Friday, November 06, 2009

The Berlin Wall and Prague's haunting ghosts

The 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's end comes two years after my only visit to the former Soviet bloc.
It's not Berlin that comes first to mind. It's Prague, and the Museum of Communism. The museum is small, up a broad staircase on the second floor of a grand old building. A McDonalds is next door.
I went alone, on a bright spring day. Inside, the rooms were gloomy. The artifacts of 41 years of totalitarian communist rule were grim.
They showed how governments could easily construct a false reality, where enemies threaten and only a strong state can keep citizens safe.
But what brought tears to my eyes me were the video displays and writings in which Czechs looking back on the Prague spring of 1968. For eight months, under a reform government, change seemed possible.
Then the Soviet tanks rolled in.
For several months, people fought back, at great cost. Until the hopes were destroyed and they gave up.
The occupation lasted another 21 years, until it collapsed after the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989.
What was so sad?
The crushed hopes, for certain. The museum's black and white films showed protesters flooding into Prague's streets to demand freedom and democracy, defying police and army and censorship.
The fearlessness, too, and the obvious belief that an army of citizens could triumph over an army of guns and tanks.
But sadder than all that were the doubts and regrets. It was in the people's eyes as they talked about the collapse of the democracy movement.
What if, they must have wondered, we had fought a little longer, accepted more deaths, pushed back a little harder? Could that form of oppression been thrown off 20 years earlier?
There is no harder question.
Walking through the museum, I wondered how deep the scars still must be. No one who lived through the period could have escaped them.
The people who saw injustice and oppression lived with the questions about what they, and didn't do, to resist and whether they shied away from a just and important struggle. Each person had to decide if he was sensible, or scared.
A lot of people chose sensible. Some informed on neighbours or worked hard to support the Communist state. They too must have wondered about their choices.
Berlin was certainly haunting - the memorials to those killed trying to cross the wall, the preserved subway stations, closed for more than 40 years because they would have allowed East Berliners to simply step off the train and walk up into West Germany.
But the little museum in Prague was terribly sad and raised very hard questions, at least for me.
There was no character flaw in the Czech and Slovakian people or the East Germans or any of the other people who spend so long under Soviet oppression. They were not, except for their circumstances, much different from us.
As a child of the Cold War, the power of fear is easily understandable. When the warning sirens went, usually by accident, children in my Toronto suburb paused to see if the Russian a-bombs were about to fall. I pondered whether there were local targets worthy of a nuclear missile and calculated the odds that a Russian bomb aimed at Buffalo would miss land in my subdivision.
And as thousands of people gather in Berlin to celebrate the wall's fall, I wonder about the reality our states are constructing today.
Most Czech citizens, I expect, accepted the world their governments created, deferred to authority, made the best of their lives. As we do.
That is not, for a second, to compare the Soviet bloc governments and our own.
But as I emerged into the sun and walked Prague's beautiful streets, through the squares where thousands gathered, I felt both sadness and admiration. When tested, they had risked much in a bid for freedom.
Footnote: Equally haunting is a monument in Wenceslas Square in Prague, a curling cross set into on the ground. In January 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Czech history student, set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring and brought 20 more years of winter.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Putting a price on greenhouse gas cuts

It has taken a big bank to bring some focus to the talk about fighting climate change and Canada's role.
And, on balance, the news is good. Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced significantly without too much economic damage.
But there will be costs and the burden is going to hit some industries and regions much harder than others. And the changes are going to have to start happening much more quickly.
Governments have been vague on all those details.
So when TD Economics released a report suggesting Alberta and Saskatchewan would take the biggest hit from greenhouse gas reduction efforts, there was a flurry of headlines, hand wringing and criticism from politicians.
The report, commissioned by the TD Bank's economics branch, identified the impact of different levels of carbon emission reductions.
Heading into world climate talks in Copenhagen next month, the Harper government has pledged to reduce emissions to 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020. That's the equivalent of three-per-cent below 1990 emission levels. And a big step back from the Kyoto Accord, which called for a 5.2 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.
B.C. has already committed to a 33-per-cent reduction from 2006 levels by 2020.
And the TD Economics study also looked at much more ambitious cuts that would take emissions to 25 per cent below 1990 levels in the same period. That's the minimum reduction the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change said is needed from western nations.
The good news is that both targets can be hit without huge overall economic impact.
The bad news is that there will be some hard-hit sectors and regions.
First, the big picture. Meeting the Harper government's target would mean reduced economic growth, but the pain is moderate.
The study's computer model predicts that cutting emissions by 20 per cent would mean overall Canadian economic output would be 1.5 per cent lower in 2020. That's about $20 billion - not chicken feed.
But the reduction would be spread over a decade. Annual national GDP growth would be just under 2.3 per cent instead of 2.4 per cent. Significant, but not wrenching.
This matters because economic growth means, as a rule, more jobs and higher pay. Slower growth means fewer opportunities.
Even meeting the much greater reduction sought by the international panel would mean less than half of one per cent a year in lost economic growth.
Here's where it all gets interesting.
The TD Economics' report assumes the government is going to put a price on carbon emissions, through cap and trade and a carbon tax like the one B.C. has introduced.
Industries that don't produce greenhouse gases will roll along happily. Those that do will face big extra costs.
The report says this would create "a major structural change in the Canadian economy," away from carbon emitting industries, like the oil and gas sector and coal mining. Mining, smelting, trucking and others would also suffer.
And since the oil and gas industry is significant in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C., those provinces take the big hit.
While meeting the Harper government's targets would mean 1.5 per cent less economic growth over the next decade, Alberta would be reduced by 8.5 per cent; Saskatchewan 2.8 per cent; and B.C. by 2.5 per cent. (Or about 4.5 per cent, based on the Campbell government's more aggressive commitments.)
That's a significant cost, but not crippling. And it has to be balanced against the costs of doing nothing. If forest fires continue to worsen and droughts bring water shortages and forests grow more slowly as global temperatures rise, the province's economy suffers.
One of the challenges in all this is trust. Things will get more expensive as carbon taxes are implemented, the study assumes. But governments will get a huge windfall in new tax revenue and return it to people. They'll be OK.
The bottom line? Kudos to TD Economics, for bringing clarity to the fuzzy world of climate change.
Footnote: The economic model comes from Marc Jaccard and Associates. Jaccard is a Simon Fraser University professor and deservedly influential analyst, with no political agenda. It is interesting to note the assumptions include significant change, including a 100-per-cent shift to electric heating for new construction in B.C.