Chris Turner has written an essay that was published on The Walrus website that gives his views on how Canada is dealing with the climate crisis. This essay is the O’Hagan Essay on Public Affairs, an annual research-based examination of the current economic, social, and political realities of Canada. What are your views?
We’re Doomed. Now What?
Fatih Birol’s diagnosis was grim. On April 9, the executive director of the International Energy Agency took the stage at a packed conference hall in Berlin. The occasion for the speech was the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue (BETD), an annual event hosted by the German government to assess the ongoing transformation of the global energy sector. Birol conceded that renewable energy was getting cheaper by the day, and his research showed that its use was expanding as never before. But, he warned, renewables weren’t being built fast enough to keep pace with CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, which had reached a historic high in 2018. “There is a growing disconnect,” Birol said, “between political statements, targets, and what is happening in real life.”
That disconnect ran like an electric current through the conference, buzzing in the subtext of every pronouncement and lighting up every networking lunch. The BETD attracts a wide range of energy- and climate-policy wonks—including fifty ministers and state secretaries from around the world—and no one involved in such work in 2019 could be unaware of the mounting climate chaos. Only months earlier, in late 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the committee charged with providing governments with scientific information about climate change, issued a special report on the environmental and socioeconomic consequences of global warming proceeding past 1.5 degrees. Breaking with the restraint that often characterizes scientific writing, the report baldly asserted that, without “rapid and far-reaching transitions” in, among other things, energy and industrial systems, a cascading array of disasters awaited that would make the current state of affairs—record-breaking heat across Europe, water-scarce Indian cities, the apocalyptic cataclysm of wildfires in Cali fornia and western Canada—seem like a tepid prelude. Humanity was running out of time to act.
The bluntness worked. “Final Call to Save the World from ‘Climate Catastrophe,’” read a representative news headline. Activists and pundits the world over invoked variations on the phrase “only twelve years to save the planet”—in the worst-case scenario, the IPCC report explained, we will hit 1.5 degrees as soon as 2030—and the Guardian issued a directive urging reporters to use terms like “climate emergency” instead of “climate change.” A wave of protests against climate inaction spread worldwide, led by Britain’s Extinction Rebellion movement and by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and the student strikers she inspired. The general public was coming awake as never before, urging governments to do more, faster, now.
No one in attendance at the BETD conference questioned the science driving this call to action, but many of us were also intimately familiar with the limits on the pace of change. Those limits are often cast by climate activists as failures of leadership and political will. The crisis, however, is well beyond the reach of any single conference hall full of diligent technocrats. It is a crisis of such scope and complexity that it can’t be fully addressed by elected policy makers beholden to the whims of voters. Yet this continues to be our preferred collective response: we call on politicians to assemble institutional tools as near as they can muster to the planetary scale of the calamity. Since the mid-1990s, the face of this approach has been a series of summits convened by the UN, which have led to two landmark climate agreements—the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris agreement. The late German politician Hermann Scheer, who guided his country’s policy as it became the first major industrial economy to commit to renewable energy as the primary power source of its future, characterized this morass of protocols, bans, targets, and limits as the “burden-sharing bazaar”—a place where the world’s ruling elites and industrial titans meet to decide who should be allowed to do the least to reduce emissions.
None of the most important climate-protecting achievements of the last twenty years have come about in response to pledges that have emerged from this bazaar. China isn’t even a signatory to Kyoto, and it is the world leader in clean-energy and electric-vehicle investment. Similarly, the achievements that define the next twenty years likely won’t be charted by bureaucrats counting emissions against UN targets. That’s because climate change is not an “environmental issue” in the sense that term has come to mean. It is not a discrete ecological phenomenon that can be contained by symbolic declarations, nonbinding agreements, top-down regulations, and hair-shirted personal sacrifice—which, taken together, deliver maximum pain for far too little gain. Climate change is rather, at its core, about life’s most basic necessity: energy.
Changing how we make and use energy—everywhere, all at once, on the fly—represents a shift in daily life more dramatic than anything humanity has ever attempted. No two nations (indeed, no two provinces in Canada) govern energy exactly the same way. The global energy transition now underway will require more than setting emissions targets and developing plans to put those targets within reach. It will require technological innovations and marketplace incentives at a scale and pace capable of reinventing the industrial basis of our civilization. Instead of allowing our hopes to rise and fall with each new round of climate talks and policy proposals, we would do better to pay more attention to the ongoing progress toward building the industrial base of a new, low-carbon economy.
