Keep us from ourselves

I wanted to share my views on why green government is important.  Please note the little g green.  I would not have joined the Green Party if any of the other parties actually had a realistic environmental policy that they supported in power.

There is a dialogue about what individuals can do and what government can do.  While both are important, it’s my opinion that if we ever want to lick this climate change threat, the participation of government at all levels will be absolutely critical.

Every individual can and should get compact fluorescents, and try, to the best of their economic ability, to invest in energy efficient refrigerators and home insulation.  But that’s where the ability of most individuals to have an impact ends.  Solar panels are very expensive.  Changing to geothermal or other novel systems requires infrastructure investments well beyond the capacity of most families struggling to meet their debts.  We must not put a moral burden on people forced to choose between the necessities for their families and the necessities of the world.  And individuals have a right to be furious if they are financially punished for making the right decisions for broad social benefit.  It is the place of the government to encourage behaviour that benefits the common good.

This becomes even more critical when you’re looking at investments in public transportation, electricity and other major infrastructure.  An individual can choose to drive less only if the infrastructure exists to otherwise get him where he wants to go in a timely and economical way.  If he’ll need to take 2 hours to get to work from his suburban home by a series of buses instead of 45 minutes by car, we have to expect that sometimes at least, he’ll resort to the car, even if his intentions are good.  And if he chooses to move to a smaller home in a lovely transit-friendly area like Riverdale, East York or Leslieville, and get rid of his car entirely, he’ll only be giving up his suburban home to someone who may routinely use the car with no misgivings at all.  We need government to produce both the available infrastructure and the right mix of incentives so that the best choices are both available and encouraged.

Another reason why government is important is to help bridge the change from one system to another.  We know that eventually we’ll want houses that demand little to no heating.  We also know that we can’t raise natural gas prices today as if all houses were so well built.  Until natural gas prices rise, it will still be economical for builders to continue building leaky houses.  So we need the Province to establish a building code that produces structures that anticipate the economics of the future we’re heading into.

But there’s one reason why government is most important.  We need someone to save us from ourselves.  In his fascinating book, Heat, George Monbiot points out that efficiencies do not, in themselves, reduce energy use overall.  When less energy is used, it becomes cheaper, and suddenly more accessible to less efficient users.  And those who spend less money on energy because they’ve invested in efficiencies just go out and buy more stuff.  By and large, our incomes govern our consumption patterns and if efficiencies permit us to make a series of purchases rather than making one, the effect could be even worse.  We’ve toyed with voluntary targets.  They don’t work.  Somehow, we have to make a decision from the top that carbon emissions will not go over a predetermined cap and we have to hold to that cap with grim determination.  Monbiot suggests personal carbon quotas.  The Green Party proposes market mechanisms through price increases.  Emissions cap-and-trade systems have also been proposed.  But whatever method is chosen, we need that firm cap.  We need to choose a government that will commit to firm targets and make each and every one of us hold up our part of the bargain.

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