February 15, 2007

David Suzuki Climate Change Interview

Suzuki Climate Interview

ZNet | Science

Suzuki Climate Interview
by Chris Arsenault and David Suzuki; February 12, 2007

For the first time in a long time, the environment is getting some major attention, or at least major lip-service, from the powers that be, nationally and internationally.

To try and "turn concern into concrete action" David Suzuki, one of Canada's leading environmentalists, will be crossing the country in February on a 50 city tour, speaking with communities on the theme 'what would you do if you were Prime Minister.'

David Suzuki is author of more than 40 books including From Ape to Super Species and the Sacred Balance. He has a PHD in Zoology from the University of Chicago and was named one of the ten greatest Canadians in CBC's competition.

The following is what transpired when Suzuki spoke with ZNet columnist Chris Arsenault by phone from his office in Vancouver just before deadline last week.

Chris Arsenault: You've been talking about the environment and climate change issues for the last 40-some years. Why do you think world government and business leaders are finally starting to pay attention?

David Suzuki: The Federal government has gone through a change of heart because the public has registered this issue so high in the polls. People know there's something screwy going on with weather and climate.

Here in British Columbia, we've had incredible extreme weather. Storms destroyed 3,000 trees in Stanley Park. We have forests turning red from the pine beetles that aren't killed by cold winters. Tofino, in the rainforest, was shut down in the middle of tourist season because they didn't have clean water. All these things are coming together, and people are freaking out.

In 1988, I want to remind people, the environment was the number one issue.

That's why Brian Mulroney became the 'environmental Prime Minister', because the public was so worried. Very shortly after that, the economy became a concern because it went into a dip and everyone was worried about jobs. The economy is doing very well now so we can look at other things like health and the environment.

CA: If we are talking about the economy, the Alberta tar-sands oil industry is a major engine of growth and Canada's biggest polluter. How are we going to take on an industry with such political, regional and economic clout?

DS: Even [former reactionary Reform Party leader Preston] Manning, is saying that you can't just act as if air and water are free. It takes a huge amount of energy just to melt the tar sands and then you have to use a huge quantity of water. That's a cost which has to be internalized. Right now the oil industry is getting away scotch free. They aren't having to pay for the air and water they use.

If the industry were paying for the pollution, I don't think the tar sands would be economical right now. We've already subsidized the tar stands to the tune of billions of dollars. Those costs have been externalized; they should be internalized by the companies who are doing the polluting.

The reality is what we need right now is strong Federal leadership to set standards, concrete targets and legislate timelines to meet those targets.

We've got to stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. They're making windfall profits and we're still subsidizing them to the tune of billions of dollars. It doesn't make any sense. Take that money and use it for green energy, rapid transit and all sorts of other good stuff.

CA: In basic economics, an externality is a negative by-product from a commercial relationship which affects a party who isn't a direct participant in that relationship. For example, if a company pollutes a river which effects a community near its plant, the cost of the pollution is an externality.

When you talk about the fossil fuel industry being subsidized, do you mean they aren't paying the externalities associated with their operations? Or are you talking about direct government hand-outs to oil companies?

DS: They aren't paying their externalities: which is huge. But there are things like oil depreciation allowances. We allow oil companies to write-off costs associated with exploring for new wells and other expenses. If they [oil companies] don't pay the costs: that's a subsidy.

I think the terrible aspect of Canada is that we don't have a national energy policy that looks to long-term sustainability. We are going to need fossil fuels into the future but we have to develop those resources so we don't use them so rapidly and so we husband them for future generations.

Right now, we're rushing to ship them all to the United States and the free trade agreement says we can't step back.

If we decide, 'oh we're sending too much away, we have to save some for future generations', free trade says we can't do that. We're stuck, basically, providing for the United States. That's what the oil sands project is all about: providing the States with a more dependable source of oil than the Middle East.