That progress has been spectacular. For example, there are now cheap solar panels ready for installation the world over because the German government heaped generous subsidies on the solar industry to make it happen. This breakthrough joined an expansive kit of climate-fixing tools: wind turbines from Denmark and Spain, electric vehicles financed by Chinese bureaucrats and a Silicon Valley billionaire alike, and green-building designs drawing on expertise from around the world.
Canada has also played a role—one that could come to be seen as pivotal. For the last three years, the federal government has led a push to implement a price on carbon nationwide, imposing a federal carbon tax on provinces unwilling to bring in their own. This serves as the centrepiece of a broader package of incentives and regulations, many of which have been gathered under the banner of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. The framework, launched in 2016, coordinates the climate action of every province and territory except Saskatchewan (which never signed). It includes a nationwide phase-out of coal-fired power plants and more than $80 billion in new federal investments in green infrastructure and clean technology. The political will behind this shift remains precarious, and Canada is, at present, on course to fall short of its Paris emissions-reduction targets. Still, Canada has begun to put in place a model of how an oil-producing, resource-driven economy can pivot away from the carbon-intensive status quo—difficult as this might be to discern amid our constant political brawls over pipelines.
Listening to Birol speak in April, I was not demoralized by our collective failure on the emissions front. There was no escaping the fact that the climate crisis was already an everyday reality that would get worse before it got better, but I felt a unique strain of inspiration I’ve come to associate with such discussions—a quiet, resolute, miles-to-go-before-we-sleep optimism. If the global transition to a low-carbon economy was not yet moving fast enough, it was already moving faster than virtually anyone had predicted. In the long run, I expect it to win the race against catastrophe. I’d like to tell you why.
For nearly as long as we’ve been grappling with the climate crisis on an international scale—roughly the past quarter century—there has been a parallel hunt for the right metaphor to describe the scope of the challenge. Solving climate change has been likened to the US civil rights movement, the global crusade to end slavery, and the mission to the moon.
Maybe the most common and compelling framing is the call for a return to a war footing. The climate crisis, the argument goes, is as great and at least as urgent a threat to civilization as the Second World War. So then: What if the world’s great powers were to switch their entire industrial might to solving it as fast as possible—retooling factories for green power and clean technology; deploying a global allied army of citizens to install solar panels and erect wind turbines; freeing up vast pools of capital to build energy storage facilities, electric-vehicle charging stations, commuter trains, bicycle lanes, and hyperefficient everything? If we have only eleven years left, and if we have the tools (and the best evidence suggests we mostly do), then why pursue anything less than total war on the climate crisis?
Stating a goal, however, is not at all the same as tabling a plan to achieve it. What levers of power would enable such a massive, coordinated, sustained effort? The BETD is as near a gathering of the war economy’s would-be planners as exists anywhere, and I tried to imagine a war footing emerging from such a meeting. What would the precipitating event look like? What climatic invasion of Poland or ecological Pearl Harbor—greater than the wildfires, floods, droughts, and hurricanes already ravaging swaths of the planet—would compel everyone in Berlin and beyond to abandon all vested interests and fossil-fuelled prosperity to join the allied cause? Fourteen years after Hurricane Katrina turned nearly half of America’s Gulf Coast into a livestreaming dystopian movie about climate refugees, I find myself deeply skeptical that some incontrovertible inflection point is about to arrive.
The war-footing metaphor stumbles on its understanding of the kind of problem climate change really is. A war, after all, implies an enemy. Whom are we trying to defeat? There have been valiant and sometimes useful attempts to identify adversaries. From the earliest days, fossil-fuel companies have been singled out for propping up junk science, lobbying politicians, and burying good climate science in a fog of misinformation—all to sow doubt in the minds of the public. In some climate-activist circles of late, a meme has emerged: “Just 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s emissions.” The idea’s origin, near as I can tell, is a 2017 report by a British environmental group called the Carbon Disclosure Project. Their data seems to support this claim—since 1988, the majority of the world’s industrial greenhouse-gas emissions have begun their atmospheric journey in the activities of the 100 companies and state entities on the list, which is mostly a roll call of the world’s largest fossil-fuel producers, from oil majors like ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco to coal-industry stalwarts such as Rio Tinto and Peabody Energy. This would seem to be the face of the enemy—and a force small enough to be rounded up, disarmed, and defeated.
