A Modest Proposal for Climate Justice and Students’ Rights

Posted on December 10, 2010


This has been a very exciting week for politics. COP16, Julian Assange’s arrest, Cablegate, and the student protests have all been important news items of the past few days. It’s inevitable that there will be some intersections between them. This hit home for me as I read in one of the many blogs I perused yesterday (I couldn’t remember which one if you asked me) that an important British minister could not attend the tuition vote because they were away in Mexico at COP16. This is one of the reasons why the vote on the motion was so close, despite the clear majority held by the governing coalition. This intersection of two seemingly unrelated political issues about which I care inspired me to have a quick look at another potential comparison.

Students are under attack worldwide, as just one subset of victims of the massive global austerity program in which the global middle and lower classes pay for the excesses of Wall Street bankers. Canada, of course, is no exception. Student groups are being told to put their wishes for free tuition on hold, because the money just isn’t there (I’ll be writing a post on that nonsense once I finish reading a book that gives an excellent perspective on the issue). Here’s a summary of the problem, and an estimate of what it would cost to eliminate tuition, from a blog which is opposed to the idea:

The net cost of a national free tuition proposal (after accounting for canceled tax credit and rebate programs) is probably $3.23 billion (increasing annually). The cost to the federal government would be slightly higher, as some of the savings from cancelled programs would accrue to provincial governments and they would not be paying for the free tuition policy.

Meanwhile, our fledgling oil state government is eagerly subsidizing oil exploration companies which are tearing up both the local environments where oil happens to be found (most notably the Athabasca basin), and the global environment as effected by climate change:

Fueling the Problem, released by Climate Action Network, says that billions of dollars in subsidies for oil and gas companies are helping drive up emissions that cause global warming.

“In a time of fiscal constraint, the federal government could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue by ending unfair tax breaks to some of the richest companies in the world,” said the report. “Eliminating handouts to oil and gas corporations operating in Canada would also help the country take a step towards a cleaner energy economy.”

The report also follows an analysis released earlier in the week by the International Institute for Sustainable Development which estimated that the industry received $2.84 billion in tax incentives from the different levels of government across Canada in 2008 through 63 different subsidy programs.

So the government spending $2.84 billion dollars to artificially reduce the price of environmentally destructive fossil fuels and create jobs in an industry which is ultimately doomed, while simultaneously telling us that post-secondary education has to result in crippling debt because the $3.23 billion to make it free just isn’t there.

Here’s an idea: Take all the money out of fossil fuel subsidies, and place it the post-secondary education system instead. This would leave us just $390 million shy of free tuition for everyone. Whether that extra money comes from tuition fees or from further government funding, $390 million is much less painful to raise than $3.23 billion. As an added bonus, we would reduce our national carbon footprint. The price of oil would go up as a result of those free market forces which conservatives love so very very much, and as a result more people who had previously used Canadian oil to fuel their cars, heat their homes and power their grids would turn to more sustainable energy sources. The oil industry workers who lose their jobs would have an opportunity to pursue further education and set themselves up for whatever new career they choose. Everybody wins!

It’s interesting to note that so many social, environmental and economic problems can be reduced to massive mis-allocations of government resources.