By Keith Roulston
Political leaders took a terrible beating when the big marches to protest the lack of action on climate change took place earlier this fall. One of the values of politicians is that they provide a convenient punching bag for our frustrations.
To some extent blaming politicians for not solving climate change is another example of pointing the finger of blame at everyone but ourselves. No matter what our cause is, we’d really like a benevolent dictator who thinks just like us to compel all the people who don’t think like us to do what we think should be done. In real life, however, politicians in a democracy can only do what the voter will let them do. Get too far ahead of the majority of voters and they’ll turf you out come next elections.
But the one thing that politicians can do to fight climate change is to create programs that make it financially more attractive for each of us to modify our behaviour in ways that will address the changes that must be made, not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but to reverse their effects.
I began thinking about this when the media storm was blowing over the fires that were burning in the Amazon rainforest and the criticism of the Brazilian government for allowing farmers and resource companies to clear the jungle that we were told were the “lungs of the world”. Nobody seemed to think about the fact the benefits the rest of the world gained from Brazil keeping the Amazon intact brought no financial reward, certainly not as much as clearing the land and planting crops. If we want to keep the rainforest intact and working for the benefit of all humanity, we need some sort of international system that financially rewards Brazilians for maintaining it.
But you don’t have to look as far afield as the Amazon to see the same sort of reduction of carbon-holding woodlands, a knowledgeable acquaintance pointed out to me at the time of the controversy. Here in Ontario, forest is still being bulldozed and burned to create more farmland. We need to find a way to make keeping that land in forest more financially rewarding than clearing it.
The value of making needed changes financially rewarding is demonstrated by how much Ontario’s farmers have done to fight climate change without even knowing it. I remember when the idea of no-till farming was so radical that this magazine and other farm publications wrote stories on the adventurous pioneers who were trying it out. Since it required a large investment in new equipment, it seemed unlikely that the majority of farmers would follow.
But information that no-till paid dividends relayed by crop consultants, articles in the farm press and word of mouth, convinced so many farmers to make the switch that today it’s strange to see a ploughed field.
Similarly, I’m amazed at the acreage of cover crops I see planted this fall. I remember when it was a management tool only practiced by organic farmers.
The result, according to a recent study by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, is that Canadian farmers have already made significant reductions in their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions compared to the 1990s. Not only are they burning less fuel because they make fewer passes over their fields, but they’re sequestering more carbon in the soil and making the soil healthier and more resistant to the stresses of climate change.
So the evidence is clear. People will change their habits when it’s financially rewarding. What we need political leaders to do is find more ways to reward people financially for making the changes needed to fend off climate change. ◊