The 100-companies meme, however, elides the most important piece of information about the problem: the customers and users of the fuels produced by those 100 companies constitute virtually all of humanity. More than 80 percent of all the world’s energy, at last count, was still derived from fossil fuels. At the very top of the Carbon Disclosure Project’s list, for example, is “China (coal)”—as in the world’s most populous country and its primary source of electricity. Even if China could be persuaded to sign an immediate ban on coal use, there’s no readily available substitute in the same way other chemicals were available in the wake of the 1987 Montreal Protocol banning chlorofluorocarbons (the class of chemicals responsible for damaging the Earth’s ozone layer). China is industrializing rapidly while also positioning itself to lead the next wave of tech and manufacturing; coal remains the cheapest way to power that shift.
The 100-companies meme, in other words, points to the crux of the climate-change dilemma—its maddening complexity and resistance to fast, decisive solutions across a single negotiating table. As George Marshall, a British climate-communications expert, once put it, climate change “suffers from the fact that there is no clear enemy with the intention to cause us harm. In fact, if anyone is responsible, it is ourselves. And that generates another level of anxiety and moral challenge for us that makes us want to push this issue even farther away, into the far distance, and not to deal with it.”
Another common theme in climate activism is a sort of anguished disbelief. Knowing what we do about the crisis, how can so many of us simply carry on as before? One way to begin to answer that is to consider what University of Toronto political philosopher Joseph Heath calls “Hobbes’s difficult idea” (a reference to seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes). Heath teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and has spent years studying the philosophy and ethics of public policy—particularly climate policy. How is it, Heath asked in a response to Naomi Klein’s 2014 book about climate change and capitalism, This Changes Everything, that we can find ourselves acting in a way that has foreseeably disastrous consequences yet fail to change our behaviour? “Hobbes’s answer,” Heath wrote, “was that, when we do so, it is because we, collectively, have an interest in changing our behaviour, and yet no single one of us, taken individually, has an incentive to change his or her own behaviour.”
Put another way, all of humanity might have an existential interest in shrinking emissions to zero tomorrow, but you and I have errands to run today, and the tank’s already full of gas. All of us, Heath argues, care just a little more about ourselves than about other people. There is a name for this kind of dilemma: a collective-action problem.
Collective-action problems are not defeated by barrages of climate data or harrowing catalogues of ecological horror or even by protests against a particular pipeline project. No tally of voluntary individual decisions to forgo air travel or quit eating meat or bike to work will change the emissions math sufficiently. There are even reasons to question the utility of the claim that only twelve years (eleven, now) remain—the most widely cited takeaway from the IPCC’s alarm-ringing 2018 report. “Please stop saying something globally bad is going to happen in 2030,” wrote climate scientist Myles Allen of Oxford University, one of the lead authors of the report, in an article addressing climate campaigners. “Bad stuff is already happening and every half a degree of warming matters, but the IPCC does not draw a ‘planetary boundary’ at 1.5°C beyond which lie climate dragons.”
The larger problem with the twelve-years-left rhetoric is that it takes our present moment as its starting point, equating our inability to reduce overall global emissions with a failure to take any meaningful action at all. This assessment negates the substantial work undertaken over the past two decades to build the industrial infrastructure required to replace the fossil-fuelled system—a Herculean effort triggered less by conservation campaigns and regulatory measures than by government- spurred market forces and near-term incentives. The Germans saw opportunities to reboot the manufacturing sector in former East Germany and reduce their dependence on Russian fossil fuels. The Danes had been improving wind-turbine technology since the oil crises of the 1970s. China, striving to become the global industrial powerhouse of the twenty-first century, saw more opportunity in churning out solar panels and electric buses than in making gas furnaces and internal-combustion engines. This side of the climate equation is less about stopping harmful activities and more about technological innovation and inducements to invest in beneficial work.
If we focus on doing the right thing, how might we change those incentives? In fact, we’ve already begun to do so. If you want to change collective behaviour in a hurry, few incentives are as effective as putting a price on offending activities. Canada’s array of carbon-pricing regimes is intended to do just that—rewarding energy sources that emit fewer greenhouse gases by making carbon-intensive products and services more expensive.
