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Green Dividend: Preston Manning on four environmental issues of the future

Four issues that the leaders of tomorrow will have to face

Nov 15, 2011

by Preston Manning

Future political leaders will have to take more proactive positions on environmental conservation than those in the past. These positions are being demanded by a younger generation for whom environmental sustainability is a priority. They are important because Alberta’s reputation as a responsible petroleum producer will increasingly depend on our success in avoiding or mitigating the negative environmental impacts of such production, particularly from the Athabasca oil sands.

So what are the political factors these leaders will need to take into account?

Updating our conception of the economy
One of the greatest challenges that the Reform Party faced in the 1990s involved persuading Western Canadians to think of themselves positively as residents of the “New West,” with all its future potential for economic and political leadership, rather than continuing to think of themselves negatively as downtrodden underdogs. We had to change the conceptual framework within which Westerners understood themselves politically. Our future leaders face a similar challenge when it comes to the relationship between the economy and the environment.

There is an older generation of Alberta decision-makers for whom the economy is synonymous with resource extraction and the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services. For them, the environment is an afterthought rather than an integral part of doing business.

But we are beginning to realize that every one of these economic activities makes constant demands on various ecosystems, and every act of extraction, production, distribution and consumption invariably produces a stream of waste and pollutants which must be recognized and somehow reduced and rendered as harmless as possible so that they can be re-absorbed by those same ecosystems.

This broader understanding of the economy demands a more complete integration, rather than a continued separation, of economic and environmental decision-making. One of the main tasks of future leaders will be to convince Alberta’s entrepreneurs and executives that if the private sector does not assume more responsibility for the stewardship of ecological goods and services and the handling of waste and pollution, the public will demand that governments assume these responsibilities.

Taking into account the north-south divide
A Métis friend of mine once told me that when the native people lost Alberta to the white man, they cursed it – that it would eternally be divided along the Battle River. (The Battle River was the old north-south dividing line between the Cree and the Blackfoot and runs across the province just north of Red Deer.)

You can tell a politician doesn’t know Alberta when she gives exactly the same speech in Edmonton and Grande Prairie that she has given in Calgary and Lethbridge. Recognition of the different concerns and priorities of northern and southern Albertans is particularly important when talking about the environment.

These differences in perspective can be illustrated by playing the word-association game. If you put an Edmontonian on the couch and ask him to say the first thing that comes to mind when you mention “environmental conservation,” he’s likely to say “boreal forests” and “oil sands.” Do the same for a Calgarian, and you’re more likely to hear terms like “eastern slopes” and “oil sands.”

Concern about the environmental impacts of oil sands production is shared, but both environmental policies and the way they’re communicated have to address the regional concerns of Albertans. For those living south of the Battle River, it’s about conserving the watersheds, grasslands and landscapes of the eastern slopes of the Rockies. For those living north of it, the concerns will gravitate towards the conservation of the province’s vast boreal forests.

Bridging the urban-rural divide
The other great wedge that makes Albertan politics challenging is the urban-rural divide. An ever-increasing number of Albertans live in cities and towns, while fewer live in daily contact with the land, forests, wildlife and watersheds that characterize rural Alberta.

Urban Albertans tell pollsters that environmental conservation is a top priority, and they show an increasing interest in recycling, reducing energy and water consumption and buying local. But when it comes to actually doing something to conserve and sustain Alberta’s land base, forests, wildlife and watersheds, it is rural Albertans who are in the best position to serve as environmental stewards and deliver environmental goods and services.

The challenge for future political leaders is to devise and present environmental conservation measures that have both urban and rural appeal, ones that will unite urban and rural Albertans in pursuit of a worthwhile common objective.

Taxes, property rights and social equity
Future leaders offering market-based approaches to environmental conservation will eventually need to answer a host of practical questions as to how markets can be harnessed to this objective. These questions will focus on how taxes can be used to integrate the costs of environmental protection into the price of goods, as well as the impact of conservation measures on property rights and how to ensure that the costs and benefits of environmental conservation are equitably distributed.

Preston Manning is the president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Send your comments to feedback


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