CA: Realistically, with free trade and the commercial largesses of the U.S., is there any way we can craft independent energy policy? If we ever tried to, say, nationalize the oil industry, do you think they'd send in soldiers; turn Fort MacMurray into Falluja?

DS: I don't know what they would do. However, I think if we started to internalize the cost of water and air then immediately this whole thing would be slowed down a hell of a lot. At the rate we are going, the U.S.

wants to be taking 5 million barrels of tar sands oil per day out of Alberta. That would account for more than half of all the greenhouses gases we produce in Canada; it's just crazy.

They are developing a multi-billion dollar [gas] pipeline from the MacKenzie delta. All of that natural gas is going to be brought down, but not to heat our homes. It's going to be burned in the tar sands to melt the tar sands.

We need a comprehensive energy program that internalizes air and water; that internalizes the costs of what we are doing to the atmosphere. It ought to be a long-term program recognizing that we are eventually going to deplete all of our deposits. We are going to need most of that for our own people.

These resources are a one time gift. Once they're used up, that's it.

CA: In terms of greenhouse gases, George Monbiot, a popular columnist with the UK Guardian, argues the industrialized world must cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent by the year 2030.

He says if this sort of drastic reduction is not made, world temperatures will rise to a point where "runaway climate change" could spell the end of civilization. What do you think about this stark position?

DS: Climatologists are saying a rise in temperature beyond two degrees a century is going to introduce so many unknowns they simply can't imagine what's going to happen. We are already melting the permafrost. We know there are massive deposits of methane there, which is 22 times more potent to the atmosphere than greenhouse gas.

Once we start releasing large quantities of methane into the atmosphere, God knows what the hell that's going to do?

We just don't know enough about what we are doing. There's a faith, or a hope, that if we can restrict greenhouse gas emissions so the temperature doesn't rise above two degrees, we can somehow mitigate what's going on and get through it OK.

I think a two degree rise is already a massive rise. We can't stop what we've already done. We've already added one third more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It's going to take hundreds of years for that to equilibrate.

So, [George] Monbiot is absolutely right: we have to aim for a 90 per cent or more decrease in emissions. Not slowly at first and then do it rapidly later. We have to start rapid cuts now.

CA: If we seriously tried to cut emissions by 90 per cent, everything would have to change. What do you think the country would look like ten years from now?

DS: I think there would be all sorts of huge benefits. People wouldn't be as fat as they are now. I think the air will be much cleaner over our cities. I think there will be a beginning of a decrease in the rate of asthma, which now affects 15 per cent of children. Our cities will be more livable places because we won't be using cars nearly so much.

We'll have a live in a radically different way. We'll basically live, work and play in the same area, we won't need cars to cover that distance. We'll have to have dense pockets of settlement, connected to each other by rapid transit. I think there will be huge benefits.

CA: You've said this environmental craze once swept Parliament in 1988 and then faded. Do you think it will be any different this time?

DS: That's why I am going on this cross-Canada tour in February. We are aiming, not at the coming election, but we're saying, 'whoever gets elected, we have to make sure all of this concern is translated to concrete action'.

All of the parties are going to be singing green in this election. Now the question is: what are you going to do? We have to keep their feet to the fire and make sure there are hard targets and timelines to meet those targets. It has to be legislated.

We've got to start using taxation to encourage the things we want and discourage the things we don't want. We should pull back taxes on personal income and we should be taxing the hell out of pollution and carbon is one of those pollutants.

CA: You've been at this for a pretty long time, what are some of the most inspiring victories you have witnessed and participated in?

DS: It comes down to grassroots people and things that happen.

There are so many things at the level of individuals and their communities.

I wrote a book called, Good News for a Change: Hope for a Troubled Planet and it's filled with examples of what can be done by individuals, corporations, organizations and governments.

I'll be honest, when I started researching for it, I thought I might get a comic book sized book. To my amazement, I probably could have filled five books.

The good news is there's a lot of good news out there.

The bad news is that our so called leaders in business and government aren't interested, they just want to keep doing things the same old way.

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