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VIBERT: Premier supports marine protection, elsewhere

Nova Scotia is all for marine protected zones unless they interfere with our chances of making a buck.

That’s not quite how Premier Stephen McNeil put it Friday in Moncton where he appeared before a national advisory panel that’s helping the federal government write standards to protect marine areas. But it is the province’s position.

It’s the same old song, with a different beat for each successive government. 

Nova Scotia’s awkward position is that what’s good the environment is good for everyone, unless it picks our pockets. The province isn’t alone. The feds and other provinces talk a better environmental game than they play, too. Human nature – to opt for the deferred payment plan – has a way of intruding on the best of intentions.

We want to flip an environmentally-friendly switch and live healthy, wealthy lives on a planet-saving green income, but the cold, harsh realities keep getting in the way. You can’t eat your cake and have it too.

Take clearcutting, please. The province assigned Nova Scotia’s resident environmental-economic realist Bill Lahey the near-impossible task of coming up with a forest policy that’s acceptable to both the industry and people appalled by the scorched-earth left behind by clear-cuts.

Even the assiduous president of the University of King’s College needed to ask for a deadline extension on that paper and, while he’s as good as we got, Lahey won’t be able to make both sides happy because it can’t be done.

Nor can anyone even precariously tethered to a remote reality believe that marine protected zones are where you’ll find oil rigs.

McNeil’s position is based on experience – limited. The Sable offshore gas project co-existed with the fishery and was completed without environmental trouble, ergo Nova Scotia’s offshore is immune from the kind of catastrophe that turned the Gulf of Mexico into a black lagoon in 2010, was still killing dolphins in 2014, and is responsible for a host of strange and deadly deformities found in marine life to this day.

‘It hasn’t happened yet, so it won’t happen,’ is called normalcy bias and it comforted folks in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and the Florida panhandle right up until globs of oily tar covered their beaches, often encasing sea birds or formerly frisky fish.

McNeil said Nova Scotia will work with Ottawa on marine protected areas, “but it has to be done in a way that allows Nova Scotians to maximize the value of our resources off our coast."

Ay, there’s the rub.

Once the province maximizes the profits from marine resources – fish, aquaculture, oil, gas – it’s all for marine protection.

There is a fallacy aboard in the land that protecting the environment, up to and including climate change mitigation, can be accomplished without much change, or at least without much pain.

The federal Liberals are trying thread the environmental-gain-without-pain needle and the result is that Canada has virtually no chance of meeting the carbon reduction objectives it agreed to when it signed the Paris Agreement.

We can’t have the cake – a sustainable environment – until we stop eating it.

There is little doubt that the so-called green economy is attainable. Parts of Europe are well advanced in the transition, but it does require a transition. 

In resource-based economies like Nova Scotia’s and much of Canada’s the transition means some short-term pain. Unfortunately, when you’re talking about a shift in the economic fundamentals, short-term is likely a generation, maybe two.

Everybody agrees with the “polluter pay” concept until they discover that when it comes to carbon pricing, they are the polluter-cum-payer.  Nova Scotia’s true position on marine protected areas is kind of like that. They are a great idea, anywhere other than off Nova Scotia’s sea bound coast.

The oceans are the planet’s lungs, producing up to 80 per cent of the atmospheric oxygen that sustains human and other life. But everything in the environment is connected, and the high CO2 levels that create climate change also threaten the algae and microscopic cyanobacteria that produce most of that oxygen.

Given that the health of the oceans is essential to most life on Earth, what Nova Scotia’s premier told the marine protection panel is that the province is willing to help save the planet, just not at any price.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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