Seven things I learned while confronting Albertan scepticism
Over the holidays, I flew home to Calgary to visit friends and family, enjoy the mountains, and… talk about carbon pricing. I stepped out of my echo chamber and spoke to dozens of Albertans who are, to say the least, unhappy with the new provincial levy. I honestly underestimated just how deep-rooted the opposition is. Here is what I heard.
Alberta’s carbon levy came into effect January 1, and for many, it’s about as welcome as a June flood. Emissions will cost $20 per tonne in 2017, $30 per tonne in 2018, and ultimately $50 per tonne in 2022 when the federal price overtakes Alberta’s. But as Canada forges ahead, there are many Albertans who feel they have been left behind, or excluded from the conversation altogether.
Many of the Albertans I spoke to were well read and informed on the science of anthropogenic climate change. Others less so. Those who were informed but sceptical of the science, and the alarmism in particular, resent being called climate deniers for simply expressing doubt or calling out hypocrisy. Curiously, no one seemed opposed to the central premise of pricing pollution, but many drew the line at carbon.
Some talks began as engrossing debates but deteriorated into tirades on the NDP’s reckless policies and indifference to working Albertans. Some barbs were reserved for me. Old friends called me an elitist and an out-of-touch bureaucrat; a complete stranger encouraged me to take off my rose-coloured glasses. On my return flight, I was hemmed into my window seat for four hours by a gentleman who insisted I didn’t know what I was talking about because there is no such thing as temperature change and anyway it doesn’t matter because all of the CO2 Canada emits gets blown to the equator.
I set out to listen. And perhaps to offer a different perspective as well.
Lesson number one: It’s hard to get your point across when your original position is misunderstood
During several of my exchanges, I sensed contempt for environmentalism and the “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone (BANANA)” cohort in particular. The fiercest adherents to this philosophy are essentially opposed to all new development of any kind. The problem is that in the minds of many carbon tax opponents, “put a price on carbon” and “keep it in the ground” are more or less interchangeable. They condemn the carbon tax guilty by association, rather than on its own objectives or merits. But it’s entirely possible to support resource development and carbon pricing simultaneously.
I have been lumped in with the BANANAs. Just as sceptics have been lumped with the deniers, I suppose. But I don’t believe that a debate around carbon pricing needs to be rooted in ideology. I take Alberta’s economic concerns very seriously, and so does the Ecofiscal Commission. Maybe it’s a cliché at this point, but environment and economy needn’t be mutually exclusive terms. That’s why we’ve argued so vehemently for cost-effectiveness; not all policies that reduce GHGs make sense.
Lesson number two: Collective action problems are a massive challenge
Many Albertans view Canada’s initiative as economic self-immolation given its modest contribution to global emissions. They raised concerns about Canada getting ahead of big players like China, India, and the U.S., particularly in the context of the latter’s incoming administration.
But we’re not as far ahead as you may think. These “Big 3” are responsible for 54 percent of global investment in renewable energy. China will implement pollution pricing in 2018 and is accelerating its shift away from coal. India is moving fast on renewable power. The U.S. may not see a carbon price for a while still, but there are plenty of substitutes already in place. My claims that renewables have become cost competitive with hydrocarbons in many parts of the world weren’t always well received. The normalization of pollution pricing and alternative energy will take time. We’re not quite there yet, but we can’t expect others to act unless we act as well.
Here we have the collective action problem. The benefits of mitigation action are dispersed, but unless everyone acts, the costs become concentrated. Moving first can be risky, no doubt, but it also offers opportunity. Be it by market forces or policy intervention, the world is on its way to decarbonizing. Avoiding the “lock-in” of new carbon-intensive assets will smooth the path to deep emissions cuts and offer us the chance to develop competitive advantages in emerging industries. There is tremendous export potential here, particularly in the service sector. The slow, gradual ramp-up also saves us from 11th hour action where we need to implement a $100/tonne price overnight. Acting now offers a chance to acclimatize and improve our long-term economic position.
Lesson number three: Revenue recycling is more tangible than carbon pricing
From the sceptics we move to the “maybe” camp: those that view greenhouse gas emissions as a market failure requiring a policy response but are unsure of the best approach. Here, I got a sense of general mistrust of government and its ability to implement new, complex policies. Some people are OK with the idea of policy to reduce GHG emissions, but aren’t exactly inspired by previous clean energy and climate policies. There are a few pieces of this story worth unpacking.
First, many of my fellow Albertans perceive the policy as a tool to raise revenue, not one to reduce GHG emissions. I heard the term “extreme bureaucratic overreach” more than once. I had someone ask me “Why not just have a sales tax and be done with it?” The co-mingling of policy intent and politics is inevitable – after all, what government would say no to more revenue?
