On Pragmatic Environmentalism: Being the Responsible Adult in the Room

I wasn’t sure what I wanted write about this weekend only to open up the paper (okay figuratively since I read the paper online) to discover that my next topic had pretty much dropped itself into my lap. There in The Globe and Mail I read that Canada’s Environment Minister had:

endorsed a call from small island nations to hold global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, putting Ottawa out of step with the United States, which has maintained a 2 C target.

As a pragmatic environmentalist, my first response was to sigh deeply in recognition that my fears about our new Liberal Government were coming true. I had such high hopes that the new Liberal Government would turn Canada into a serious voice on the world stage on the topic of the environment. After suffering a decade of the “Harper Government” shirking on our environmental commitments even as it quietly throttled our federal government’s ability to protect the environment or do good science I knew we could do better. Anyone familiar with the field of climate change knows, the scientific community is in general agreement that holding climate change to 2 degrees Celsius may be an impossible goal. For our new Environment Minister to suggest that we endorse a call to achieve 1.5 degrees Celsius shows her (and our new Liberal Government) to be just as unserious about the environment as the Harper Government was, only in the opposite direction. They are looking to make big headlines but cannot have any reasonable plan or means to accomplish the goals they broadcast to the world. If they had promised “a unicorn in every pot and a hoverboard in every garage” they would not have been any less credible.

The story reminded me that not too long ago I was asked to write a bit about Pragmatic Environmentalism. I have written a couple posts broadly on the topic at this blog. One post addressed the fact that “Environmentalism and Pragmatism are not mutually exclusive” and one detailed my personal position as a modern PELE: a Pragmatic Environmentalist, Lukewarmer, Ecomodernist. What I came to recognize was that while my personal version of pragmatic environmentalism suffuses this blog; I have never really explained what being a “pragmatic environmentalist” really means.

In a personal sense I see pragmatic environmentalism as about being the responsible adult in the room when dealing with environmental issues. I am the parent of three small children and as a parent I am often called on to be the arbiter. When conflict arises I am called to listen to all the stories; to look at the situation from a practical standpoint; and using the benefits of my personal experience and knowledge to make a decision that is as fair as possible to all sides while always acknowledging our shared reality and limitations. Sometimes it means giving one child priority over another. Other times it means explaining that we don’t have the resources to get all the things we want right away and that we have to make do with less or even make do without.

In looking as my role as a father you can now see how I came upon my position on pipelines in Canada. As I have written previously, we live in a society that is, like it or not, dependent on oil and the products of oil (petroleum hydrocarbons). Our food is produced on farms that need heavy equipment to operate. That food is shipped around the world by airplane, boat and rail all of which rely on petroleum hydrocarbons to operate. Petroleum hydrocarbons aren’t just refined into fuel to run our vehicles, they also serve as the feedstock of the petrochemical industry. Petrochemicals form the basis of all the things that make our modern world work. They are the building blocks of our plastics, our computers, the tools we need to keep us healthy and the drugs we take when we are sick.

In North America the majority of our raw petroleum supplies are located in the interior of the continent and so must be moved somehow. The safest way known to move petroleum products (on a per barrel basis) is via double-hulled tankers but double-hulled tankers do not work on land so we are left with the options of pipelines or oil-by-rail. Transporting oil and gas by pipeline or rail is in general quite safe, but when comparing the two methods, rail has been found to be over 4.5 times more likely to experience an occurrence than pipelines, and when it does, we get more Gogamas, Galenas and Lac Megantics. So a pragmatic environmentalist really has no choice, he or she has to push to ensure that the petroleum products are transported in the safest, most environmentally respectful method possible even as we look for ways to reduce our reliance on these products.

Now not all pipeline projects are equal. I have written that I am against shipping bitumen from the North Coast, but would be a fan if David Black’s Kitimat refinery were brought online to refine the crude oil/dilbit prior to shipping. I agreed with Keystone because I recognized that the US Gulf Coast refineries are dependent on low API feedstock which meant either Canadian crude or oil imported from Venezuela or some other unstable country. I am all for Energy East as I have written numerous times on this blog and support the Trans-Mountain expansion as well.

