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Four young Canadians are tracking the commitments of federal political parties on the climate crisis as campaigns rev up for the fall election.
Shake Up The Establishment is a website run by Manvi Bhalla, Janaya Campbell, Taro Halfnight and Cameron Fioret, all graduates or students of the University of Guelph.
The team will volunteer their time to help voters compare the environmental plans of the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democratic Party and Greens ahead of the election that is to be held on or before Oct. 21, 2019.
“We were all discussing how we would want to vote in the upcoming election,” said Bhalla, who studied biomedical science, and has researched at the Hospital for Sick Children and worked as president of the local chapter of Oxfam Canada, in a phone interview May 26.
“We didn’t actually know who the best candidate or party would be immediately. And we thought, if we felt this way, then other individuals also might feel this way.”
Website tracks 19 different categories
Canadian scientists have found that the country’s annual land temperature has heated up on average at twice the global rate, and climate change has already altered Canada and is expected to lead to increased risks of heat waves, wildfires, floods and declining freshwater availability.
Scientists say the global heat-trapping carbon pollution that is created when fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, and their derivatives like gasoline and diesel, are burned as fuel or to generate electricity, needs to drop to “near zero” by mid-century in order to avoid more extreme global heating scenarios.
These scenarios will manifest as global heating approaches two degrees above pre-industrial levels, when feedback loops begin kicking in, locking the planet into an unavoidably escalating situation. But recent reports have also shown significant decarbonization can be achieved with current technology, if political and societal will is there.
That's a complex subject in a country holding the third-largest reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and that is one of the top 10 carbon polluters globally.
Shake Up The Establishment contains a chart listing 19 different possible environmental categories — such as declaring a climate emergency, creating more energy-efficient homes and buildings and decarbonizing transportation — and provides links to party web pages or news articles showing the record of each of the four parties on these subjects.
For example, in the category “carbon pricing,” under the Liberals, the website links to a news article explaining how the government’s carbon tax will function. Under the NDP, it links to the party’s environment plan, which wants to “continue carbon pricing” while “making it fairer.” Under the Green Party, it links to that party’s environment plan, which calls for a “carbon fee and dividend.”
For the Conservatives, who have railed against the Liberal carbon pricing system, the website links to a CTV News article noting Tory Leader Andrew Scheer's remarks in 2018 that he would unveil a climate plan that will meet Canada's Paris Agreement targets without a carbon tax.
The Tories have said they will roll out a comprehensive climate plan before the end of this month. However, in April the Toronto Star reported that the party had “yet to decide” whether it would remain committed to the Paris Agreement targets — underscoring the fluidity of federal political promises when it comes to the environment, and the challenge for a website like Shake Up The Establishment to stay on top of it all.
Campbell, who is starting an MA in child study and education at the University of Toronto, said the site, which the team aims to update weekly, will soon add new comments Scheer made in his “vision for Canada” speech about two weeks ago in Calgary.
In that speech, Scheer talked about building more fossil fuel infrastructure across the country, through what he called a “national corridor” for Canadian oil and gas, that would also contain electricity and telecommunications and that he said he would negotiate with the provinces.
The Bank of Canada has listed climate change as a vulnerability in the Canadian financial system, saying sectors like oil and gas, as well as the banks that loan money to them, are exposed to risks that could spill over into destabilizing "fire sales” if a low-carbon transition is not handled properly.
Liberals have 'a lot of goals to live up to'
The team has had some involvement in political life. Bhalla said she and Halfnight have met with Guelph Liberal MP Lloyd Longfield to discuss income inequality and STEM careers for women. Halfnight is a biomedical science and neuroscience graduate who has worked for wildfire fighting company Panorama Crew Services in Balfour, B.C.
Fioret, a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Guelph, has worked on projects relating to peace and water security at United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health in Hamilton, and has also written about the privatization of water and reducing poverty.
Bhalla has also been in touch with Conservative MP David Sweet to discuss previous Conservative efforts in conservation and environmental initiatives. And they have organized events in Guelph to which Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner was invited, such as one on gender-based violence.
Bhalla said her analysis of the four party’s promises so far made her realize that the Conservative Party “seems to have the least amount of information out at present, and they’re kind of the ones that we’re waiting on.”
Scheer's Press secretary Daniel Schow told National Observer the party would be “announcing our climate plan before the end of June, and will be happy to share the details of it once unveiled.”
The Conservative leader has hinted that his climate plan would aim to cut emissions in other countries, saying Canada doesn't do the world any favours if cuts are made nationwide while pollution expands elsewhere. The Paris Agreement allows for “co-operative mechanisms" where two countries can agree to count one country's cuts as part of the other's targets.
He has also committed to banning all imports of foreign oil, an objective the Conservatives now have in common with the Green Party.
Bhalla also said the Liberals have put a lot on the table for voters. “It seems that the Liberal Party, they have a lot of promises and a lot of goals to live up to; in terms of actually implementing them, they have a very specific vision for how they wish to actually make that happen,” she said.
The Liberal nationwide carbon pricing plan, offset by rebates sent to Canadians as part of their tax returns, is part of the government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.
The party has also committed to increasingly stringent building codes, zero-emission vehicle sales by 2040, phasing out coal-fired power plants by 2030, cracking down on methane leaks and investments in clean technology, such as a recent announcement of “up to $30 million” to kickstart a homegrown version of a Bill Gates-led clean energy fund. But the Liberals have also faced criticism over their support for the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion.
Meanwhile, the NDP rolled out a $15-billion environmental plan on May 31 with such proposals as banning single-use plastics nationwide within three years, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and moving to decarbonized electricity and transit by 2030. The NDP is also set to introduce a private member’s bill Thursday “seeking to enshrine environmental rights in Canadian law.”
The Green Party released its own “20-step action plan” for the environment on May 16, which says it will “meet and exceed” the Green New Deal proposed in the United States and the Pact for a Green New Deal, a similar green jobs initiative being proposed in Canada. The plan also calls for establishing an “inner cabinet” of all parties to work together on climate change, a ban on fracking and a tightening of pollution reduction targets, among other policies.
The Greens recently elected a second federal MP for the first time, kicking off a round of speculation over the party's momentum going into the fall election. Paul Manly won a by-election in the Vancouver Island riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith that was previously held by the NDP.
Bhalla argued that the Green Party “seems to be the obvious choice for a lot of people when you think climate action." But she added that’s why the team wanted to create the website in the first place. “That’s why we wanted to introduce this whole endeavour, because people don’t seem to be taking the Green Party very seriously in comparison with the other parties,” she said.