At the same time, elements of Alberta’s revenue recycling are not unpopular. I was able to persuade some people that the term “Made in Alberta” is more than lip service, that the carbon levy can avoid mistakes of the past. Outside of the well-publicised rebate program, few were aware of output-based allocations (OBAs), energy efficiency education programs, small-business tax cuts, public transit upgrades, support for coal communities, or competitive bidding for renewable energy projects, which will prevent electricity prices from tripling. Someone pointed out that widening the gap between small business and corporate tax rates (which is now 10%) can cause another host of problems. Fair enough.
Everyone in the affirmative camp thought the levy’s revenues were being put to good use. A few in the sceptic camp thought some ideas were worthwhile despite their unease with the central premise. OBAs are a sticking point; they are a difficult concept to explain over a beer.
There’s a fascinating tension here. The revenue-recycling part of the policy, which is secondary, is more popular than the carbon price itself. The price is intended principally as a means of reducing emissions. That’s not coming through, and emphasizing the upsides of revenue might actually make it more confusing.
Lesson number four: Different audiences need different arguments
Average Albertans are worried about impacts on their day-to-day expenses. Gas, food and heat all cost a little more, true, but household rebates can more than offset these costs for a middle class family, particularly if they make a few adjustments to their habits. Maybe this argument is more tangible and compelling than an ad campaign about diversification or shifting to a green economy, especially if someone’s job is in a sector these policies are designed to guide us away from.
The business community is worried about competitiveness. This is a legitimate concern for Alberta, which has a large number of emissions-intense, trade-exposed sectors. But competitiveness can be addressed with good policy. OBAs will go a long way here. It’s unfortunate that the very thing that makes them such an effective tool – complexity – is also what makes them so difficult to explain.
Everyone’s worried about jobs. The most common complaint I heard was the levy’s poor timing given Alberta’s new economic reality. Even those who believed the levy worthwhile still thought it an odd priority for a province that is struggling worse than it has in decades. There is plenty of concern that businesses could use the levy as a pretext to further layoffs or close up shop and relocate to Saskatchewan. But Alberta’s initiative on carbon pricing has already earned it goodwill, and will help soften bumps in the road. Better to get a jump now, willingly.
The big picture may sway decision-makers. Working families need something more. What I really wanted to make clear was that the carbon levy is not meant to punish; it’s meant to shift incentives and encourage responsible energy use. It does not have to burden ordinary Albertans.
Lesson number five: Small areas of agreement might be starting points for more
Everyone I met could agree that the impacts of extreme weather have arrived. Or maybe they were here all along. Either way, the lack of attention that climate adaptation receives from international treaties, our political leaders and the media does a disservice to the fight against climate change. Smart, high-visibility adaptation policy can absolutely help boost the credibility of mitigation policy.
Adaptation isn’t as sexy, but it’s an easier sell. Efforts on climate resilience are stories worth telling. Canada has already done a significant amount of work on adaptation, and it has been a priority for some time. Half of the UN’s Green Climate Fund, by far the largest multilateral climate change fund in history, is earmarked for adaptation. This caught some sceptics by surprise. Here, we had something we could agree on.
Lesson number six: Climate science is still hard conversation…
Not all of my peers thought anthropogenic climate change is serious enough to warrant policy intervention. As one gentleman put it, “Humans can affect the climate, the same way I affect ocean levels if I pee in the Pacific.” The notions that climate scientists can accurately model sea level rise, ocean currents, or the difference between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees of warming in the year 2100 were met with incredulity. I heard references to the slowdown and other possible anomalies, and the suggestion that mainstream science has overstated the problem for self-serving purposes. After all, climatologists were pretty sure we were heading for a global cooling not so long ago.
All told, there were many legitimate concerns that deserved serious answers. Here we have our great schism. If you don’t believe climate change to be a serious issue, carbon pricing becomes meritless. But even if you don’t buy the greenhouse effect, the scale of humanity’s activity, or that our by-products meaningfully impact global temperatures, carbon is still a pollutant. Emissions-intensive activities impact our health, acidify our oceans and disrupt a variety of natural processes. The size of the problem is disputable; the nature of the problem shouldn’t be.
Lesson number seven: …and listening is (at least) half of a good conversation
Overall, I was left a little frustrated by these discussions. Albertan opposition to climate policy runs deep and in many corners. How can we improve conversations about policies to which people have such visceral reactions? I wanted to talk about efficiency and policy design trade-offs, but realized this issue is more emotionally charged than most. It cannot be decoupled from larger political issues. Articulating the nuances of revenue recycling and marginal abatement cost curves is a difficult task in this type of environment. Discussing the science is worse. And climate change has become so entangled with political ideology that it’s easy to lose focus.
It strikes me that the biggest barrier to persuasion is a serious communication problem for both the policies and the science informing them. “The science is settled” is a phrase we should move away from. As there are countless smaller but very serious issues in dispute, perhaps it is more accurate to say we mean this and this, not this. Future climate policy should be based on the best available data, and it should always be amenable to improvement.
So how do we improve these conversations? Maybe it starts with taking those who disagree with you seriously and showing some humility. Common ground might just follow.