Politicians bewitched by their own press releases

King Canute never thought he could stop the tide. Back in the Dark Ages, when literacy was as rare as white teeth, people weren’t that stupid. Nowadays, however, we seem to think we can stop carbon dioxide with a regal and self-congratulatory wave of a press release. Consider, as 10,000 delegates gather at a UN conference in Montreal to be well-intentioned, that Canada signed the Kyoto Accord in 1997 and committed to reducing our “greenhouse gas” (GHG) emissions by six per cent from 1990 levels. But we actually did nothing and the emissions went up instead.

Someone please explain this to me. It was certainly predictable that as Canada’s economy expanded, so would its use of fuel and its output of exhaust gasses, including the “greenhouse’’ kind. It has been so ever since man first set beard alight with this newfangled “fire’’ thing. How could the Liberals not realize this link would continue to exist until they took steps to break it or, even weirder, have this realization and stop there?

If I were in power, I wouldn’t say taxes were too high, promise to reduce them, then do nothing. My tax-reduction measures might fail though ill fortune or ineptitude. But I would have some. Now, as it happens, I don’t believe man is setting the sky on fire. But if I did I’d sure as heck try to put it out.

According to G.K. Chesterton, “We must see things objectively, as we do a tree; and understand that they exist whether we like them or not. We must not try to turn them into something different by the mere exercise of our own minds, as if we were witches.” Canute very probably believed in witches, but at least he didn’t think he was one. Can it be that in that respect he was well ahead of those now in power?

Some may object that according to Monday’s Citizen, “In the past few days, the federal government has announced climate change agreements with several provinces aimed at implementing Kyoto.” I saw that story. It implied that our government secretly did know what to do but waited for the vast UN gumflap in Montreal to announce it. So I went to the Environment Canada website and read the headline “Government of Canada Makes Steady Progress Toward the Implementation of Its Climate Change Plan.” Dude. But the text of this promising-sounding press release began: “The Government of Canada today released a discussion draft of cross-cutting provisions of proposed regulations that will govern greenhouse gas emission reductions from large industrial facilities.”

Uh, that can’t be it. Wait, here’s one from last Thursday: “Canada and Saskatchewan are Working Together to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” But then it says: “The Governments of Canada and Saskatchewan today announced they will provide up to $40 million for initial feasibility work on two projects that will help Saskatchewan reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement was made today by federal Environment Minister Stephane Dion, Saskatchewan Industry and Resources Minister Eric Cline, federal Natural Resources Minister John McCallum and federal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale. The funding is the highlight of a new five-year Memorandum of Understanding on climate change between the Governments of Canada and Saskatchewan.”

If that’s the highlight, what’s the unimpressive bit? That it took three senior federal ministers to put a match to this damp squib? Or that last Tuesday’s press release headline -- “The Government of Canada Takes a Significant Step to Implement Its Climate Change Plan and Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions” -- was the arguably overdramatized prelude to “The Government of Canada today took a significant step in implementing Canada’s Climate Change Plan when it added six greenhouse gases (GHG) to Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act 1999 (CEPA 1999).”

You may find it troubling that our politicians think they can persuade us this represents significant progress. I find it troubling that they have persuaded themselves of it. It’s proverbially bad when politicians start believing their press clippings. I think these ones believe their press releases.

How can we tolerate such a thing? We might quarrel with the beliefs, or specific actions, of politicians who believe in the threat of man-made climate change and acted against it, or politicians who did neither. But what can we do with those who claim to believe in it but haven’t done anything ... except congratulate themselves? At least Macbeth’s “weird sisters” used a little eye of newt. They didn’t just put out press releases about feasibility studies on cauldrons. When we talk about the crisis in governance in Canada let’s rank a pervasive air of unreality high up on the list.

We laugh at medieval people for burning witches. I imagine they, in return, would laugh at us for not realizing it was actually the Enlightenment that saw widespread thaumaturge combustion, possibly contributing to the global warming about which Thomas Jefferson wrote.

Or for thinking we are witches, who can change the climate by the mere exercise of our minds.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson