds with something on the other side.

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  2. RobCottingham

    And those coastal provinces who will bear a disproportionate impact from higher ocean levels – any impact on Confederation there? The provinces and territories whose boreal forests will come under pressure? The provinces whose farms and fisheries will be severely disrupted?Or are the only provinces that count the ones that are convenient to Rex Murphy's argument?

    Reply
  3. David Eaves

    Great point Rob. Sadly this isn't an issue for Rex since he doesn't believe that global warming is caused by human activity (or that it is even occurring). So he doesn't believe that the rest of us will pay a price.

    Reply
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  6. Michael M

    I don't think Rex is being represented very well these days. His timing may be off but who can honestly not recognize the gadfly of old. His point, which admittedly isn't very well written, is that the imposition of further costs on the oil sands and in particular Western Canada would be very bad policy. I think this goes without saying for anyone familiar with economics of oil. The last time this type of scrutiny took place in Alberta in the 1980's it laid the groundwork for the rise of Manning and Harper.

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  7. Michael M

    I don't think Rex is being represented very well these days. His timing may be off but who can honestly not recognize the gadfly of old. His point, which admittedly isn't very well written, is that the imposition of further costs on the oil sands and in particular Western Canada would be very bad policy. I think this goes without saying for anyone familiar with economics of oil. The last time this type of scrutiny took place in Alberta in the 1980's it laid the groundwork for the rise of Manning and Harper.

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  8. Brenton

    I'm vaguely familiar with the economics of oil and oil companies. They make billions of dollars in profits, hand over a small chunk to provincial governments, and pollute the surrounding areas. Because of Ralph Klein's shortsightedness, Alberta has no Heritage fund and has to beg the oil companies for tax revenue.

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  9. Michael M

    'vaguely' is an understatement. take an economics course. you sound like every other generalizing radish lover. costs to produce a barrel of oil in the tar sands – conservatively $60 foregoing marketing and distribution costs. And yeah they DO pollute the area but until the oil companies come up with an alternative fuel we better learn to not condemn so much someone else's backyard in another province that is fuelling our canadian economy by 10s of billions of dollars into the country -otherwise you'l get a worse repeat of the NEC crisis. You'd presumably also like to shut down logging in Russia and oil refining in Khyrgurkistan too?and by the way – it is oil companies that are going to help us considerably in getting over our dependence on oil because it is them in conjunction with provincial energy companies (note – NOT environmentalist lobby groups) that have the necessary capital to do so.

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  10. Jacques Drolet

    It is indeed about leadership David. Since we all know it tends to go down the drain as individual move up in the clan hierarchy (whatever the clan is), shouldn't it be obvious that we should start considering Kant and Socrates suggestion of reclaiming our individual responsibilities? To be a wee bit optimist, in this time of blogging openness, could the moment ever be better? Keep on the good work David

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  11. Brenton

    I have taken an economics course or two, and please don't presume to know what I think should or shouldn't happen. I do understand that it costs a fortune to explore for, extract, refine and transport oil. I also know that oil companies are making a killing, and have been for quite some time. Sure, there are some rough times when oil dips to $40, but they keep right on making their billions.And yes, BP and Shell are investing in newer cleaner energy technologies. Well done. Not sure that gives them a free pass to strip mine an area the size of a very large something.

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  12. David Eaves

    Thank you Jacques.I think one thing I find so troubling about Rex's stand is how divorced it is from the evidence and how one sided it becomes.I don't mind contrarian arguements – but only when they are backed by fact and evidence. Rex's contrian arguement is about ignoring and/or dismissing evidence. Moreover I think Rob makes a compelling argument above when he asks why are the economic needs of Alberta's oil industry prioritized over the economic needs of the coastal provinces whose economies will be ravaged by rising sea levels…

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  13. Michael M

    …because the tar sands represent the economic needs of canada and not just alberta alone…in fact they currently employ 10s of thousands of otherwise unemployed atlantic born workers…that is why the sands are prioritized. I don't mean to sound hobbesian here – just want pple to recognize that decision making involves prioritizing and in this case I see the case for continued emphasis on oil sands extraction tethered within the current evolving paradigm of existing federal and provincial environmental regulation

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  14. Jacques Drolet

    The nudge I would like to make is on your suggestion of “continued emphasis”. Agree that going back to why we did it and what it has done so far is ill placed/motivated. But to now voluntarily go on forward in terms of policy does not seem to me to take into account all that we know and consequently, your comment seems to be visceral which is understandable but it is illegitimate in terms of humanitarian/global values. Priorities, yes, this means considering a little bit more than Albertans and Canadians because in terms of environment we are all in the same boat. Kitchy last phrase I agree but I do not take it away because it carries the meaning. :-)

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  15. Michael M

    …because the tar sands represent the economic needs of canada and not just alberta alone…in fact they currently employ 10s of thousands of otherwise unemployed atlantic born workers…that is why the sands are prioritized. I don't mean to sound hobbesian here – just want pple to recognize that decision making involves prioritizing and in this case I see the case for continued emphasis on oil sands extraction tethered within the current evolving paradigm of existing federal and provincial environmental regulation

    Reply
  16. Jacques Drolet

    The nudge I would like to make is on your suggestion of “continued emphasis”. Agree that going back to why we did it and what it has done so far is ill placed/motivated. But to now voluntarily go on forward in terms of policy does not seem to me to take into account all that we know and consequently, your comment seems to be visceral which is understandable but it is illegitimate in terms of humanitarian/global values. Priorities, yes, this means considering a little bit more than Albertans and Canadians because in terms of environment we are all in the same boat. Kitchy last phrase I agree but I do not take it away because it carries the meaning. :-)

    Reply
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