Wow. Lots has changed since I was last blogging here something like as often as I want to, back before the Canadian federal election ate my life. That kicked off at the beginning of September; since then the markets have spiralled downward, the prices of oil and of gas have tanked, a serious recession has apparently begun, the Canadian Conservatives have been re-elected and named a new cabinet, and, oh yes, the Americans elected Barack Obama.
The landscape has clearly changed. Some observations:
- The crashing price of energy — oil is down more than 50 per cent from its high last summer — indicates dramatically reduced demand for the stuff. Environmentally speaking, this is good: the slower we burn through the supply, the less urgent will be efforts to exploit marginal deposits of it. But it’s also a clear indicator of dramatically reduced economic activity, which means people as a whole are poorer. There’s a serious policy problem: When fuel was expensive, critics said we couldn’t afford cockamamie plans to make it more expensive — by taxing it — to encourage the use of alternatives. Now it’s cheaper, but critics say the economy can’t take any more shocks, such as a tax on fuel. There will never be a comfortable time for market-oriented policies that make any kind of energy more expensive.
- If we’re lucky, though, people won’t soon forget how unpleasant it was to take out second mortgages to fill the tank and won’t flock back to SUVs they don’t need. I’m not terribly optimistic on this point, though: we had the energy crisis of the 1970s and the SUV came along anyway.
- The downturn should, however, create opportunities for entrepreneurs with the best kind of green ideas: those that help the planet while making the economy more productive. Efficiency is a lot more appealing in bust times than in booms. And the downturn should also kill off some of the sillier children of the recent green boomlet, such as bogus carbon-offset programs.
- With a weaker economy, the make-work argument for green policies (that aggressive government action to promote green technology will “create jobs”) appeals to a lot more people. Obama’s platform promises five million new green-collar jobs, for instance. More jobs may be a happy byproduct of sound environmental policy, but making them a deliberate economic end is asking for trouble.
- In the same vein, rumour that Obama is considering making Robert F. Kennedy Jr. the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unsettling. I have no idea whether Kennedy is a capable administrator who can head a large government entity; I do respect his vigour and enthusiasm in fighting traditional pollution, especially of waterways. The question is whether the EPA will be the point agency on climate change in an Obama administration or whether the issue will be seen as essentially an economic/industrial matter and be handed to an appropriate cabinet officer. I hope that’s what happens.
- In Canada, the environment portfolio’s just been given to Jim Prentice, who was most recently the minister of industry. He’s also considered Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most quietly competent ministers. We’ll have to see whether what Harper’s after from him is quiet or competence. I hope Prentice is in the job to steal the best parts of the Liberals’ “Green Shift” plan. Harper could safely do that pretty much immediately, since its author, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, is resigning in disgrace over the election results as soon as his busted party can pick a successor.
- By the way, poor Stéphane Dion. A very good man in a very wrong job.
Regular blogging resumes. Thanks for your patience.