Until recently, this was not a particularly controversial idea. Liberal leader Stéphane Dion may have been pilloried by political opponents for backing a straight-up carbon tax in his 2008 Green Shift plan, but even the Conservative climate package of the day reflected the wisdom of putting a price on carbon pollution—Stephen Harper’s Turning the Corner plan committed his government to “establishing a market price for carbon.” It was shelved, however, and the idea of carbon pricing has become a political cudgel for many conservative politicians.
Today, when we talk about Canada’s contentious carbon price, we argue about the cost and who is paying or about the impact it will have on pipeline approvals or job creation. We say far too little about how effective it is as a tool for creating new economic opportunities in the name of solving the greatest collective-action problem humanity has ever encountered.
Agreement among economists and academics on the merit of carbon pricing exists to an extent rarely seen in the discipline. One recent proposal for a carbon tax in the United States was endorsed by over 3,300 economists, led by former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen. In another study, 75 percent of environmental economists and others with climate-policy expertise supported putting a price on carbon. A flat, economy-wide tax on every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted is simple and transparent. Setting up a carbon tax is fast, cheap, and requires almost no additional bureaucracy to administer. And, because fossil-fuel flows are large in scale, readily counted, and governed by bottlenecks such as refineries and power plants, tracking greenhouse-gas emissions is far easier than it is for most pollutants.
This isn’t just praise for an elegant theory—where carbon taxes have been applied, they’ve delivered on their promise. One of the most widely praised models is right here in Canada: British Columbia’s carbon tax, introduced in 2008. In the six years after it was enacted, BC’s fuel use declined by roughly one sixth; overall, the tax is credited with reducing emissions in BC by 5 to 15 percent while having an impact on the provincial economy that a 2015 study deemed “negligible.” Perhaps even more surprising, given the current state of garment rending over Canada’s national carbon-pricing plan, is that many British Columbians all but forgot about the provincial carbon tax. In a 2018 poll, only 45 percent of them were even sure it was there.
A 5 to 15 percent cut in emissions might not sound revolutionary—it might well seem barely evolutionary—but the carbon price is not meant to be a stand-alone solution. That’s why the federal government rolled it out as part of a larger package of investments and incentives. It’s better understood as the necessary recalibration of an economy, a way to place it firmly on the low-carbon track before beginning the more complicated work of wholesale decarbonization—a first step and a strikingly simple one. Perhaps most importantly, it is a push on a true lever of power. By changing the way prices are set for virtually everything bought and sold, the carbon tax rewrites the baseline operating code of an economy.
What’s more, carbon pricing scales up and out in ways that few climate policies have to date. California, Quebec, and Ontario (prior to Doug Ford’s election as premier) have already worked across the border in cap-and-trade carbon-pricing regimes, as have the member nations of the European Union. China, wary of most economic interventions from beyond its borders, is also experimenting with carbon pricing. In a 2015 paper, Yale University economist William Nordhaus (who has since won the Nobel Prize for his work on climate economics) argued that carbon pricing could serve as a more effective basis for coordinated international action on climate change than the cumbersome UN treaty process that repeatedly leads to agreements that lack the teeth of sanctions to make them stick.
Opponents of carbon pricing in Canada have spent a decade pushing back—from placing its repeal front and centre in election campaigns to suing the federal government in an attempt to reverse it at the provincial level. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has even forced gas stations to put stickers on their pumps to show the carbon tax’s impact on fuel prices; Jason Kenney, meanwhile, scrapped Alberta’s carbon tax as his first order of business as premier.
But the larger shift underway is significant enough, and the overall progress being made inexorable enough, to overcome any short-term political change or single act of recalcitrance. Should Canada’s various carbon-tax regimes survive the coming election cycles to the point where all Canadians, like British Columbians before them, adjust to the point of mostly forgetting they are there, we might well look back on them as an achievement as significant—and as irreversible—as universal health care.
Let’s get down to where Canada fits into all of this today. The country’s bestselling vehicle is the Ford F-150, one of three top-selling light-duty trucks—outsize vehicles not valued highly for their achievements in fuel efficiency. The most common new building developments in Canada are outer suburban and exurban—winding residential avenues and wide driveways, office parks and big box retail and broad stretches of parking lot to access it all. The leading political debate of the day is whether to maintain a middling carbon price or eliminate it entirely, while the average Canadian’s carbon footprint remains firmly in the global top five. This hardly looks like leadership on the defining collective-action problem of the century.