Some have suggested that we can simply import our oil from abroad but I am pragmatic on that topic as well. While I recognize that the term “Ethical Oil” has become something of a hot potato, because of issues surrounding its origins, I believe strongly in the concept behind the term. As a pragmatist I want my personal gasoline purchases to go towards subsidizing Medicare and not subsidizing a despot or paying for a tyrant to build barrel bombs to drop on innocent civilians. I want to know that the oil used in my car was not generated using slave labour in a country without a free press and where environmental regulations are noted by their absence rather than their application. I want my oil being produced by well-paid Canadians, in a country with a demonstrably free press, strong government oversight and a strong tradition of NGOs to watch over the regulator’s shoulder.

Some might suggest that by calling pragmatic environmentalists the “adults” I am casting stones towards my less moderate peers. My response is that if the shoes fits wear it. To my eye, many modern environmental activists are like well-meaning teenagers. They are typically relatively intelligent but lack the wider experience (and scientific education) necessary to make informed decisions. Often, like teenagers, they let their hearts, rather than their heads make their decisions for them. As an example, consider the protestors who chained themselves to the gate of the Chevron refinery in Burnaby. Sure it looked good and made them heroes to their friends, except the Chevron refinery supplies much of the fuel necessary to keep Vancouver running. Shut its gates for any length of time and the food trucks will stop running, the ambulances will stop picking up patients and the fire trucks won’t be responding to fire calls. There was no thought to long-term consequences in those activist’s actions, it was just about feeling good in the moment and making a splash in the media.

Moreover, many of these “teenagers” view their calling as being so important that in their minds nothing they do is ever wrong. In the adult world this is called “noble cause corruption”. As an example, this weekend one of my regular foils decided it was time to do some blogging on fracking fluids. Instead of finding links and supplying them to his readers he decided to scan a reference book and post critical chunks of it on his website. When I questioned him on the possible copyright violation his reply was:

People have a right to know what is being pumped into the ground @BlairKing_ca. Companies have a problem they can sue me. #fracking #cdnpoli (ref)

Let’s look at this activist’s “logic”. Because some corporation somewhere does something this person doesn’t like (fracking) he feels fully justified taking the work from an innocent third party (probably an academic author). That innocent author spent time and effort collecting and compiling the information that activist wanted. Without that reference the activist would not be in a position to make his case. So how is the activist going to pay back that innocent author for her/her hard work and devotion? By reducing the author’s ability to get paid compensation for all that hard work and devotion. I’m sure the activist will be happy when the publisher decides to red-light the update to the book due to poor sales. But in this case the activist couldn’t care less. He has a “cause” and his “cause” is the most important thing in the world to him. When I challenged him on it I got the reply above with many of his followers on Twitter expressing similar sentiments. The most humorous was hearing that I had an “eau de shill”. Actually maybe I was being too generous. Teenagers at least understand a bit about personal responsibility. You have to go back to the toddler stage of development to reach an age-level where ego-driven personal narcissism is comparable to that of many of the environmental activists I encounter on a daily basis.

To return to our topic, being a pragmatic environmentalist is about making the personal choices to do our best even if it only represents a drop in a bucket. Sometimes countries like Canada have to take a lead. There is an old expression that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We as Canadians have done very well in the global lottery and maybe it is time that we took that first step to show other countries that it can be done. British Columbia showed the rest of Canada that a carbon tax did not necessarily mean the death of our economy and so moving towards a fossil fuel-free future may be something we can do as well. Pragmatic environmentalism also means being a environmentalist in its own right and working as individuals to reduce our own personal emissions. As I have written previously, I have been living a low-carbon lifestyle since long before we even had a term to describe what I was doing. In doing so I hope to show that we can accomplish our own small bit on a personal level as well.

This entry was posted in Environmentalism and Ecomodernism, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Pragmatic Environmentalism: Being the Responsible Adult in the Room

  1. Pingback: A case against the empty symbolism of the 1.5C climate change goal | A Chemist in Langley

  2. Pingback: On fighting climate change, running a marathon and climate activists crying “wolf” | A Chemist in Langley

  3. Pingback: Why an environmental scientist is so often critical of environmental activists | A Chemist in Langley

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