I’m in Cairns, Australia, in mid-winter on a balmy mid 20oC, somewhat overcast day. The local tourist economy seems a bit depressed, a product of the depressed world economy and the rising cost of an Australian vacation, but the Great Barrier Reef looked as magnificent as ever from the plane on the way in.
Australia and Canada share many features, but there are also some differences. Striking is the difference between them in the attitude to climate change. Australia experienced the impacts of climate change more quickly than did Canada with savage droughts and serious fire seasons about 4 years ago. Canada has seen particularly peculiar weather during 2012 with a very mild winter, and early spring and some recent high temperatures. Canadians are just beginning to realize what climate change may mean to us. (South of our border, the heat extremes have been much more pronounced and the weather has created significant insurance costs as well as some loss of life.) Both Australia and Canada have economies centered on resource extraction, with oil, gas and coal all quite important resources in Australia. Both countries have growing carbon footprints as a result. But the Australian government is behaving very differently to the Canadian one.
In Canada, the Federal government, under what I presume is strong influence from the multinational oil and gas producers, seems hell bent on ramping up production of tar sands oil as rapidly as possible. Not content to beat the drum in favor of the energy producers, this government is acting to 1) demonize any who speak out against this course of action, 2) threaten environmental NGOs with witch hunts concerning their charitable status if they lead such protests, 3) muzzle the government’s own scientists who may have data on environmental change that they might like to share with the Canadian public, and 4) progressively dismantle the country’s capacity for scientifically sound monitoring of the state of its environment. There is intense pressure by the government as well as the oil companies to build the Keystone XL pipeline to east Texas refineries, and the Northern Gateway pipeline and port complex on Canada’s west coast in order that the rate of production from the Athabasca tar sands can be tripled (it is currently at capacity for the available methods of moving the product to markets). And there is an intense, government-led propaganda campaign to convince Canadians that the health of our economy depends on the health of the oil and gas sector alone – anyone who thinks otherwise is labeled a traitor, or worse, an environmentalist.
In Australia the fossil fuel extractors are just as enthusiastic about getting their product out of the ground and off to markets in China and elsewhere. Corporations are supposed to work for the financial benefit of their shareholders, so this is hardly surprising. But the government is managing to hold to a more balanced, some may even say a schizophrenic role, encouraging the energy sector on the one hand, while simultaneously attempting to take seriously the need to reduce carbon footprints. On July 1st, Australia rolled out a new carbon tax that will apply to most products. The rate is $23 per tonne of CO2 generated, and emissions trading will commence in 2015. The government has taken a big political risk in introducing this tax, and may fall because of it. (Tax breaks have been provided to ease its introduction.)
Australia’s per capita carbon footprint is slightly higher than Canada’s – 18.9 vs 16.4 tonnes CO2 per capita respectively in 2008 – primarily due to the size of its energy sector. But Canada’s is growing rapidly, and the Canadian government is not even lifting a finger to admonish about the need to reduce it.
Of course, one of the best things that could happen to affect our environment would be for the world to run up against peak oil sooner rather than later (and peak gas). But at present it appears as if the improved extraction technologies are pushing peak oil into the future. Meanwhile, the 2012 International Coral Reef Symposium commences tomorrow morning and I will get a clearer picture of how the world’s reef scientists view the current state of reefs, and the current threats to their continuance.