The Environment and Natural Resources: from Silent Spring to Climate Change

Cindy Liu and Tom Piekarski

The fifth panel of the Canada’s Policy Transformation conference focused on the environment and natural resources. The panel’s speakers were Professor Jennifer Winter from the University of Calgary, Deborah McGregor from York University, and Matti Siemiatycki from the University of Toronto.

Professor Jennifer Winter opened the panel with insight on how economists think of climate change policy and discussed the issue of externalities, where the actions of one actor have direct, unintentional, and uncompensated effects on the well-being of other actors. Environment and resources can also be thought of as a tragedy of the commons issue: natural resources like fisheries, clean air, and water belong to everyone but are protected by no one, leading to their degradation and overuse. Winter framed the issue as a collective action problem, where we would all be better off cooperating with each other to manage our natural resources but have little incentive to do so.

In her presentation, Winter discussed whether the government should intervene with policy to address climate change. Her point was not about whether people believe in climate change or understand the science, but rather about the fact that carbon taxes, compliance with international agreements, and other policy actions are costly to the Canadian economy. Plus, Winter showed that Canada will likely see a net benefit from climate change by displaying a map of countries’ estimated gains and losses in GDP due to climate change. The graph showed that Northern countries, including Canada, are likely to gain relative to a world without climate change. Audience members, however, were quick to point out that GDP does not measure environmental quality, that the impact on other countries should be considered, and that gains within Canada would likely be unevenly distributed. Nonetheless, the important challenge raised in this discussion is how policymakers can successfully convince people that the economic costs of environmental protection are worthwhile. This is no easy feat considering Canada’s resource-based economy, and especially the case for Alberta’s energy sector.

To those not wholly sympathetic to economic analyses of the environment, Professor Deborah McGregor offered a corrective. The Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Environmental Justice and Anishinaabe scholar spoke with skepticism about policymakers’ ability to achieve reconciliation with current policy direction. Despite promises of accountability for past and ongoing wrongs, policy recommendations such as those in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are barely inching the process forward, if at all. Speaking to a room of policy influencers, McGregor questioned the efficacy of such seemingly grand gestures, saying, “we (Indigenous folk) could have told y’all…for free.”

McGregor was clear about the crux of the injustice: access to land and resources. The list of problems that Indigenous communities face is unacceptably long, but she argued that “almost all [of the] conflict is over land.”

air-pollution-1845242_960_720McGregor said that environmental protection mechanisms such as the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (PCF) will not be successful policy initiatives until they recognize Canada’s history of colonialism and racism. Most necessary, according to McGregor, is a fundamental reconsideration of Canadian law and how it understands the relationship between land and people. One encouraging step in this direction is the federal government’s all-too-recent adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). McGregor ended her discussion with a sobering reminder: when Canada benefits, economically or otherwise, Indigenous peoples often do not.

Matti Siemiatycki’s role on the panel was to look at climate change through an urban lens, and he made a strong case for infrastructure reform in Canadian cities. Siemiatycki noted how urban environments are both the unwitting causes and woeful losers of climate change. According to Siemiatycki, Canadian cities account for only 22% of our land but are responsible for 60% of our carbon emissions. The disproportionate nature of these effects led Siemiatycki to urge his audience to stop thinking of “the impact of climate change [as]…theoretical. We are experiencing floods!”

How, then, are policymakers to respond? Our cities have been built around the car, Siemiatycki said, so we must reimagine our urban structures, physical and otherwise. But Siemiatycki warned against expensive infrastructure projects that will do little to change our transportation projects. Our urban policy interventions need to move away from buzzworthy “mega projects’” and towards smaller, well-targeted proposals, Siemiatycki argued—fewer shiny, inefficient subway lines and more local daytime bus routes.

From this panel, it is clear that meeting Canada’s ambitious climate goals will require pragmatic questions about economic impact, a deep consideration of environmental and Indigenous justice, and particular attention paid to the challenges Canadian cities face. Looking ahead at the next 50 years, Canada will need to see collaboration between a range of different experts from academia, the public service, and the political sphere, to effectively tackle the policy challenge of climate change.

Cindy Liu holds a Bachelor of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo. As part of her bachelor’s degree, she has completed a variety of co-op terms with the provincial and federal government. Cindy’s policy interests involve climate change action, natural resources planning, and species and ecosystem conservation. In her spare time, she enjoys wildlife sketching, 80s horror movies, and going to all-you-can-eat sushi buffets.

Tom Piekarski is from Toronto. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts from York University and a Master of Arts from Queen’s University, both in philosophy. Building on a thesis exploring aesthetic theories of the everyday, he is hoping to chip away at making our urban surroundings functional and beautiful. His other policy interests include northern development, Indigenous affairs, transportation, and assisted dying. He spends most of his spare time trying to write/listen to/read about as much music as humanly possible.

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