Canada's Kyoto Debate

It's easy to become prominent in the national debate over Kyoto. All one has to do is threaten to withhold future investments in the oil industry, and, presto, faster than Ralph Klein can say "dinosaur farts are the source of the problem," one can be on the national stage.

As the debate has raged in recent weeks, the media have been quick to get a microphone in front of any business leader warning that investment in the Canadian oil and gas industry will dry up and huge numbers of jobs will be lost if Canada ratifies the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, as expected this week.

The media has shown considerably less interest in what labor has to say on the issue. Of course, the media tend to ignore what labor has to say on all sorts of issues, so why should this be any different?

But, then, we might expect the media to pay more attention to labor this time, since we are talking here about jobs.

Originally, those resisting Kyoto tried to fight it on scientific grounds, arguing that the dangerous levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere had nothing to do with our consumption of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal).

But then how to explain the fact that up until 150 years ago, when the world started consuming fossil fuels, there had been no change in the Earth's greenhouse gas levels for the previous 400,000 years?

It became harder and harder to scrounge up respectable scientists to argue the "It's just a coincidence" case, especially after the U.N. brought together 2,500 of the world's leading climate experts who concluded the global warming problem was largely man-made and required urgent worldwide action.

In Canada, those fighting the international effort decided to focus their campaign on the alleged job losses Canada would suffer.

Given this "jobs" focus, it might be considered relevant that virtually the entire organized labor movement -- including the union which represents workers in the oil and gas sector -- supports Kyoto.

Indeed, the 1,200 delegates to the recent national convention of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, which represents 35,000 energy workers across the country, endorsed the union's pro-Kyoto stance -- with only one dissenting vote.

So let's recap: Business opposes Kyoto because it fears jobs will be lost, but workers -- whose jobs are on the line -- support it. Now, you might think this would lead curious media commentators to ask: Does this really add up?

One possibility is that business is greatly exaggerating the job losses to scare the public. (A joke doing the union rounds has it that, in order to reach industry's estimate of 450,000 lost jobs, the job toll would have to include all current energy workers, thousands of future energy workers, as well as thousands of dead energy workers, who'd lose their jobs retroactively.)

Of course, while some jobs may be lost, new jobs would be created elsewhere in the economy, particularly if governments invest in public transit and energy-saving technologies. (A recent study by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives makes the case that, under some scenarios, there would be a net increase in energy-related jobs, although not necessarily in the same parts of the energy sector.)

Furthermore, the energy workers' union is more worried about other factors, like corporate downsizing and mergers, which have already eliminated 6,000 oil refinery jobs in the last decade. The union expects these other factors will cause far more job losses in the energy sector over the next decade than Kyoto.

But corporate leaders never mention these other job losses -- except to boast about them to shareholders, as evidence of increased corporate efficiency.

And, despite their expressions of concern about Kyoto's impact on workers, business leaders are cool to a union proposal for a "transition fund" for workers who actually do lose their jobs due to Kyoto.

It seems that displaced workers are mostly useful as a scare statistic. What happens to any real flesh-and-blood worker who loses a job is ... well, you know ... we have to accept the harsh realities of the global economy.

So why do so many workers -- including those 1,200 union delegates -- support Kyoto?

Could it be that, like most Canadians, they simply recognize the world is facing an immense global problem, and an international effort is the only hope of dealing with it? Could it be that they're motivated by a concern for something you could call the "public good"?

I know it sounds far-fetched.

Linda McQuaig is a columnist for the Toronto Star, where this column originally appeared. Her latest book is "All You Can Eat: Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism."

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