The Planet is Dying of Consumption and Only Citizens can Halt the Process

At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, COP21, the focus has been on promises countries make to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These macro level commitments are always made with varying degrees of sincerity because few political leaders will be willing to cause real or even perceived damage to their economies.

In other words, it may be unrealistic to expect the bold and courageous political leadership necessary to address the magnitude of the climate problem.

Although Canada’s reputation as an environmental laggard evolved while the Harper government was in power, it should not be forgotten that the Chretien government’s support of the Kyoto Accord was mainly symbolic. Even the most cursory research would reveal that Canada worked to weaken parts of the final Kyoto Protocol through market-based, flexibility mechanisms that reduced Canada’s responsibilities to combat climate change.

For instance, Canada favoured Joint Implementation and Clean Development Mechanisms which allow one country to fund and receive credit for emission-reduction in another country. These devices, embraced by other countries including Japan, the U.S. and Australia contributed to a watering down of national targets to make them palatable to economic interests.  

Regardless how determined the current Liberal government may be to tackle climate change, there are powerful political and economic forces it has to contend with.

That is why if the warming of this planet is to be slowed — if not halted — it will not come about by government fiat, nor should it. Governments are reluctant to impose unpopular measures and the corporate sector will resist attempts to curtail our freedom to consume. This is the elephant in the room: the planet is dying of consumption, a fact that was recognized four decades ago.  

So what’s the solution? The impetus must come from citizens. Their overwhelming support will stiffen the spines of political leaders.

It will require nothing less than a popular uprising, especially in the industrialized world, to convey the message that tackling climate change is urgent. And Canadians must express their willingness to swallow the bitter medicine necessary to solve the problem. For a start, we need to be less wasteful — we throw out more garbage per capita than people in any other developed country.  We also throw away half our food, but on this matter, we are not alone.

People in industrialized countries enjoy an unsustainable lifestyle that swallows up the bulk of the world’s resources. With about five percent of the world’s population, Canada and the U.S. consume 32 percent of its resources. If the rest of the world caught up with us, it would be catastrophic.

It’s easy to ignore the impact of individual actions on the environment.  Whether it is using energy for our mobile devices – the smart phones that never leave our sides – or the proliferation of two-storey inflatable Santa Clauses (or their seasonal equivalent) that adorn more and more lawns, few of us even think of the consequences of our spending habits. Consumption must be addressed.

COP21 was an opportunity for citizens to inform governments that they are ready to make painful choices. But we, at the grassroots level, must drive the process otherwise governments will continue to meet and sign accords with lots of wiggle room and it will all be for show.

If our new federal government truly believes in hope and change, it will come up with more robust means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Prime Minister Trudeau has announced to the world that Canada is back and if that means we’re back to a wishy-washy approach to environmental solutions, the hopes that are riding on his shoulders will soon evaporate.

Barrie,Doreen_PoliSci_Sep2015Doreen Barrie is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary.