Fighting climate change will provide a massive stimulus to the global economy, lift the world out of poverty and erase the lingering troubles of the Great Recession.
Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore laid out this sweeping fiscal case for battling global warming at the Climate Summit of the Americas, in an effort to refute the most common argument against driving down greenhouse-gas emissions – that it will be too costly and economically risky.
"As we see the world's leaders trying to figure out how to get the economy to get enough escape velocity to pull away finally from the Great Recession, wouldn't it be great if we had a global project to mobilize people, to unleash extra human energy and innovation, to create lots of jobs?" he told an audience of hundreds in a ballroom at the Royal York Hotel Thursday morning. "As we change, we can lift the global economy."
The economic activity necessary to switch to a low-carbon economy will involve spending on the scale of the Second World War and the subsequent Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe in the 1940s and '50s, he said. Among other things, it will include retrofitting buildings, constructing renewable energy projects and building infrastructure.
Mr. Gore said this has already started to happen, pointing to the fact that both British Columbia and California have put a price on carbon and cut greenhouse-gas emissions while simultaneously undergoing above-average economic growth.
"All of the things that save money, increase efficiency, reduce emissions – they provide jobs, lots of jobs. This is not just an ideological assertion; many of you have already seen it happen," Mr. Gore said.
Ontario, for its part, is spending $16-billion to build new transit lines, aimed at cutting emissions, creating jobs and ramping up productivity by breaking the back of Toronto's chronic gridlock.
Former Mexican president Felipe Calderón argued that the world will likely spend $90-trillion to build infrastructure over the next half century no matter what happens, so it might as well ensure that infrastructure is environmentally friendly.
"If we are to invest one way or another in infrastructure – either in energy, in cities or in land uses – let's do it the right way," he said in a lunch-hour address.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is hosting the summit, oversaw the signing of a four-point commitment to battle global warming by representatives of 23 provinces, states and cities from across the Americas. The deal committed the various subnational governments to put a price on carbon – either through carbon tax or cap-and-trade – and set hard targets to slash greenhouse gases. The agreement suggested developed countries, which have historically benefited most from burning carbon, would have to do more than developing countries to fight climate change.
"Good climate policy is good economic policy. We do not make the separation between the two. We find new ways to fight against climate change, which stimulates growth across an economy more sustainable, more prosperous and more equitable," Ms. Wynne said at the signing ceremony.
Among the signatories were five provinces and one territory; five U.S. states; four Mexican states and three states in Brazil.
Notably, Alberta did not sign the accord, despite having sent an official to the summit. But Ms. Wynne tried to reassure the province that she is not opposed to Energy East, the massive planned pipeline that would ship oil-sands bitumen to Quebec and New Brunswick.
"We are not going to be rid of fossil fuels tomorrow. The fact is, we have 1,100 companies in Ontario that are dependent on Alberta's oil industry," she said. "So to somehow pretend that we don't have a shared interest, and we don't have to find a way to move that fuel in one way or another, would be to hide our head in the sand."
The summit unfolded even as B.C. and Saskatchewan battled raging wildfires, while California rationed water amid a record-breaking drought.
"Every night, the television news is a nature hike through the Book of Revelation," Mr. Gore remarked.
Mr. Calderón said any economic argument against fighting climate change "is completely false," and that there is no choice but for humankind to seize the moment.
"It's not an option, it's not an alternative," he said. "It's the only way we can avoid a big disaster, a catastrophe at the end of the century, and at the same time provide opportunities to the people."