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.