At the time of this writing, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, used to measure greenhouse gas emissions and track climate change, sit around 395 parts per million. That figure is higher than at any point in the last 3 million years. Scientists unanimously agree: reliance on dirty fossil fuels has to change. Humanity depends upon it, and our time is running out.
The United States saw recently its first climate change refugees. The small Alaskan village of Kivalina, home to 400 indigenous Inuit inhabitants, was flooded by melted Arctic ice and coastal erosion. The community, now displaced from its traditional lands, not only exemplifies the heating of our planet, but ascribes a human face to a crisis we so frequently restrict to the periphery of collective concern.
Kivalina’s demise was placidly ignored by much of the mainstream media. Instead of sparking outrage and moral dilemma, the town’s literal disappearance elicited nothing more than a peep. Such quietism is a poison – it condemns all of human life to the same fate as those forgotten Arctic souls.
Recent events in Canadian environmental history have placed the crisis of Earth’s ecosphere in morbid perspective. They have created our own incarnations of Kivalina. A horrific train derailment killing 47 in Lac-Mégantic, QC – the result of an unregulated petroleum transport industry – to a massive underground oil blowout near Cold Lake, AB which devastated the territory of the Bear Lake Cree Nation, cannot be forgotten.
Yet we are left with a profound question: What might temper the rapacious speed of climate change, limit our environmental footprint, place checks on Canada’s expanded petroleum industry and, quite importantly, encourage innovation within the energy sector?
The answer is, still, a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Defined as a fee levied on greenhouse gas emissions, placing a price on each tonne emitted, such an initiative would provide a powerful market incentive and reduce emissions without encumbering the population – all revenue is returned to the taxpayer through tax reductions. In British Columbia, a provincial carbon tax introduced in 2009 has already resulted in a 10% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions without any effect on gross domestic product. It has even garnered a 65% approval rating.
In Canada, low royalties from and taxes on petroleum corporations – foreign or domestic – mean industry can grow utilizing cheap, dirty processes and extraction techniques such as cyclic steam stimulation, at a great cost to the environment. The state must lead by example. It should, with popular support, institute a carbon tax, place heavier fees on large enterprises operating within the country, and direct innovation in renewable sectors. Canada’s abundance of fresh water, wind and tides demands it.
It can never be perceived as “too late” to do something about climate change, a crisis unparalleled in human history. While a carbon tax will not quell the spread of greenhouse gasses completely, it will spur transparency, reduce carbon footprints and encourage innovation.
It is a good tax. And its time is now.
Harrison Samphir is the Uniter’s senior editor. He also writes about politics, national and global affairs at Rabble.ca and Truthout.org.