Carbon Series Reporters Unravel Complex Knot

Tyee Solutions Society project probes real results of BC's stated climate policies.


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Series lead reporters Christopher Pollon and Tom Barrett: Years of experience.

This series started with a question: Where have Gordon Campbell’s carbon reduction policies taken B.C.? That simple sounding query turns out to have many answers requiring complex investigation — the kind of journalism relished by the project’s two veteran lead reporters, Tom Barrett and Christopher Pollon.

After weeks of interviewing politicians, economists, environmentalists, policy wonks and others involved in the province’s carbon emissions reduction agenda, Barrett and Pollon have produced a detailed but easy-to-track road map of where we’ve been, where we’ve arrived and where the forks in the road ahead could lead.

If you are a regular reader of The Tyee, you will probably recognize those bylines. Tom Barrett was for decades a reporter at the Vancouver Sun, covering the political scene from Victoria and Vancouver. Then he became one of the Tyee’s first contributing editors and, four years ago, when then premier Campbell rolled out his agenda for climate policies in B.C., Barrett covered the moment closely. Chris Pollon, too, is a Tyee contributing editor. Widely published in magazines and newspapers, Pollon’s focus for our pages has been on industry and the environment. Most recently he produced a multi-part series on the push to make B.C.’s northwest more accessible to mining.

A project of the Tyee Solutions Society

BC’s Quest for Carbon Neutrality: Reports from Canada’s Climate Policy Frontier” is a project of the Tyee Solutions Society (TSS), a non-profit organization that creates journalism in the public interest and makes the resulting articles available to other publications beyond The Tyee. This project was supported by funding from the Bullitt Foundation and the Hospital Employees’ Union. All funders sign releases guaranteeing TSS full editorial autonomy. Likewise, funders do not formally endorse any of the particular findings of TSS’s work.

In a time when resources for in-depth journalism seem to be increasingly scarce, Barrett and Pollon say they appreciated the opportunity to explore so deeply a question with big ramifications not just for British Columbians, but far beyond our borders.

“The overall Climate Action Plan is certainly unique in North America if for no other reason than the carbon tax,” notes Barrett. “And the extreme ambition of the whole plan — whatever you think of the political sincerity behind it — certainly made it rare in the world, if not unique.”

Barrett focused most of his reporting on the official goal of making B.C.’s own government carbon neutral. “The strategy’s emphasis on offsets sold by a government-run corporation makes it distinctive worldwide, if not unique.”

The deeper Barrett got into the details, the more he was convinced “the whole thing needs a good look. I think a public debate about some key questions — are offsets valid in principle? Are the Pacific Carbon Trust offsets in particular valid? Does the program cover enough emissions to really qualify as ‘carbon neutral’? — would be a good thing.”

Seeking facts, context

It’s a good thing Barrett and Pollon are experienced reporters, because carbon emissions politics seem to produce clouds of spin.

“The most spin,” says Pollon, “is found at the very heart of the whole issue: The question of whether humankind is causing global climate change. If you don’t believe we have a hand in the crisis, there can be no coherent discussion of ‘carbon reduction,’ or anything else that needs to be done.

“I was also surprised at the extent of misinformation among the general public and media concerning B.C.’s carbon tax. I have seen many references to the carbon tax, both in media and in angry letters to the editor, as a government ‘cash grab.’ Many do not realize that the government gives the money all back — most of it in the form of tax cuts.”

Barrett and Pollon began their research and interviews in the summer, when it seemed likely that a fall election would be called by Christy Clark, who replaced Gordon Campbell when he stepped down as leader of the BC Liberals and premier of B.C. The journalists were struck by how much the political landscape had been shifted by the global economic downturn and Campbell’s doomed embrace of the Harmonized Sales Tax.

“As I say in my carbon politics story,” says Barrett, “Christy Clark has gone from being an avowed climate change champion to the oil and gas industry’s biggest booster. The climate plan has been replaced by a jobs plan — and that was probably inevitable. Experts say it’s possible to reconcile economic development with the climate, but so far we haven’t seen how the government plans to do this.”

The politics are fraught, agrees Pollon, but he notes that B.C. is not alone in attempting carbon reduction initiatives. “The premise of this series from the outset was that B.C. had enacted policies that made it a leader in North America when it comes to battling climate change, and this remains true. What came as a surprise was how many nations in the world have either already taken action, or are planning to very soon. Federal politicians in North America often portray developing countries — particularly their emerging trade rivals China and India — as laggards who are increasingly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Yet China will have a nationwide emissions trading system by 2015, and India will set an emissions cap for its 500 or so biggest polluters by 2014.

“Meanwhile in North America, Obama’s national cap and trade system has been killed, climate denial has become mainstream, and Canada is happy to follow whatever the U.S. does — or doesn’t do.  Meanwhile,” says Pollon, “Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and most of the EU have successfully put a price on carbon. And the sky hasn’t fallen yet, either.”

‘Our most pressing issue’

Reporting the series could be an up and down experience, both Barrett and Pollon admit.

“Sometimes I feel like the only people who care about this issue are a few climate nerds. That’s frustrating,” says Barrett.

“You can divide the world into three camps: Those who think we are causing climate change, those who think it’s all BS and those who don’t care — and there’s significant overlap with the latter two schools,” says Pollon. “In North America, I see the latter groups gaining traction, and I’m not sure what can be done about it. This growing denial/disengagement has direct political implications — as we have seen with the six U.S. states pulling out of California’s cap and trade system, or the U.S. Republicans derailing Obama’s plans for a nationwide cap and trade system.

“It’s getting to the point where rational discourse on climate change — or more pointedly, what to do about it — is not possible. The only thing that will change this may be for the climate impacts to worsen to the point that deniers change their minds. But by then, it’s likely too late.”

The role of the Tyee Solutions Society journalist is not to make the case for any particular policy, both Barrett and Pollon agree, but to provide as much solid context for public discussion as possible, so that citizens and their leaders can form sound judgments.

Pollon thought of his five-year-old child often as he pursued the questions in this series. “The situation in North America — where it has become politically unacceptable to confront climate change in any truly serious way — is bleak. It’s particularly difficult to have young kids and to ponder that their future is so uncertain. Climate change is our most collectively pressing issue, so it’s necessary to scrutinize how we’re confronting it.”

Look for more reports in this series from Tom Barrett and Christopher Pollon, as well as Tyee reporter Geoff Dembicki, in the weeks ahead.

This series was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives Society. Funding for this series was provided by the Bullitt Foundation and Hospital Employees' Union. All funders sign releases guaranteeing TSS full editorial autonomy. TSS funders and Tides Canada Initiatives neither influence nor formally endorse the particular content of TSS’ reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please contact Chris Wood.