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Copenhagen, and the Age of Unreason

December 9, 2009

According to the press Alberta’s Environment Minister is going to get on his horse, ride into town and show them foreigners (in Copenhagen) a ‘thing or two’. “I’m going to Copenhagen as a proud Albertan…Alberta can hold its head high as a responsible major global energy producer already acting to make real greenhouse-gas reductions.” The Environment Minister is going to the Climate Change Summit armed – no doubt – with the latest policy initiatives of the Alberta Government, the latest scientific evidence and a cupboard full of rational arguments in support of the oil sands development being no more damaging to the planet than other less high profile developments. He is assuming that these rational arguments will win the day and save the oil sands as an economic development resource in Alberta.

Good luck! I’m not sure the Minister is remotely aware of the scope and scale of forces lining up against him in Copenhagen. This is not a rational scientific debate about carbon emissions and government policy; it’s a framing and public relations battle that Dirty Oil has already lost. More importantly it’s a debate that has become deeply entangled in global politics. Consider that the scandal de jour in Copenhagen is not whether or not we should be more environmentally responsible, reducing green house gases (that’s pretty well agreed) but who should pay the bill and why. The debate has moved on to the point where many global activists are concerned that the ‘Rich’ countries are not prepared to reduce their green house gases, and then compensate the developing world (including China and India) with ‘reparations’ for centuries of uncontrolled development and flagrant imperialism.

Into this maelstrom the Minister will ride a rugged but lonely voice of ‘reason’.

As a Canadian, he should have seen this coming. For it was in Vancouver in 1970, that Marie Bohlen and a group of friends launched a small boat and, with it, a global environmental movement. The small boat, The Greenpeace, sailed north to protest a US nuclear test at Amchitka, a small island near Alaska. With this seemingly innocent act an environmental cause célèbre was born. Right from the beginning the founders of Greenpeace, Bohlen and friends Brian Davies, Paul Watson, Robert Hunter, Patrick Moore (et al) combined environmental passion and moral righteousness with extraordinary public relations savvy. “We may have just looked like a little old fish boat but in fact we were cranking away at our typewriters and with our tape recorders,” said Hunter. “In a sense, we were a media war ship.”

And let’s not forget, the reasoned, scientific approach has been tried before. Consider the media fiasco associated with the 1970’s seal hunt protest. After several years of disrupted hunts, the Newfoundland Government attempted to counteract the growing influence of Brigitte Bardot and Greenpeace by commissioning an ‘expert’ panel. They brought together a host of scientists, fisheries experts and local fishermen, and mounted an international media campaign to tell their side of the story. The pivotal moment came at their televised news conference in the Savoy hotel in London. As the panel was soberly presenting their ‘scientific’ evidence, Greenpeace founder Brian Davies rose in the gallery and violently disrupted the proceedings, loudly denouncing the panel as puppets of barbarism and cruelty. Reasoned arguments soon got buried under shouts and abuse – the news conference rapidly reduced to chaos. The British press, needless to say, had a field day. After the smoke cleared the government panel retreated, the battle lost.

Alberta has a lot of catching up to do. For a variety of reasons the government, the oil industry and Albertans in general have operated with a studied indifference to the environmental impact of oil sands development. It’s the ‘way things are’ in Alberta. The economic imperative of the industry has always been the compelling argument, which was fine as long as the eyes of the world we’re not focused on Alberta. They are now and we’d better be prepared for the consequences.

We should perhaps take heed from Satya Das, revisit his thoughtful recommendations. A more responsible, sophisticated Green Oil approach, where Alberta leads the world in stewardship of our shared heritage might start to redress the balance, anything less will simply be drowned in the flood.

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