This election should get serious about climate change--Hill Times


Published: Monday, 01/19/2015 12:00 am EST
Last Updated: Tuesday, 01/20/2015 10:30 am EST

Is this the election where Canadians finally get a serious debate about climate change? Stephen Harper opened the door a tiny crack in his year-end interview with Pastor Peter Mansbridge, though realizing what he had done, closed it very quickly, citing other “up there” global threats he perceives will help him electorally.

In 2007, Harper stated, “Climate change is perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity,” Now he says, “Geez, where does it rank in terms of our economic challenges, in terms of the Jihadism that we now face globally…? I mean since then we’ve had the global recession and we’ve had the rise, you know, the kind of second phase rise of the, of the global terrorist movement so I would put those up there as well.”

To Harper, a carbon tax is “dumb idea” unless it comes from Alberta. The Prime Minister fancies everything from Alberta, especially himself. He says Alberta’s pricing model is “a model on which you could ... on which you could go broader.”

The Prime Minister looked like a fish out of water, flipping and flopping, praising Alberta’s carbon tax and simultaneously playing down the climate change threat and desperately trying to change the channel.
Most editorial boards have come out in favour of a carbon tax as a way of dealing with climate change, including The Globe and Mail on Dec. 13, 2014. We have a second chance to do this, when gas prices are low and the “pain” of pricing carbon can be softened. If done correctly, the costs of carbon-based energy and renewable energy generation will be made more equivalent.

Reasonable people might wonder whether the PM has read the political tealeaves and concluded that Canadians might well make this a political issue. The PM is an intelligent man and he surely knows that the science is conclusive. However, to this point it has never been to his political advantage to acknowledge the reality of climate change. It is much more expedient to use overheated rhetoric which would make a third-grade debater blush.

Harper shows immense flexibility of principles when there is adjustment needed to regain political advantage; the permanent structural damage to the fiscal framework caused by the HST cuts come to mind. It was a decision that no respectable economist in the country could support, but it was of immense political advantage to the PM, so sound principles of fiscal policy are dumped and the national debt was increased by a cool $100-billion. We have not seen a balanced budget since. Talk is cheap, but good political talking points can be expensive.

If the PM sees the political light on climate change (by no means a sure thing), his 10-year denial will not bother him one whit. In one fell swoop, he will cut the political ground out from underneath the opposition and shut down those pesky NGOs. Ironically, all the provinces, with the possible exception of Alberta, will be supportive of some measure to deal with Canada’s climate change woes.

For the climate change diehards, any debate is better than nothing. The PM’s likely position is to promise as little as possible, leaving the opposition parties to battle over the more extreme positions. It will not matter that his credibility on the environment is negligible. For the purposes of a 37-day election campaign, he only needs a few solid talking points. What passes for debate in Canadian election campaigns would embarrass our proverbial third-grade debater.

The down side of a potential about-face is that the PM’s economic management strategy will be exposed as a sham. He has put all his economic eggs in the “oil & gas basket.” When oil and gas goes for a slide, the entire economy goes with it. Up until recently, Alberta has prospered while Ontario has not. Now that the dollar is closer to some level of reality, Ontario’s prosperity is returning. Dollar devaluation, stock market devaluation, and unnecessary regional prosperity differentials is policy poverty. Surely the starting point for appropriate enviro-economic policy is to hedge your bets by treating all regions and industries equally so that the inevitable market swings don’t derail the entire country. While it may be good for Harper’s politics to sacrifice one region’s prosperity for another, it is lousy economics and morally reprehensible.

The first real opportunity for pricing carbon was eight years ago and we missed that boat. Ignoring for the moment the overwhelming scientific evidence and the damage to our international reputation, smart economic policy would have been to price it in some fashion back then. Quebec, Alberta, Ontario, and British Columbia all are pricing carbon, one way or another. Each of those governments, both Liberal and Conservative, understand that not only is it the right thing to do but it is also the smart thing to do. Canada’s provincial governments get it and are supported by their respective electorates through all the viscitudes of messy elections.

Unless the PM wishes to identify with his soul mate Tony Abbott in Australia and repeal all the provincial initiatives, he too will be looking to price carbon without actually saying so. The greater likelihood is that he will claim some political credit for all the heavy lifting done by the provinces to date.

Canadians have moved on: carbon pricing is happening. The only question is whether our PM will emerge from his groundhog hole, sniff the political winds and then decide which talking points suit his political expediency.

Charles Wilson, the former president of General Motors, once famously said to Congress “what is good for the United States is good for General Motors and vice versa.” The PM believes in his bones what is good for the Conservative Party is good for Canada—even if it isn’t.

Liberal MP John McKay, who represents Scarborough-Guildwood, Ont., is his party’s environment critic.