Monbiot’s Continuing Obsession with Per Capitas

December 16, 2009 • Daily Email Recap

Below is an article written by Tim Murray

In the wake of his scathing indictment of Canada’s irresponsible record in fighting climate change, George Monbiot was interviewed on CBC Radio on December 7th (2009). Any guest that who will join in a politically gang-bang of the Harper government is welcome on CBC Pravda—not that Harper hasn’t got it coming. But then, so do the opposition parties, but more.

What makes Monbiot so potently dangerous is that the kernel of misunderstanding inherent in his analysis is shrouded by several good points. He referred to an article in Nature Magazine that stated that if we are to avoid the 2 degree tipping point that most proponents of man-made climate change (AGW) cite as the fulcrum point between manageable and catastrophic global temperature increase, we must leave 40% of known conventional fossil fuel reserves (oil, gas and coal) in the ground. Since the oil in the Alberta tar sands is the dirtiest (with a CO2 footprint some 30-40% higher than conventional oil), he argued, it should be the first among the 40% left untouched, followed by coal. He observed that Canadian climate change policy was being driven by Albertan policy, that is, by the determination to exploit the tar sands. Not quite.

Canadian climate change policy, like its immigration policy, is actually driven by a belief in the necessity of economic growth. And the commitment to this ruinous policy is bipartisan. The four major parties all believe that economic growth is the key to our “prosperity”, and that population growth, for all intents and purposes mass immigration, is the sine que non of economic growth. Their difference does not lie in whether to grow the pie, but only on how it should be divided. The fifth, extra parliamentary party, the Greens, are led by an ideological schizophrenic, Elizabeth May. She has often quoted Paul Ehrlich’s statement, that “economic growth is the ideology of the cancer cell”, but nevertheless favours, along with the NDP and the Liberals, an immigration intake 25% than the Harper government allows. Canada already has the second highest per capita immigration intake in the world, and the highest population growth rate in the G8 group. May somehow believes that population growth has nothing to do with environmental degradation. She is dead wrong.

The five million immigrants who have arrived since 1990 when immigration began its dramatic skyward increase, have contributed four times as much Green House Gas (GHG) emissions as the entire tar sands project, and required an increase of housing stock that has covered four times the area of the tar sands development—the largest land-surface engineering project in the world. Four years of average immigration results in GHG emissions equivalent to the 40 million metric tonnes that the tar sands emitted in 2008. Yet neither the Greens nor the Liberals and New Democrats will cite immigration policy as a major culprit in climate change . And neither will Monbiot. Since none of the opposition parties committed to actually shutting down the tar sands, by their willingness to hike immigration and population levels they actually would generate more GHG emissions than the Harper government is responsible for. Despite the worst of intentions, objectively, the Conservatives are the greenest political party in Ottawa, believe it or not. But then, they would be, since the Sierra Club gave them the poorest grade in the field.

Monbiot’s assessment of Canadian government performance not only suffers from this omission, but from his persistent inability to distinguish between per capita emissions and total emissions, a subset of the common green focus on per capita consumption to the neglect of total consumption. Nature does not care about per capitas. It does not award medals to folks who live virtuous and frugal lives. At the end of the day, it cares only about the total amount of consumption and the total amount of GHG emissions. We may award brownie—or greenie—points to individuals who reduce their personal footprint—but nature doesn’t care about our moral sanctions. So Monbiot’s poor review of Canada’s per capita GHG emissions relative to China or India is irrelevant. What is relevant is Canada’s total GHG output compared to others.

Monbiot points out that the GHG emission from the average Canadian is 15 times that of the average Indian. Canadians emit about 20 metric tonnes of GHG while Indians emit just 1.5 metric tonnes of GHG per capita. So what? Canada has 34 million GHG emitters but India has 1.5 billion GHG emitters. Nature’s scorecard shows that Canada emits 680 million metric tonnes per year while India emits 1.95 billion metric tonnes. India emits 2.86 times as much GHG as Canada does. That is the stat that counts. If Canada is to be held morally accountable for its high GHG emissions relative to its population level, then surely India should be held morally accountable for allowing its population to grow to 1.5 billion people. Overpopulation deserves equal billing to overconsumption. Lower per capita emissions do not, or should not, assign superior moral authority to India. Canada should work to lower its per capita GHG emissions, but it should also work to lower its total GHG emissions. India, on the other hand, should get off its high horse, pull up its sleeves and contract its population.

Monbiot, meanwhile, should carry a calculator when he mounts the pulpit, and put the “P” back into the IPAT equation.

Tim Murray
December 8/09

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