Neglecting the risks of climate change: an intergenerational crime?

The vast majority of Canadians feel a reverence for the natural surroundings that make up our home and native land.  We celebrate our environment in song, stories…    even beer commercials.  I’ll fess up.  I ordered a Molson Canadian after its “Made from Canada” commercials aired during the Olympics, because they reminded us that we have “more square feet of awesomeness per person than any other nation on earth.”


Since we know we have “the best backyard in the world,” it is fundamental to monitor what we do to sustain it over time.  This is especially important when evaluating whether our country still works for all generations.  Regrettably, there may be no greater evidence of an intergenerational breach than our ineffective efforts to reduce carbon emissions in Canada.


In 1976 Canada was one of the worst three OECD countries for per capita carbon dioxide emissions.  According to data from the International Energy Association, on average, each Canadian produced nearly 17 tonnes of CO2 in that year.  Only citizens of the US and Luxembourg emitted more.


Since then, we have learned a great deal about climate change, and the risks associated with even a two degree increase in global temperatures – rising sea levels, extreme weather events, change in rainfall patterns and all the risks to human life, settlements, infrastructure, hydro power, crop yields, etc.   To illustrate what these risks could mean here, there are now maps showing that Richmond and Delta will be underwater if climate change results in a six meter rise in sea levels, along with one third of New Westminster.  There will also be serious flooding in Port Coquitlam, Surrey and Pitt Meadows.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, this will include my little farm at the confluence of the Pitt and Fraser Rivers!)


This knowledge has not caused us to change our energy consumption.  Canadians have failed to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions in over three decades.  As the 2008 recession began, average emissions remained 17 tonnes per person.  They have only dipped slightly since then because of the reduction in economic growth.   Not only do we remain among the worst fossil fuel dinosaurs internationally, the citizens of countries that already had smaller environmental footprints than we did in the 1970s have shrunk their footprints still further.


So it turns out that Canadians don’t just rank poorly by international standards on family policy, as I have discussed in previous columns.  We also rank very poorly in terms of our environmental record.  Multiple earths would be required if all global citizens were to consume resources at the same rate as Canadians.


I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Our poor showing on both fronts originates from a common cultural malaise in Canada – our public tendency to discount the future in favour of the present.


Although there is no doubt Canadians privately love their children and grandchildren, macro data about our public decisions make it very hard to deny that Canadians who became adults in the 1970s now approach retirement leaving larger fiscal and environmental debts than they inherited.  Yet little of their public consumption went to future-oriented investments in family policy, or policy to encourage sustainable development.


As a result, the generation of Canadians in their prime child rearing years inherits a very tough task.  Given that Canadians have not reduced emissions over decades, the need for change is now far more immediate.  Canadians under 45 must meet this challenge as they simultaneously struggle with time and income squeezes.  Young people’s household incomes are stagnant compared to the 1970s even though dual-earner households have become the norm.  And they enjoy less disposable income because of higher housing prices and child care services that absorb the equivalent of a second mortgage.


All the while, Baby Boomers are about to retire with higher incomes than retirees in the past, more wealth in housing, and a longer period of retirement.  Yes, they must stretch their pension and savings over this period, which will no doubt be a challenge for some.  But for many retirees longer retirements also mean more travel – and the expanding environmental footprint that accompanies so much vacationing.


Given the intergenerational breach implied by climate change, I decided to interview a Canadian who has been thinking about this issue far longer than most – Dr. David Suzuki.  The fact that Boomers retire leaving a larger environmental debt than they inherited cannot be denied, he indicates. “All you have to do is follow the curves of amount of pesticides used annually, number of species going extinct, number of watersheds polluted or ecosystems logged or developed and you can see that the ecological debt is obviously worse now than it was 30 years ago.”


Lamenting our country’s slow pace of adaptation to climate change, Suzuki has invoked the concept of “intergenerational crime.” Why?  Because failure to respond to the compelling science that shows global climate change poses a serious threat to human survival for the coming generations, in his view, legally constitutes either “criminal negligence” or “willful blindness.”


The legal veracity of this concept is not my interest.  But we would do well to heed Dr. Suzuki’s insight that one generation can harm another simply by maintaining the status quo instead of adapting policy to a deteriorating environment.  This is now the legacy with which Baby Boomers in Canada must grapple as a generation.


My hope is that generations following the Boomers will not repeat their intergenerational oversight.  But this hope may be misplaced, because younger generations don’t show many signs of diverging significantly from the patterns established by older role models.  Nor do we show much appetite to use our political voices effectively to push for change.  I’ve lamented in the past that Generation X seems more concerned with who is being voted off some island on TV than who is voted into our legislatures.  But since global climate change threatens to swamp islands, perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to judge those who focus on island shenanigans!


As we search for solutions amid turbid intergenerational waters, tried and true Canadian family values provide a beacon by which to navigate.  Family values remind us that much of our wealth is not found in material goods, but in relationships, and the time we spend with them. I have therefore recommended in previous columns a New Deal for Families that would support Canadians to spend more time together, and potentially less on stuff.


Such a policy shift also has important ecological implications, inviting us to revisit our way of living on the planet. A growing environmental literature suggests that reducing Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions will entail a significant redistribution in how we use our time.   The unemployed and working poor clearly need additional labour market opportunities, but the majority of Canadians work hundreds more hours per year than the typical German, Dutch and Norwegian employee.  When this is done primarily for consumption purposes – say to buy the next Ipad, outfit or holiday – Canada’s tradition of family values serves as a reminder that a simpler life may be the richer one.  Many of us, men as much as women (and myself included) therefore have good reason to pursue a better balance between paid work and a variety of important unpaid activities.  These include child care, elder care, and engagement in local activities, etc. that are essential to building a healthy, thriving and ecologically sustainable democracy and economy.


Now that we have rescinded our commitments under Kyoto, Canadians must contemplate more than ever whether our country still works for all generations.  Recommitting to this national aspiration will require that we finally innovate with green family policy – policy that adapts to the time, income and service squeeze that constrains Canadians under 45; and policy that adapts to the ecological squeeze we face because Canadians have chosen not to reduce our per capita carbon footprint for more than three decades.


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Neglecting the risks of climate change: an intergenerational crime?
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