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Climate change resistance is futile so build all the pipelines: Don Pittis

As pressure grows on the Liberal goverment to go ahead with pipelines and thus oilsands expansion, one of the arguments says that if climate change is inevitable, we might as well just keep pumping out the carbon. Don Pittis says that we should put more faith in the power of business to solve our problems.

If climate optimism won't save us, goes the argument, we might as well keep profiting from carbon

In Star Trek the Next Generation, Captain Picard is transformed into a member of the Borg hive mind, spawning the internet meme 'resistance is futile,' which Don Pittis calls an allegory for climate defeatism. (Paramount)

"Resistance is futile," says the Borg in the Star Trek TV series. The phrase, spoken by the collective machine intelligence or "hive mind" which is the enemy of all Star Trek individualists, has become an ironic meme on the internet.

The phrase came to mind this week following news articles on the economic pressure to expand Canadian oil and gas production in the face of Canada's commitment to reduce carbon output. And it leaves the Liberal government with a series of knotty problems.

The nub of the difficulty comes down to the seemingly inevitable conflict between the economy and climate change. The question the Liberal cabinet must ask itself is how much economic and political sacrifice it is willing to make to adhere to its international climate commitment.

Economic sacrifices

There's a bigger question we must all ask ourselves. Is fighting climate change even possible, or to put it another way, are the economic sacrifices for the Canadian economy so great that we must ignore climate commitments and worry about jobs?
Crude oil cars at the Irving Oil terminal, which many in the Canadian oil industry hope to replace with a pipeline, as they say it will be safer and more efficient. (Reuters)

It was actually an op-ed in the Globe and Mail that made me focus on the question. The writer effectively proposes that despite the potential cost of "a warming planet and catastrophic climate change," economic growth demands that we continue to pump out carbon. Trying to do otherwise is futile.

In some ways, complete denial that climate change exists would make an easier argument. For those who are convinced that rising temperatures are a blip or caused by sun spots or divine intervention, ignoring the carbon cutting message may seem like plain sense.

Well-meaning

For those who believe what the vast majority of scientists say — that climate change is caused by the industrial process of liberating millions of years of geologically trapped carbon into the atmosphere that will cause irreversible, "catastrophic," destruction to the planet — the economic case against climate change seems much more difficult.

The arguments are not new, but they come in a category that seems to say 'it's awful but there is just nothing we can do about it' and that optimism around limiting climate change is well-meaning but misguided.

This gloomy inevitability is supported by arguments that demonstrate our hands are tied, that economic growth can only happen in the presence of growing fossil fuel use, that if we stop some other country will just produce more, or that we have already gone too far and are doomed no matter what we do.
Climate change critics say there is little point in Canada cutting back on greenhouse gas production if countries like China and India keeps on pumping out carbon. (Reuters)

There is danger in such arguments because they are an excuse to do nothing. In a perverse way they favour the status quo and the pro-carbon lobby. They give permission to continue extracting and burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels. They encourage the building of pipelines and other infrastructure because, what the heck, we should make hay while the sun shines.

The argument in favour of protecting people's jobs and livelihoods is probably the strongest one in favour of continuing to expand oil and gas exports. The political power of that argument is what makes it so difficult for governments to fight increased carbon extraction.

Optimism is futile

The argument that change is impossible, that optimism is futile, however, is a bad place to start.

If indeed climate change has the potential to be catastrophic, to flood some of the world's biggest cities, to destroy agricultural lands and livelihoods in Africa and Asia, to wipe out whole groups of plant and animal ecosystems, then 'sorry our hands are tied' seems like a bad argument.

The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil- Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi oil minister  
Yes, the recent industrial economy has grown in parallel with oil production. But in the past the same thing could have been said for charcoal and leather products. In a nod to the famous quote from Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, at one point surely economic growth in the stone age increased with the use of stones.
Circa 1975: Saudi Arabian oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani was famous for the quote 'The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil.' (Hulton Archive/Getty)

If the scientists are right, then the carbon age must pass. And one or the other — African farmers or Alberta oil workers — will have to suffer economic consequences. The question is merely do governments have the political support to take action now or do we have to wait for some sort of greater crisis to concentrate people's minds and really prove the danger.

'We're doomed'

Of course the longer we wait the more it will strengthen the "it's too late, we're doomed" argument.

In another recent op-ed, Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down, condemned the NDP's Leap document because it conflated climate change with a lot of other issues of the political left.

Climate change is not a left-right issue. Avoiding economic destruction will be profitable for the companies able to create the technology of the post-carbon era.

Alberta companies will make some of those profits. It is hard to imagine that the oil giants will not profit from those technologies as well, if they allow themselves to change with the times.

In the war against climate change, as in any war, there are always defeatists. The war may not be won. It may not be winnable. But believing the defeatists inevitably leads to defeat.     

The irony of the "resistance is futile" meme is that the Star Trek heroes always resist and always win in the end. But of course that's just television.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

​More analysis by Don Pittis

About the Author

Don Pittis

The Business Unit

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

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