Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Robert C. Paehlke

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Ten Questions with Robert C. Paehlke

Robert C. Paehlke is the founding editor of the journal Alternatives: Canadian Ideas and Action and the author of Democracy’s Dilemma, Conservation and Environmentalism and Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics. His latest book, Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada, is published by Between The Lines.

OB:

Tell us about your latest book, Some Like It Cold.

RP:

Some Like It Cold gets at why Canada has failed miserably with regard to climate change and why this is important on a global scale. Canada has the potential to lever the United States on climate change by taking advantage of what is usually seen as a weakness – the integrated North American economy. The United States very badly needs a secure supply of oil and to the extent that Canada becomes that secure source of supply it becomes very hard for Canada to meet its climate change obligations. Most of our future production will come from the tar sands and at present that oil is two to three times more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil. If present projections hold Canada could be producing 5 million barrels of oil per day by 2025 (almost all from the tar sands) even though we only consume 2 million (and that number may fall).

A new government in the USA is likely to be open to change with regard to many things (even John McCain the Republican is in favour of some action on climate change) and now is the moment when Canada can force the issue by conditioning increased energy exports on Canadian and U.S. commitments and performance on climate change. Canadian performance can be achieved by changing the technologies on tar sands extraction following a moratorium on additional production agreements and by making a major commitment to low carbon energy production from wind energy and other possible sources. Canada is one of a small number of nations that can pressure the USA – we did it previously with regard to acid precipitation and the time is right to do it again – we need to add our voice to that of European and other nations. There is no evidence that the current government would be willing to do this – the book documents Prime Minister Harper’s history of climate change denial.

Some Like It Cold also spells out what has happened since 1988 in Canada with regard to climate change (many conferences, treaty signings and no action to speak of). It also explains why this has happened in term of the political economy and environmental effects of tar sands extraction, the excessive powers of the provinces relative to the federal government, a party and electoral system that see nearly 70% of Canadians voting for parties that now favour climate change action – but cannot form a governing coalition and habitual deferral to U.S. power when, working with many Americans that want to see change on this issue, Canada could help to lead North America, and perhaps thereby the world, to a new post-oil economic transformation.

OB:

How did you research your book?

RP:

Much of the research was pre-done in the sense that I have been studying, teaching and writing about environmental policy and politics for 35 years. Most of the historic detail for the book was located from major Canadian news sources via the internet. Most of the science regarding climate change and the tar sands comes from reports issued by government agencies, both Canadian and international, and major environmental organizations. The policy background is supported by information from other books, academic journals, NGO reports and organizations like the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (NRTEE).

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote Some Like It Cold?

RP:

Since I just retired from university teaching, I made a decision to write a book somewhat less academic and more political than my previous writing (though I suspect that some academics found what I did previously to be pretty political). The book does not favour one political party in particular, but I do criticize all recent governments for twenty years of inaction on climate change. I am still academic enough, though, to want to explain that inaction rather than just detailing and/or lamenting it. So, the audience I am after is the general public – at least those in it that have an interest in today’s issues, in recent Canadian history and in Canada’s role in the world.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

RP:

C.B. MacPherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy
Viv Nelles The Politics of Development
John A. Livingston, One Cosmic Instant

OB:

What are you reading right now?

RP:

Barak Obama, Dreams from My Father and Martha Grimes, Dust

OB:

What was your first publication?

RP:

An editorial in the first issue of Alternatives published in 1971. My first longer piece not in Alternatives was “Occupational health policy in Canada,” in a 1970s book edited by Bill Leiss and published by University of Toronto Press.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

RP:

I prefer writing at home, with no one else there, listening to jazz or blues though I have had some of my best ideas about what to write while at conferences where I have listened to other people’s ideas for several straight days.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

RP:

Several people have told me that they have shifted somewhat what they have done in their lives in part based on reading Alternatives or after reading one of my books – two people claim that they took a job at Trent University after reading Alternatives in the early days or started directing more of their research and writing to environmental concerns. On the other hand, lest that sort of thing go to my head, I remember as well several hand written notes from early Alternatives readers convinced that they had found kindred spirits who appreciate that the world is polluted by evil forces, sometimes forces with off-planet links.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

RP:

Not so much advice, but the overall editing on my first single-authored book (Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics published by Yale University Press). I learned how to make my points more simply and directly. Actually just before that I had submitted that manuscript to the New York publisher Norton. It was rejected with a formula-sounding letter. I mustered my nerve and phoned the person, in my mind in his fancy office on Fifth Avenue, who signed the letter to audaciously ask: “Why the rejection?” That book, in my mind was written not for an academic audience, but for a general one. He said: “Too academic. Too ‘high-falooting’. Try Yale or Harvard.” He really said high-falooting. Hopefully, I’ve learned how to get over that tendency.

OB:

What is your next project?

RP:

A book titled A Tale of Three Cities: Kyoto, Baghdad and New Orleans about American hegemony and American politics. It is mostly done, but waiting on the November 2008 election.

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