This week, Vancouver hosted a meeting of the Canadian American Business Council, which held a policy forum devoted to an examination of the Canada-US relationship. Understandably, this took on special significance given President-elect Barack Obama's success in the US election the previous week.

Ecotrust Canada President Ian Gill was asked to speak on a panel on Energy Security, Climate Change and the Economy. To initiate his remarks, he was asked the following question:

There seem to be two conflicting views in the energy/environment debate these days. One view says “drill baby drill” in order to save our economy and way of life, while the other view focuses on climate change and the “inconvenient truth” of global warming. How do we bridge the gaps between these seemingly contradictory views? And how have sub-national actors played a role in the vacuum left by non-action at the federal levels in both countries?

In summary form, here is Ian's response:

First, you can see where “drill baby drill” got the current administration in the US. “Drill baby drill” sure didn't save its way of life. But more to the point, the whole notion of “Drill baby drill” is NOT how we save our economy and our way of life. The evidence is clear that it will do neither. If our economic future depends on defining “energy security” simply as continuing to scour the world for fossil fuels, well, we don't really have an economic future. The only future that includes life even remotely as we know it now, is a clean energy, low-carbon future.

As for An Inconvenient Truth, I would say that a very convenient truth is that the need for a low-carb energy diet is increasingly appreciated and understood the world over. Someone once said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. So whether you love or loathe Al Gore, he has certainly done a good job of alerting us to a climate crisis. The question is what to do about it.

How to bridge the gaps between two seemingly contradictory views? Well, I say tell the truth. There is more money in clean energy than dirty energy. Bill Clinton was here a couple of weeks ago and said much the same thing – in fact he applauded Premier Campbell for his courage in putting in place a carbon tax. Clinton said clean energy is potentially the biggest economic generator the world has ever seen. So how does that contradict the desire to save our economy and our way of life?

How have sub-national actors played a role in the vacuum left by non-action at the federal levels in both countries? Well, think about the Western Climate Initiative. I suppose California and BC could be described as sub-national actors. They stole the march on the feds – Canada's feds, America's feds – who refused to ratify Kyoto. I might add that more than 160 Canadian municipalities have done the same thing. Some of our First Nations have also said they will band together, so to speak, and create an energy accord of their own. Sub-national players are actually well out ahead of national players, and will probably remain so. So they play a huge role in the vacuum left by federal governments.

The Premier last night extolled the attributes of a borderless world, of a region based on clean energy and smart policy. He is talking about Ecotrust country – and what we see as an emerging appreciation of the competitive advantage of the bio-region. Here, we have big trees, fresh water, wild fish, abundant energy resources, a relatively stable political environment, and emerging indigenous leadership. We have sub-national players in the form of states, provinces, cities, and tribes. We also have creative non-profits – and another thing Clinton urged was that governments and businesses have to learn to work with non-profits.

Let's be clear. Energy security is not about getting access to the tar sands or to the Queen Charlotte Basin. And if you believe the latter, buyer beware. Guujaaw and the Haida will stop you. Canada's Supreme Court has mandated that governments and businesses must consult and accommodate First Nations in BC. In some cases, that is seen as a brake on development and that's not necessarily a bad thing. And just to give you some idea about how some First Nations view national governments like Canada and the US, Guujaaw, President of the Council of the Haida Nation recently told a big convention of The Nature Conservancy that he fears what will happen to his people who sit atop a big pile of resources in the form of oil and gas reserves off Haida Gwaii. He told that crowd, “Just look what happened to my cousin Saddam Hussein when they came after his stuff.” It was a mostly American crowd and there were some rather pained expressions in the audience, for sure.

No, energy security won't come through chasing around for fossil fuels. It will come about through profound investments in a clean energy future. Our energy interdependence should be based on:

  • investments in renewables
  • investments in a smart grid
  • investments in sustainable transportation – more efficient vehicles, high-speed rail
  • investments in energy efficiency
  • putting a price on carbon

My contention is that here on our coast, we already have many of the systems conditions required for systems-level change. Remarkably, our regional political leadership might even be close to where the people are on all this.

I'm not sure about the feds. Nation-states are fading in importance. I think people's desire for energy security is very different than that of centralized governments and even of business. You may well see in this region the emergence of a sort of Hanseatic league of interdependent and self-interested bioregional players. It might adopt some of the useful attributes of globalization, but ratcheted back to a regional scale that makes sense in a geography that people recognize as their own.