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Post-Durban: Time to Pull Our Heads Out of the Oil Sands

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KEYSTONE I OIL PIPELINE
alamy

I am a capitalist. I enjoy creating wealth and I thrive in an environment that supports the creation of wealth. But a critical part of capitalism is managing wealth and making sure we're creating real, sustainable, long-term value.

I love the fact that our country is enjoying one of the most remarkable wealth spikes in its short history. The national trickle-down economic effect from the billions of dollars we're pumping out of Alberta's oil sands every month has truly transformed the face of Canada. We're richer, bolder, more confident and more optimistic as a nation. But are we any better (or at least as good as we used to be) at managing, re-investing and planning for the future? Might we have become complacent and so enamoured with our recent windfall that we're forgetting to focus on how to sustain all this wealth in the future?

Here is my worry: No matter what happens in Durban this week or at future climate summits, the world order has shifted irreversibly. Climate change and our collective responses to it are already having a pronounced effect on everyone's bottom line - - from insurers to energy producers, car manufacturers, consumers, and of course, governments. Global treaties like Kyoto are a tiny part of a much larger puzzle, so even if Kyoto fails, even if national governments never come together in a new global treaty, our world will continue to change rapidly as seven billion of us around the planet become increasingly anxious about lightening our collective footprint. Global change on a mass scale is already happening and thankfully, for the sake of our species, it's unstoppable. So how will all that change affect the sources of our national wealth right here in Canada? What will happen to us when the world needs (or wants) less of our stuff? Do we even have a 10 or 30 or 50-year economic plan? And -- even more urgently -- are we at least taking the right steps to stretch the shelf life and the brand strength of our current source of wealth?

The world doesn't want us to stop pumping oil out of the oil sands anytime soon (only a tiny, albeit very loud, minority of unrealistic hard-core environmentalists might be advocating for such radical measures). Quite the opposite, in fact -- the world's nations right now need us to continue producing the stuff so we can feed everyone's thirst for energy. But the vast majority of nations also want us to start playing nicer, to start acknowledging the changed reality, to start supporting their citizens' ambitions for a cleaner, more responsible future - -and we're not doing any of that. We seem to have developed a myopic attitude and an aversion to even acknowledging that change is coming, perhaps out of an irrational fear that any sort of acknowledgment might render our dirty resources worthless. I'll say it again -- nobody seriously wants us to turn off the oil taps today. They just want us to join the vast coalition of the caring and the responsible, instead of poking them all in the eye.

Let's stop sticking our heads in the sand. The climate crisis is changing the rules of the game forever and we need to start planning for our economic future. Our national oil bonanza isn't really a bubble, because it can last long enough for us to harness and re-invest the spoils in all sorts of new things. But that's up to us. If we don't at least show some good old-fashioned Canadian leadership and if we don't figure out how to appease our multiplying critics, our great oil rush of the 21st century could in fact turn into a short-lived economic bubble.

It's time for us to think and behave and plan like real, responsible capitalists.