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Trudeau's Carbon Price Policy Is Great But A Decade Too Late

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the United Nations Signing Ceremony for the Paris Agreement climate change accord. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Watching Justin Trudeau announce Canada's carbon price this past week, I was reminded of a moment from The Newsroom. Specifically, I was reminded of an episode in season three when fictional EPA administrator Richard Westbrook appeared as a guest on the fictional show within-the-show, News Night, sounding off about the threat of climate change.

"So, what can we do to reverse this?" Jeff Daniels' character, Will McAvoy, asks.

"Well there's a lot we could do if it were 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago..." Richard Westbrook, played by Paul Lieberstein, replies.

Watching the fallout of Trudeau's carbon price announcement, I couldn't help but be reminded of the scene. Watching people and groups respond, all I could think was "this would be a great policy... if it was 2006."

In that scene in the show, the EPA administrator also lays out the stark "carbon math" popularized by Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." The article, which helped to launch the fossil fuel divestment movement, broke down the "math" that fossil fuel companies owned and were planning to burn far more CO2 than our climate could handle, if we were serious about actually meeting a two-degree Celsius climate target.

The striking numbers motivated real-life people to organize a movement that has since divested over $5 trillion and led the fictional EPA administrator to make a chilling analogy to sitting in a running car in a closed garage. But, as striking as these numbers were, they've actually gotten a lot more stark. Late last month, the think tank Oil Change International (OCI) updated the "math" of climate change.

Their conclusion? No more fossil fuels. Period. End statement.

He's using the same climate targets set under Stephen Harper, which have been repeatedly criticized... as too low to do Canada's part on climate.

According to Steve Kretzman, the executive director at OCI, "if you burn up all the carbon that's in the currently operating fields and mines, you're already above two degrees."

In numerical form, to have a chance of staying below the two-degree Celsius mark the world agreed to in the Paris Agreement, we can release 800 more gigatonnes of CO2. To have a chance at staying below the 1.5 degrees that the world committed to strive for in that same agreement, we can only release 353 gigatonnes. The problem is that the total oil, coal and gas projects operating around the world contain 942 gigatons worth of CO2.

As McKibben puts it in an article in the New Republic titled Recalculating the Climate Math, "the math problem is simple, and it goes like this: 942 > 800." And obvious 942 is a hell of a lot more than 353.

Like I said, this carbon price policy would be amazing if the Pussycat Dolls were still on the Billboard Top 20.

What's wrong with Trudeau's policy? Simply put, it won't get us where we need to be. According to some calculation, a carbon price in Canada would need to start at $30 a tonne and reach $200 per tonne by 2030 to put us on track to meet our climate targets. Trudeau's price starts at $10 per tonne. More than that, he's using the same climate targets set under Stephen Harper, which have been repeatedly criticized, including by the Liberal Party, as too low to do Canada's part on climate.

Our job now is to hold politicians like Justin Trudeau to that bar.

And while Trudeau keeps calling these weak targets and the policies to meet them a "floor" the truth is that continuing to use Stephen Harper's climate targets while promising to meet our Paris commitments is kind of like a hockey coach telling you their strategy is to lose the first three games of the Stanley Cup final because they're going to sweep the subsequent four. Sure, it might happen, but with four successful comebacks in 182 tries, it's pretty unlikely.

The good news? Unlike that devastated fictional EPA administrator, we have some good reasons to be hopeful.

The main reason is that keeping fossil fuels in the ground doesn't, as many fear mongers would have you believe, mean abandoning fossil fuels overnight. In fact, according to OCI, following the natural decline of existing oil wells, we'd be using half as much oil as we are today by 2033, giving us 17 years to get to renewable energy. Considering that 17 years ago, cell phones could barely text message and I was using ICQ on a dial-up modem to talk with my friends online, it seems like this is pretty decent timeline to solve this problem.

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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Paris Agreement from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Beyond that, more and more people understand and are organizing around the reality of the climate imperative than ever before. Last year, thanks to a powerful movement, Barack Obama set a new high bar for considering whether or not to build new fossil fuel infrastructure when he rejected the Keystone XL on climate grounds. Our job now is to hold politicians like Justin Trudeau to that bar, especially when decisions like the Pacific Northwest LNG approval fall so far short of it.

That's why (even if I'm stretching into the upper end of youth) I'll be joining young people from across Canada in Ottawa in a few weeks for Climate 101, a mass act of civil disobedience to demand that Trudeau reject the Kinder Morgan pipeline and keep fossil fuels in the ground. Because, we need climate policy for right now, not that would have worked a decade ago.To paraphrase the prime minister, because it's 2016.

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Global Climate Agreement -- December 2015
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