There is, however, another way of looking at Canada’s position in the climate fight. It requires us to set aside our overgrown footprints and slippery emissions targets and instead consider where we began and where we’re heading now. To be sure, Canada’s climate politics often don’t look like models of anything but squabbling stasis, mired as they are in interprovincial and intergovernmental battles over jurisdiction. But this isn’t because Canada is uniquely resistant to climate action so much as it is a by-product of the sheer range of competing interests we have on the climate and energy fronts.
Canada contains entire jurisdictions (Alberta and Saskatchewan, in particular) that are deeply dependent on fossil-fuel production and others (BC, Manitoba, Quebec) that are among the world leaders in emissions-free power generation. BC is a hydro-dammed clean-energy powerhouse and an ambitious exporter of natural gas and a coal transshipment port. Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, is a pacesetter in the global coal phase-out and the home of a massive automotive industry. All these viciously conflicting interests mean trade-offs, and the awkward compromises of the global climate negotiation are mirrored at a domestic scale in Canada. Small wonder, then, that hammering together a climate-and-energy plan able to mostly balance these competing factions and regions was a process that only happened nearly twenty years after the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.
Nowhere else do such pitched opponents even attempt to find common ground in this way. There is, for example, no oil-and-gas industry in the EU significant enough to impede its shift toward clean energy, and in those jurisdictions where competing interests are present, the pushback has been no less troublesome than it has been in Canada. Germany’s vaunted climate plans, for example, have been slowed by both the powerful domestic auto industry and the ferocious, highly organized political movement against nuclear power. The US, meanwhile, has played host to the single greatest oil-production expansion of the twenty-first century—adding, in little more than a decade, roughly three times as many barrels per day of production as the entire current output of Alberta’s oil sands—with little effective domestic opposition. Only in Canada have the fossil-fuel and low-carbon economies met repeatedly, face to face, across boardroom tables and legislature floors, to openly debate carbon prices, pipelines, and the rest.
From this angle, Canada look less like a laggard and more like a pioneer charting some of the most difficult terrain in climate politics. The survival of Canada’s carbon-pricing regime matters—beyond its ability to reduce near-term emissions at home—because, if the oil sands and automaking plants can find ways to live in even reluctant harmony with green power and clean tech here, there’s cause for optimism everywhere. “Perhaps the government will build a new oil pipeline and will also miss its 2030 target. But these don’t matter much for the global climate challenge,” wrote Mark Jaccard, an energy economist at Simon Fraser University, in the Globe and Mail recently. “In climate policy, experts agree that Canada is finally a global leader.” Jaccard has long been a vocal and prominent critic of Canada’s slow climate progress, and there was something almost like surprise in his tone.
The objects of praise extend well beyond carbon taxes. Here in Canada, our political battles sometimes leave little room to seize on anything else, but Jaccard notes that other elements of Canada’s various federal and provincial climate plans are earning laurels from his international colleagues. Jaccard reported that his colleagues were impressed by the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework’s nationwide coal phase-out, the clean-fuel standard, and national efforts to reduce methane emissions, among other projects.
Beyond these, the framework contains a range of energy-efficiency efforts sufficient, all by themselves, to meet a third of Canada’s Paris pledge to reduce our overall emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The framework also laid out plans for higher vehicle-emissions standards, better building codes, faster deployment of zero-emissions vehicles, and lower emissions from heavy industry. Taken together, this multifaceted, multilevel policy package covers a wide swath of the ground laid out by US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues in their widely celebrated Green New Deal plan. One crucial difference, though, is that the Green New Deal is a proposal that has yet to win support from Congress, whereas the Pan-Canadian Framework and its adjuncts are—notwithstanding a spate of rollbacks by newly elected Conservative governments in Alberta and Ontario—the law of the land. If Canada is a climate laggard, whom exactly is it trailing?
On the question of pace, as well, Canada has begun to provide case studies attesting to the maddening difficulty of closing the gap between ambition and achievement—and to the real triumphs that can emerge from the struggle. Consider British Columbia, which has operated under its pioneering carbon tax for more than a decade. Like any other carbon price, BC’s tax was never intended to stand alone. Efforts were already underway to tackle the rest of the province’s carbon footprint when it was enacted, and they accelerated in its wake. Several years after the carbon tax began to quietly encourage British Columbians to burn a little less fuel, meetings were convened, reports commissioned, and task forces struck on other topics.
