Today is Keystone XL Sunday in the United States, a kind of tailgate party for the environmental movement. Various interests will be counting the size of the crowd and all that. But the number of protestors, even low, or whether they are "right" or "wrong" in their assessments of the pipeline from Canada entirely misses the point.
This should have been, as Prime Minister inelegantly stated at one point, a no-brainer. That it has come down to disputes over the sizes of crowds is yet another illustration of how badly Canada has played its hand in the energy and environment field. Over the past week, Canadian officials have been discombobulated by the aggressive messaging against climate change in President Obama's State of the Union address and the subsequent media blitz by U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson. Obama's message is partially veiled and not fully articulated, but for us it amounts to 'our trading partners had better get their act together on climate change.'
The Harper government has responded quickly by trotting out Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver to tell our good story on climate change. The problem is Canada doesn't have a good story. Even if we may have a couple of policy strands to grasp onto, it is very clear to anyone with the slighted interest in the issue that Canada has gone from the happy talk-no tough choices attitude of the Chretien years to the antagonistic-bury your head in the sand stance of the Harper years.
At how many international climate conferences has Canada been singled out by the environment movement for Fossil awards of the day, a sort of worst-dressed list of national governments. There were conferences at which Canada refused to send a minister or even a senior public servant. Our rhetoric has been about moving in lock-step with the United States, but our demeanour has been sour and obstructionist. We have preferred to sound rightgeous about the oil sands rather than make the difficult choices of getting in front on our policies.
In the process, we have harmed the Canada brand as an environmental standard-bearer. We have gone from fresh lakes and snowy mountains to dirty oil and leaky pipelines. We've put ourselves in a position to be wrong-footed. And it has all been unnecessary.
The Bush administration wasn't climate change-friendly either. But senior policy-makers in the United States, including national security experts, have always kept a careful eye on matters. They saw it as a potential global disruptor, a matter for serious consideration even if they were not ready for serious action. In November 2008, the National Intelligence Council, a kind of think tank for U.S. intelligence agencies, produced its fourth global trends report. These reports (the fifth was released in December 2012, though I haven't yet read it) look at major international security issues in part through fictionalized scenarios. In this volume, the authors included a diary entry from a fictional President in which he recounts an October Surprise - a devastating hurricane that descends on New York City during the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting. World leaders need to be airlifted to safety. The New York Stock Exchange is put more profoundly out of commission than it had been at 9-11.
This may well be a case of intelligence thinkers trying out as Hollywood screenwriters. But the dramatic flourishes aside, it isn't that far off Hurricane Sandy. Which just goes to show that extreme events are not necessarily unforeseeable events. In contrast, what scenario planning has the Canadian government been engaged in? Where is the evidence it involved itself in risk assessments and mitigation exercises, whether environmental or political? Or did it simply figure that a) oil is king; b) Canada's so-called "ethical oil" would enjoy an assured place in the hearts and pipelines of Americans; c) President Obama was too hemmed in by coal state politics and Congressional constraints to do anything untoward.
That all may be so, but scenario planning means preparing for worst, as Global Trends 2025 did. Protecting the interests of Alberta means much more than engaging public relations experts. How about pricing carbon and using the proceeds to finance world-beating recovery research that would have imbued Canada with a clean oil repuation because we would have been working our guts out to truly be a clean energy power.
The Toronto Star reported Saturday that the Harper government is about to appoint a religious ambassador. If getures is the way we want to play the game, why didn't we ever appoint a clean energy ambassador?
Keystone XL isn't dead in the water. Nor are Canada's economic interests. But our antagonistic stance and lack of diplomatic savvy has put those interests at unnecessary risk. It's now a brainer. We ought to be thinking hard - and fast!