(Originally published Dec. 29, 2018)
WELL that was quite the year, wasn’t it? We’ve got new city and town councils, a new very Conservative Ontario government and an American president who continues to shock and amaze.
Donald Trump has shut down the entire U.S. government — twice — because he doesn’t get his way, while a criminal investigation creeps closer to his door. Scores of his own chosen staffers have scurried away, fired or of their own volition. With few if any “adults” left in the room, heaven knows what he’s capable of next.
The U.S. continues to defy reality and repeated national heartache by refusing to control firearms which claimed 14,353 lives this year — 653 of them children. There were 353 mass shootings. The government did, however, recall all Romaine lettuce after 40 people got sick.
Canada-U.S. relations have rarely been worse as Trump imposes punishing tariffs on the flimsy basis of “national security,” then mocks our prime minister and foreign minister when they stand up for us in trade talks.
Elsewhere, Russia poisoned two if its own citizens on British soil. Two weeks later, Vladimir Putin was re-elected for a fourth term, emboldening his dangerous tendencies in Ukraine and at nuclear missile test sites. It feels like the Cold War is returning.
The UN reports that more than half of the world's population are now using the Internet. But data breaches, Chinese hackers and reports that we can be spied on in our own homes show we’re vulnerable to the devices we’ve embraced.
Space continues to be the new frontier. In July, scientists report the presence of a subglacial lake on Mars, the first known body of water on the planet. Four months later NASA’s InSight probe, having travelled 54 million kilometres from Earth, is successfully landed on the Martian surface where it will drill for samples of life. Incredible. This month, NASA reports the arrival of the OSIRIS-REx probe at Bennu, the agency's first sample-return mission to an asteroid. Bennu is considered to have the second-highest risk of impacting Earth, but not until between 2175 and 2199. Always best to plan ahead.
Economically, the Dow Jones just had its worst week since the 2008 meltdown. Bloomberg reports that hardly anybody made money in 2018; an astounding 89 per cent of assets handed investors losses, the most in 117 years. Yet governments continue to reward the corporate model based on profit at all costs and driven by “efficiencies” — boardroomspeak for mergers, acquisitions, mechanization and as many layoffs as possible. Got a pesky union seeking some fairness? Shut the plant, ship the jobs to China and make a tonne more money. Bonus time!
Personal incomes are shrinking, the cost of living is rising, household debt is soaring (based in part on the government example of limitless deficit financing) and still governments buy into the theory that corporate tax cuts and fewer regulations will usher us all into a new era of prosperity. Bunkum. Until we elect people who will resist the corporate lobbyists seeking access to the decision-makers to influence them, things will only get worse.
Nothing, however, is more pressing than the state of the environment. In July, a North American heat wave kills 33 people in Quebec alone while wildfires kill 87 in Greece. In India, the worst rains in memory cause flooding so severe that nearly 500 people die and a million are evacuated. Days later a severe rainstorm causes a cable-stayed bridge to collapse in Genoa, Italy, the combined result of unprecedented weather and shortcuts taken by the builder. Forty-three people died.
In November, the unfortunately-named Camp Fire ignites in Butte County, California. It becomes California's deadliest and most destructive wildfire, with 88 deaths and 18,804 buildings destroyed, including Canadian rocker Neil Young’s house — the second home he’s lost to fire in the baked California hills. Climate change is again — and again — the culprit, as scientists have been warning for years.
We must pay a painful price or we will imperil our entire planet. But resistance is fierce, particularly from vested industrial interests. Political momentum is stalled by the inability to take meaningful action in time to demonstrate a difference that will be evident. And so we muddle on, frying the land, warming the oceans, poisoning the air, endangering entire species of animals.
As the Globe and Mail put it in an editorial this week, there’s no painless way of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and voters should be wary of leaders who say otherwise: There’s a good chance they either want to make you pay through the back door, or don’t care about climate change at all.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is trying to straddle two worlds — keeping oil-rich Alberta happy with a new pipeline or two while preaching the need for environmental responsibility. Something’s got to give. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, refuses to believe dire scientific reality and prepares to fight Ottawa in court over plans to put a tax on industrial carbon.
The Globe sums it up this way: “Do you want a carbon tax, or do you want to be lied to?”
Ironically, at the Katowice Climate Change Conference last week, nearly 200 nations agreed to rules on implementing the 2015 Paris agreement — the rules we’ve mostly ignored. The long-term goal is to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 °C, since this would substantially reduce the risks and effects of climate change. We’re not even close but some countries are serious.
France will ban gas and diesel vehicles by 2040, the Netherlands by 2030 and Norway by 2025. Electric trains in the Netherlands are already entirely powered by wind energy. Germany has just launched the world’s first train powered by a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, a process that leaves steam and water as the only emissions.
Canada is a large and prosperous nation with claim to an enlightened national government. Our size means we have two transcontinental railways and a massive national highway system. We build cars here and import more. Why are we not taking steps like those by our four allies? Is it because we have an oil industry that is important to the national economy? Surely we can do two things at once. Trudeau says we can but we’re not, not really. We need to take big steps that will reduce our carbon footprint and demonstrate to Canadians and the world that we’re serious. Muddling along just isn’t good enough, not any more.
Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.