Let’s look at one in detail: the energy efficiency of buildings of all types across the province. In 2008, the BC government required municipalities to begin incorporating climate targets and plans into their growth strategies and community planning. This triggered a wave of rethinking and new accounting methods—the kind that led to “sustainability checklists” for all the workaday business of building management and construction. In more ambitious jurisdictions, up went “green” buildings aiming for special certifications such as the well-known LEED standards. The local rules became a messy regulatory patchwork, and the BC government stepped in again, in 2015, with a new law giving the province sole authority over technical requirements for buildings. The ever-ambitious City of Vancouver, meanwhile, aimed to bolster its self-image as Canada’s greenest municipality with a new plan for the construction of net-zero buildings—the emissions-free dream—and BC set up a working group to start developing province-wide plans based on Vancouver’s work. And on it went, the slow sausage-making grind of policy wonkery, through committees and working-group recommendations and ministerial orders.
I’m belabouring all of this because there’s no known way around it. Yet the climate-emergency declarations, and the open letters from scientists demanding more urgent action, and the protest placards howling for a zero-carbon world in eleven years’ time (if not sooner)—they never begin to account for this bureaucratic complexity. How, for example, do you mandate emissions-free standards for an entire province’s construction and building-management industries, including all the tradespeople they rely on to frame in houses and wire up offices and pour concrete? This is how—this agonizing grind.
In the spring of 2017, the BC government could finally claim, without qualification, that its new BC Energy Step Code was the first in North America to lay out the clear, rigorous requirements and regulations that would guide the entire province’s building industries to the construction of nothing but net-zero structures by 2032. Which is both amazing and not enough—nearly a decade of work, after the province first committed to climate action, toward a goal still thirteen agonizing years of mounting global emissions away. It’s a triumph, yet who celebrated it? Who even noticed?
“I don’t want you to be hopeful; I want you to panic.” So goes one of Greta Thunberg’s most widely cited quotations. But, in a world where the only certainty is that the crisis is deepening by the day, panic is not enough. No society can function on panic indefinitely, and no one writes new building codes well in a panic. There has to be another motive, a future to move toward as well as one to flee.
Let’s think of it, then, not as a war footing but as a sort of global Green Marshall Plan. Let’s take our inspiration from that moment after the Second World War when the United States decided not to leave Europe in ruins but instead to give it the contemporary equivalent of over $100 billion (US) in development aid, infrastructure financing, and expertise to rebuild itself. This Green Marshall Plan would, by necessity, be crowdsourced to every level of government, wherever there would be sufficient will at any given time. The BC government has a useful building code. The Canadian government is trying, under a barrage of political shrapnel, to demonstrate what a carbon price can do in a nation built on resource extraction. There are cheap solar panels everywhere in the world now—and that, more than its own current emissions profile, is Germany’s gift to the overheating Earth. It was put to me just like that once, in Berlin, ten years ago. A solar-industry specialist by the name of Tobias Homann was addressing the Germans’ early investment in that technology. “The German electricity consumer pays a higher price for this energy revolution than others do,” he told me. “So people, I think, will thank Germany in the future for its role.”
So think again about those Ford F-150s parked in wide driveways and out front of big box stores and row by row in office parks all across Canada. This suburban dream was where we went after the last war footing, likely because it best approximated the war’s grand ideals of freedom, security, and prosperity to the greatest number of Canadians. The split-level homes, the two-car garages, the good jobs making cars or drilling for oil or turning petroleum into a million different plastic gadgets for sale on a thousand shelves at your nearest Walmart.
Now imagine this replaced by a denser and more vibrant urban life, a power bill that zeroes out more often than not, a commute to work by train or bike or foot that doesn’t involve gridlock, a car—still, if you’d like—with a battery pack that fills up on the cheap overnight and that sells back surplus power at a profit while it’s parked outside the office all day, and good jobs, with futures, in carbon capture and efficiency retrofitting and smart-grid software. This is a silhouette on a distant horizon right now—but I’d wager it’s a more fixed and focused target than a blind, panicked scramble could ever hope to offer.
The O’Hagan Essay on Public Affairs is an annual research-based examination of the current economic, social, and political realities of Canada. Commissioned by the editorial team at The Walrus, the essay is funded by Peter and Sarah O’Hagan in honour of Peter’s late father, Richard, and his considerable contributions to public life.