In light of current events, I’ve decided to briefly postpone my focus on the topics I mentioned earlier to address Friday’s big announcement. By this I mean, of course, the “Climate Change 2007” release from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states that human emissions are definitely, beyond reasonable doubt, causing global warming. Not much of a surprise, given the amount of media attention that global warming has been receiving in the last couple of years, but from the looks of things, this has been a real wake-up call for a lot of people (and governments).
This release is going to be very hard to ignore, and I say that because I’m looking at a two-page spread in my local paper, The Vancouver Sun, that screams “DOOMSDAY”. Behold the fatalistic headlines: “[Prime Minister Stephen] Harper changes tune on climate change, says ‘science is clear’,” “Canadians face ethical dilemma,” “Emissions tax is the only solution, energy expert says,” and “B.C. can expect floods and drought,” accompanied by a list of similarly fatalistic quotes from world leaders down the side of the left page and impressive diagrams.
Now, there’s something I find very upsetting on this two-page spread, and it isn’t the fact that Canada’s Prime Minister had gone from calling Kyoto a “socialist scheme” to throwing in his full support towards the protocol. What really upset me was the article titled, “Canadians face ethical dilemma.” The content of the article was absolutely ludicrous. It started out with this: “As scientists forecast a hotter future of storms, droughts and rising oceans, the only climate questions left are moral: have Canadians [and Americans] the moral right to drive a car to work? To keep homes toasty in January? To trim lawns with power machinery?”
Let me make my response to this “ethical dilemma” very clear: THAT IS NOT THE ETHICAL DILEMMA.
…if the governments of both countries do things right.
Consider the much-loved SUV. Consider also that the typical SUV driver is a relatively wealthy urban- or suburban-dweller, and that 98% of SUV owners have not and will never drive offroad. SUVs are criticised – fairly so – for fuel inefficiency. Being classified as a light truck, SUVs are held to less restrictive efficiency standards than regular cars. To answer the first question raised by the article, do Canadians (and Americans) have the right to drive to work? Absolutely. Do they have the right to drive to work in a gas-guzzling, offroad “light truck” that they are statistically likely to never drive offroad? Absolutely NOT. Owning an SUV for safety reasons? Over at the Freakonomics blog, authors Levitt and Dubner state (among other things) that people drive more carefully when they are more at risk, and more recklessly when they perceive a lesser risk. It’s basic risk psychology. So, if SUV drivers are feeling more protected, they are theoretically driving more recklessly; it does not necessarily lower their risk of getting in an accident. And unintentionally reckless SUV drivers presents another huge risk: the people in smaller, more fuel efficient cars that would never survive an impact with such a vehicle. Malcolm Gladwell has a spectacular essay on other false factors of the perceived “safety” of SUVs on his website.
What should be done about this? Well, since ~98% of SUV owners will never use them for their intended purpose, maybe the government should support more disincentives toward selling or owning one. SUVs are not needed in urban environments (and are more dangerous there to other drivers), and that provides a starting point; there should be a strict and strictly enforced limit on SUV sales within a certain radius of urban and suburban areas. SUVs may be extremely popular, but the sales can be greatly altered by a number of small things: how many are displayed at lots, the price of the vehicle and cost of maintaining it, the persuasion of salesmen, etc. Collect escalating tax penalties from car companies that produce SUVs as a disincentive to making them in the first place. There are so many things that can be done in that one area.
Also on the subject of cars, bringing back those sleek, electric ones would be a pretty good idea about now. I can’t stress this enough: good electric cars exist. Lots of them. There was an amazing movie called “Who Killed the Electric Car?” about this very fact, and it continues to stand against criticism. It’s been a few months since I saw it, but I believe that the agreed-upon statistic was that the car would satisfy the daily transportation demands of about 95% of American drivers. The drivers who had managed to obtain electric cars loved them. Unfortunately, for a number of unethical reasons (among them the projected $2 trillion of oil still to be mined), the electric car projects were scrapped and the cars were recalled and crushed.
Now, there‘s your ethical dilemma. Car companies can still make billions off of gas-guzzling SUVs, and oil companies still have an estimated $2 trillion dollars of oil to mine. SUVs are not needed by 98% of their owners, and we have the technology necessary to make fossil fuel-dependent cars a thing of the past altogether. Here’s the ethical dilemma: should oil and car companies give up more than $2 trillion in profits to bring us to zero vehicle emissions total?
Ethically speaking, yes. Economically speaking… no, but possibly not for much longer. Oil and gas-dependent car sales are a huge chunk of the economy. Replacing all of our current technology with alternative fuels will cost a lot of money, and generate a lot of waste (unwanted cars don’t just go away). It will cost us, and it will cost us big. But again, if the government does things right, we shouldn’t have to go broke. Cuts in the right places, and the right allocation of tax dollars should start right away. I happen to know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s fancy jet costs $9,000 an hour to fly – and that comes out of the taxpayer’s wallet. I don’t know how much per hour it costs to run Air Force One, but I expect that it’s a similar (if not greater) figure. Here’s a good financial plan for the government: cut back on the frills, and we might do fine.
Or maybe the $1.2 trillion going towards the war in Iraq could be going somewhere more useful. Just a suggestion.
My point is this: we have both the technology and the funds (cleverly disguised in expensive wars and government frills) to solve our emissions problem. But we aren’t… yet. And that’s our ethical dilemma. The article in the Sun raised some “ethical” questions; here are mine. Should we take away the rights of every Canadian and American to drive to work, or take away the rights of urban- and suburban-dwellers to own an unnecessary SUV? Should we take away the rights of Canadians to drive and heat their homes during the winter, or ask Stephen Harper to give up his $9,000-an-hour jet? Should we start producing purely zero-emissions vehicles, or let oil companies collect their $2 trillion in profit? These are my ethical questions, and these are the ethical dilemmas we need to be worrying about.
But it all comes down to one question, the most important of all, which is: will we press our leaders to actually do these things?