Harper in denial: Stephen Harper’s refusal of climate reality
Definition of denial, according to Merriam Webster:
1. refusal to satisfy a request or desire
2. a (1) refusal to admit the truth or reality (as of a statement or charge) (2) : assertion that an allegation is false
b : refusal to acknowledge a person or a thing : disavowal
3 . the opposing by the defendant of an allegation of the opposite party in a lawsuit
5. negation in logic
6. a psychological defense mechanism in which confrontation with a personal problem or with reality is avoided by denying the existence of the problem or reality
— in denial
refusing to admit the truth or reality of something unpleasant <a patient in denial about his health problems>
The Canadian government’s official position on climate change:
The Government of Canada supports an aggressive approach to climate change that achieves real environmental and economic benefits for all Canadians.
The causes of climate change and its impacts on the environment and human health are now more understood. Canada is a vast country with a diverse climate, which makes the impacts of climate change all the more important.
The Government of Canada supports efforts to protect the environment by developing policies and programs, conducting scientific research, and working with other government departments, the provinces, territories and international partners in the fight against climate change.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to be a man in denial. He and his government ministers say that they are committed to dealing with the climate crisis, but their policies are creating an oil economy that threatens the stability of the global climate. Harper is not alone in his cognitive dissonance—most world leaders have not yet come to terms with the reality that most of the known fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are to begin to deal with the climate; but here is where Harper separates himself from the rest: most world leaders do not control an estimated 170 billion barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil and will do seemingly anything to get it to market.
Over the years, Harper has changed his tune on climate change. In the the early 2000s, Harper’s rhetoric echoed that of former U.S. President George W. Bush. Both hid behind scientific uncertainty as a reason for inaction, but after becoming Prime Minister, Harper began to say action was needed while he advocated for policies that make the climate crisis far worse.
Harper, in 2002: “We cannot predict the weather tomorrow with absolute accuracy. We certainly cannot predict the climate 100 years from now… Models have been constructed that suggest there could well be a base line increase of about 2.5°C over 100 years. There is no particular knowledge at the moment whether that relationship has to do with natural or man-made carbon dioxide. Frankly, over the last few years we have failed to see the full rise in global temperatures that the models predict.”
Harper, in 2013: “I think that most countries understand not just the question of climate change is serious, but understand that the price of having no effective environmental framework is already causing significant impacts and will cause greater impacts in the future.”
The distance between Harper’s rhetoric on climate change and the reality that his government is pursing policies that could push the world to the brink of a climate disaster. This distance—let’s call it the Harper’s Denial Gap—is most obviously seen in Harper’s plans to grow the tar sands sector; his attacks on science; and his attempts to dismantle landmark and vital environmental protections—all to clear the way for oil industry to exploit the tar sands.
Harper’s Denial Gap, Example 1: Growing the tar sands sector while promising climate action
Last spring, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a London, UK based think tank, issued a report that put the carbon budget at 565 gigatons to give the world an 80 percent chance of staying below 2°C temperature rise. In 2011, the International Energy Agency came to a similar conclusion, staking the carbon budget at around 679 gigatons for a 75 percent chance keeping the global average temperature increase to 2°C. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its 209 lead authors, published the fifth official climate report confirming the dire carbon budget range.
Canada, a country most well known around the world for politeness and its love of hockey, has the capability to use almost one-sixth of the planet’s remaining carbon budget. Calculations using industry filings and commonly accepted carbon accounting show that Canada’s tar sands industry’s 170 billion barrels of economically viable proven reserves of tar sands oil are estimated to take up about 17 percent of the world’s remaining carbon budget, estimated to be at around 565 GTCO2.
The numbers show the Harper Denial Gap. He has said he is committed to dealing with the climate crisis, yet the CO2 load of the tar sands, an industry that he describes as the central engine of the Canadian economy, is large enough to help push the world past its agreed upon target of 2 degree Celsius of warming. The 2 degree C number comes from the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, to which both the United States and Canada are signatories, which recognized climate change as one of the greatest challenges of our time and noted that “strong political will” will be needed to solve the crisis.
It was not always this way. Canada’s Turning the Corner plan, introduced in 2007, was supposed to reign in greenhouse gas emissions. The plan, touted by Harper, called for Canada to tackle emissions intensity across heavy industry, including the tar sands sector, and it would have placed a $65 per ton price on carbon before 2020. It was also expected to reduce projected emissions from the tar sands sector by 55 percent. Today, that plan remains just ink on paper; seven years later the tar sands industry still has no limits for its carbon emissions.
In the summer of 2013 Harper wrote President Obama with an offer to regulate emissions from the oil and gas sector, but the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an outfit that Harper has close ties with, is lobbying against new regulations. CAPP recently found that per barrel greenhouse gas emissions for tar sands and other unconventional oil sources — like oil shale — have actually grown by 21 percent, and total emissions have grown from 90 million metric tons in 2008 to 109 million metric tons in 2012.
Harper’s Denial Gap, Example 2: An attack on science
The Harper government has been widely accused of muzzling scientific research, and the facts show that out. It is a either an act of denial, or an outright lie to say you want climate action while striping the funding for research and obstructing access to scientists.
In 2008, researchers at Environment Canada, the federal agency, were ordered to refer journalists inquiries to the communications department, making access to researchers more difficult. It is possible that Harper was inspired in this policy by Bush, who instituted a similar policy in the U.S., including an attempt to muzzle perhaps the world’s most famous climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, then of NASA. This policy is working for Harper’s tar sands expansion plans, and against climate research. According to internal government documents, climate change media coverage has declined by some 80 percent.
Harper’s government has sought to suppress scientific research in a number of ways, including:
- Approved lines or even scripts not created by the researchers to convey information to the public and creating delays, where interview requests are postponed so that media stories appear without comment from federal experts.
- Politicized public service: Scientists have had incentives to educate the public taken away through the government’s restrictive efforts and 1,900 scientists have received threats of federal layoff.
- Muzzled artists who speak out against the government. In one prominent case, activist Franke James has been censored by over two dozen government officials and diplomats since 2011 over her artwork that criticizes the oil and gas industry’s environmental impact.
- Closed down numerous research projects. In February 2012 it announced a forced closure of the Polar Environment Atmosphere Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Nunavut. PEARL participated in groundbreaking climate research and played a pivotal role in discovering an enormous hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic. The closure of PEARL was largely a result of the failure of the federal government to renew funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Studies, which expired in 2011. The agency awarded $118 million of federal funding to specific climate research endeavors between 2000 and 2011.
- Cut funding for the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE), a body seeking to regulate Canada’s carbon emissions. Just recently, NRTEE was prevented from making its documents and research available on a non-governmental website because of government restrictions on information.
The Question for President Obama
Add it all up and Harper is either in denial, doesn’t understand basic climate math, or is in the middle of a great con. Whatever the answer, the climate math shows that we cannot battle climate change and expand the tar sands industry at the same time. To say we can is to deny reality.
The fate of Keystone XL rests with President Obama. No deal is possible to mitigate Canada’s carbon emissions, and we know that Harper is no reliable partner with whom to work out any sort of deal. Million reelected Obama twice—many with the hope that he’d tackle the climate crisis—and they still believe he will lead boldly on climate. For the sake of all of us, let’s hope they were right.