I've seen this show before

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. And you don’t have to go all the way back to the Danegeld to get the experience. Try this Monday’s release of the latest report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. At the risk of seeming weird, I should explain that on the weekend while clearing atrocious junk out of my attic, I wound up digitizing some old cassette tapes including, it turned out, a 2002 Citizen editorial board meeting with the NRTEE. On that occasion, they told us global warming was a crisis, urgent action was needed, there was substantial scientific and corporate consensus and market mechanisms were needed but they hadn’t yet worked out the details.

Fast forward six years. Monday, January 7th, 11:00 a.m., the National Press Theatre. Key members of the NRTEE told us global warming was a crisis, urgent action was needed, there was substantial scientific and corporate consensus and market mechanisms were needed but they hadn’t yet worked out the details. I recognize that I personally may, when in my cups, repeat anecdotes. And I know environmentalists favour recycling. But this is ridiculous.

If you’re a climate skeptic, then you have horns and a tail. No, sorry, I mean you’re happy enough to sit through this presentation every six years. But what if you really believe we have one decade to solve the climate change crisis, which has been the orthodox position for the last 15 years? Does it not disturb you that we just spent six years running in place?

Of course you’d have to know about it first, and it wasn’t prominently featured either in the NRTEE presentation or in subsequent coverage of same. Jeffrey Simpson in the Globe and Mail did observe that “the NRTEE’s message repeated the obvious, since even the Harper government and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives accept the need for a carbon-emission trading market.” But why say “even the Harper government?” I remember when it was a distinguishing mark of the right-wing lunatic to think market methods had something to contribute on environmental problems.

It was in the early 1990s, when I worked at the Fraser Institute. In a familiar pattern, the idea provoked ridicule, then hostility, then agreement, at which point its origins were quietly forgotten. (See also “let’s measure health care waiting lists.”) Indeed, that incentives matter, in environmental and other areas, is now so broadly accepted that it’s hard to believe it was once routinely denied in principle or that it’s still so widely ignored in practice. In intellectual matters one does see movement in this country. Policy is another matter.

Here I would also like to remind you that in 2002 (Sept. 4, to be exact), in this newspaper, I dismissed environmental hopes and economic fears about the Chrétien government’s decision to ratify the Kyoto Accord. I said there would never be a plan, that the government “will never even try to implement the treaty.” I also said tradable emissions permits were theoretically sensible, but stressed how difficult it would be to work out the details.

I don’t want to rehash the scientific arguments about global warming, or more precisely the refusal of its advocates to argue the science. Been there, done that. But I do want to rehash the serious problem of governance in Canada in which a lot of high-flown rhetoric about consensus and compassion and crisis accompanies failure to come to grips with practical details, on issues from the gun registry to rebuilding the military to reforming health care to Kyoto.

The NRTEE (you can find them, and their latest report, online at www.nrtee-trnee.ca) are clearly not fools. But something is seriously out of whack when all that energy and intelligence goes into a cycle of planning to have a plan (see especially page 47 of their latest report). At Monday’s press conference Brian Lilley of CFRB radio pointed out that the price of oil tripled in the last decade without causing consumers to conserve energy and asked whether a carbon tax wouldn’t have to be pretty onerous to make a difference. The answer he got was that a computer model says it would all be OK.

If true, the NRTEE, or their computer, must know what could be done, in detail, and what would then happen. So why doesn’t somebody do it? Six years ago I was recording on environmentally unfriendly, energy- and resource-intensive microcassettes. Today I’m clean, green and digital. But in 2002 the government was planning to have a plan and in 2008 it apparently still is. Six long years out of the only decade we then had left.

Oh well. See you all in 2014 for the NRTEE press conference where … you know.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]