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opinion

I'm not a politician, so you may wonder what I'm doing expounding on what has already become a political hot potato. Hot in so many ways: According to those who measure such things, including NASA, the Earth is hotter now than it's been for millenniums. If it gets very much hotter, we'll soon be beyond the point of no return.

Here's a bit from a piece I wrote for Granta last year -- non-fiction this time. The subject was the melting Arctic ice.

"The rising water levels . . . would get attention -- no more Long Island or Florida, no more Bangladesh, and quite a few islands would disappear -- but people could just migrate, couldn't they? Still no huge cause for alarm unless you own a lot of shorefront real estate.

"But wait: There's ice under the earth, as well as on top of the sea. It's the permafrost, under the tundra. There's a lot of it, and a lot of tundra as well. Once the permafrost starts to melt, the peat on the tundra -- thousands of years of organic matter -- will start to break down, releasing huge quantities of methane gas. Up goes the air temperature, down goes the oxygen ratio. Then how long will it take before we all choke and boil to death?"

People sometimes tell me I can be a little harsh -- as if, by saying that the bare-naked emperor has in fact got no clothes on, I'd trampled a kitten or something.

So harsh, to wake sleepwalkers from their trance. Everyone would much rather be told that things are fine, the world is safe, we're all nice people, and, above all, that we can keep on doing exactly whatever we like, without changing our so-called lifestyle, and there will be no bad consequences. I'd like to be told that, too. Trouble is, it's not true. So maybe it's time to be a little harsh. The situation we find ourselves in cannot be dealt with through anything less than plain speaking.

I recently took stock of how I myself was living. It's amazing where such an examination will lead you. Just try avoiding paper towels in washrooms, for instance. It can be done -- you carry a handkerchief, you use that, you discover it weeks later balled up in a mildewy corner in your purse -- but it's hard.

Trouble is, people who are making this difficult attempt do feel they're going it alone. They aren't getting much official help. Private gains are being cancelled out by public losses.

When will our leaders stop behaving like the proverbial ostriches with their proverbial heads in the tar sands? People no longer want to listen to Stephen Harper tut-tutting about previous Liberal hypocrisy and inaction. It's you in power now, Mr. Harper. The nothing that is being done is your nothing.

You're keeping one of your promises, at any rate -- your promise to build a firewall around Alberta. But people in Alberta are not so stupid, either. They're beginning to realize that a hotter planet is going to mean droughts and water shortages. A lot of frizzled-up cattle. A big imbalance between the water people need and the supply of water available to them. What happens when the place burns from the inside of the firewall, not from the outside? How now, brown cow?

Canada has long been thought of as a fairly green place. But we've been resting on our laurels, unfortunately, because Canada is not meeting its greenhouse-gases control goals set under the Kyoto accord. It's promising to come up with a bigger and better made-in-Canada plan, some time. But the recent Clean Air Act will be useless if the atmosphere continues to heat up. What part of Hotter-Planet-Means-Worse-Air-Means-More-Air-Conditioning-Means-Hotter-Planet-Means-Worse-Air don't the Conservatives get?

It's a message that voters increasingly do get. But there's the message, and then there's how people react to the message. If it's all doom and gloom, folks turn off, because they feel there's nothing they can do. Or else they get cynical and greedy -- if we're all going down the plughole, why not grab what you can and enjoy yourself in the meantime?

During the first onslaughts of the Black Death, when people thought the world was coming to an end, some took to flagellating themselves. Some went on the rampage, looting and raping and rioting. Some carried on with their ordinary lives as best they could. But nobody said, "It's not happening." Nobody will be able to say that about global warming and environmental catastrophe, soon, either. Hardly anyone is saying it now.

It's all very well to say that individual consumer choices are what will make the difference -- that government should stay out of it. If you want to buy a polluting leaf blower, if you want to drive a honking big city tank, that's up to you. And if on the other hand you're conscientious, and you make the right environmental choices, and you pay more for them -- as you often will -- that's your choice, too.

But that's penalizing those who do make the right environmental choices, and letting the others off the hook. The air, the earth and the water are a common good, and should be commonly protected. Legislation is needed to level this particular playing field. We're waiting for it. If we wait too long, it will be too late.

I'll end with an old story. King Midas was granted a wish, and he wished that everything he touched might turn to gold. Everything did turn to gold, including any food he tried to eat and any water he tried to drink. He starved to death.

Instead of turning life into gold, we have the chance to turn gold back into life -- good water, fine air, healthy soil, clean energy. I hope we will all avail ourselves of that chance, while we still can.

This was adapted from a speech given last night at the Charles Sauriol dinner for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust and the Conservation Foundation of Greater Toronto.