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Climate polls and bags of salt

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Now come the hard questions about climate change. What's the best way to curb our use of fossil fuels, promote vehicle efficiency and encourage fuel substitution? How do we get people to retrofit their homes, unplug the beer fridge, take public transit, drive smaller cars, and use them less?

Here's an idea -- one that requires no messy regulations, no complicated emissions targets, no costly compliance monitoring and no public education to make sure people behave responsibly. It's so simple that I'm amazed people aren't demanding it.

Double the price of gas through higher taxes. Or triple it. Do the same for heating oil, and every other source of energy that gives off carbon dioxide.

That's right. Ratchet up gasoline to $2 a litre and watch consumption patterns change in a hurry. Why do Europeans drive those gas-sipping midget cars, turn off their hot water heaters when they're not bathing, and keep their thermostats at 17? Because energy costs a fortune over there. That's why they use a whole lot less of it. Why, then, is nobody insisting on this effective no-brainer? Could it be because they wouldn't keep their jobs?

According to a series of Globe and Mail polls, the public is demanding urgent action on climate change. There's near-universal support for higher fuel-efficiency standards (86 per cent) and switching to alternative fuels (80 per cent). There is broad support for carbon taxes (79 per cent), so long as it's industry that's taxed. Nearly two-thirds of us (62 per cent) are willing to have the economy grow at a "significantly slower rate" to reduce global warming. But only 31 per cent of us endorse higher gas taxes (which are really a form of carbon tax), even though we'd be ditching our SUVs in no time.

I don't blame the public. It's only human to want a lot of contradictory things at once. The environment is a legacy issue for the boomers, and a matter of fundamental values for their children. But, as yet, nobody has been made to cough up a cent for it (so long as you don't count the cost of endless international conferences, useless ad campaigns, and minor wind subsidies). When they are, the real shouting will begin.

In Ontario, our government has trained us to pay subsidized prices for our (partly coal-fired) energy. We won't like it when they make us pay the real cost, and we'll like it even less if they slap on a carbon tax. It's all very nice to let the public believe industry will pay. But it's a lie. Who consumes what industry produces, if not us?

Almost any climate policy will produce winners and losers, and people on the losing side aren't going to like it. Never mind the energy companies. In Germany, the major auto makers and unions are warning of massive job losses if the European Union imposes new emissions limits. The German environment minister is at war with the economics minister, and the coalition government could even fracture. Accepting slower economic growth in principle is one thing. But accepting tens of thousands of actual people being thrown out of work is another.

Here's another trade-off. How about nuclear? Nothing could be greener than that. Nuclear energy could heat our homes and help us get the black gold out of the oil sands. It's infinitely renewable and emissions-free. So what's the catch? Well, millions of people harbour irrational fears about the safety risks, and others harbour rational fears about the cost and management risks. When you say "nuclear," people see a mushroom cloud. That's even scarier than a carbon cloud (which doesn't exist).

The climate-change issue is here to stay, especially if we get more warm spells and more melting in the Arctic. People are concerned, and they should be. But we also live in blessed times. Nobody under 35 has weathered a gut-wrenching recession. There are no other existential threats to our comfortable way of life -- for now.

Politicians are terrific at promising a free lunch, but they're not so good at telling people there is no such thing. So take those opinion polls with a bag of salt. Only when people are asked to make tough choices and pay up will their good intentions be put to the test.

mwente@globeandmail.com

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