Greg Poelzer is a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and current Fulbright Arctic Initiative Scholar.
Former Saudi Arabian oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani famously warned his fellow oil producers in June, 2000: "Thirty years from now, there will be a huge amount of oil – and no buyers. … The Stone Age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil."
Anyone attending U.S. President Barack Obama's GLACIER Conference (Global Leadership in the Arctic: Co-operation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience) left with the profound sense that Sheik Yamani may well be right. The driver is the emerging political consensus among the leading economies of the world that we must address global climate change and dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions – not later, but now.
Make no mistake: The consolidation of a political consensus is real and rapidly gaining strength. For more than two decades, global warming has been debated publicly, but with modest practical effect. Pope Francis's encyclical released in June sought to break the logjam of inaction in advance of the upcoming United Nations COP21 meeting to secure an international agreement on climate change.
This past week's GLACIER Conference had the same intent: to consolidate the expectation of more action, less talk. On barely a month's notice, the United States organized a meeting of high-level officials from about 20 countries, including China and India. Even the Netherlands and South Korea sent their foreign ministers. This underscored the importance of the issue. Notably, six of the eight Arctic Council states sent their foreign ministers; two, Canada and Russia, did not.
Canada needs to pay urgent attention to the rapidly shifting global politics. Internationally, we are perceived to be laggards on climate change. Fossil fuels will be in global demand for the foreseeable future – the transition to a zero-carbon future will not occur overnight. Exporting petroleum and reducing carbon emissions are not incompatible. Norway, Europe's largest oil producer, has done so. In fact, Norway is a net exporter of renewable energy, mainly from hydro, but increasing from wind production, as well.
Canada's inaction to work with our trade partners on carbon-emissions reductions is hurting the Canadian economy. No major pipelines – much safer and less carbon-dioxide-intensive than rail – have been approved. Oil shipped by rail has displaced agricultural products, further hurting the Canadian economy. And much of the oil has to be sold at landlocked prices. Even Canada's petroleum sector is calling for carbon pricing. As Sheik Yamani forecast, "I am a Saudi and I know we will have serious economic difficulties ahead of us." Without a radical change in energy and climate change policy, so, too, will Canada.
That the United States chose to host the meetings in Anchorage, Alaska, was no accident: Climate change affects the Arctic hardest. The real message, however, was global. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry identified the need "to factor carbon dioxide and its cost into the actual accounting of business and of our economies." And he emphasized (are you listening, Canada?), "Energy policy is the solution to climate change."
The closing address by Mr. Obama was bold, blunt and unequivocal about his administration's resolve to reduce dramatically the United States' use of fossil fuels. He implored other countries, calling on a spirit of co-operation, to do the same. Mr. Obama laid down a challenge to the entire world. Will Canada respond? Can we afford not to?