Climate was on no one’s ballot yesterday but won in a landslide.
Seventy per cent of Canadians voted for parties pledging to up Canada’s fight for a safe future. The Conservatives, campaigning as pimps for Canada’s Petroleum Producers, were held to 34 per cent of the popular vote. In the world of realpolitik, the final result was probably the best available outcome – the Liberals will govern by keeping the support of parties that want even more ambition. The climate action caucus within the Liberal party is significantly stronger, now including the formidable founder of Equiterre, Steven Guilbeault.
We now have something like the current situation in British Columbia where a climate-forward NDP is being pushed by the BC Greens. It is definitely not yet a politics proportionate to the crisis but that was always going to be the job of civil society — the politicians will fall in line as we amp up the pressure from the public square.
Even more important, Canadians broke the long-standing curse that climate concern may be broadly held but is shallowly felt.
In that sense, it was a sea change in national electoral politics. Climate was salient like never before and was, for the first time, a vote determining issue for large segments of the population. Fossil fuel extraction and climate plans were everywhere on the campaign trail and dominant in the leaders’ debates. The student climate strikes, the extinction rebels and the tens of thousands of regular Canadians who joined them, drove climate to the top of the agenda and kept it there.
It now seems probable that no party can hope to govern Canada if it does not promise voters a serious climate agenda.
But the country is now badly balkanized and the campaign was bitter, nasty and brutal. Big Oil emerged from its shadowy role bankrolling merchants of doubt and unleashed its dogs of war against our children.
The fossils assembled their coalition under the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, occupied the Conservative Party of Canada and unleashed a barrage of psyops and ground warfare against climate action in Canada.
The carbon barons found an eager field commander in Andrew Scheer who led a campaign of unabashed extraction populism. A campaign bursting with outright lies about climate policy and propaganda crafted to inflame the fears of Canadians worried about their jobs, their ability to make ends meet and fundamental economic security for their families.
The fossils took to the field with a promising front piece: a rosy-cheeked, soccer Dad of a leader, well-suited to mollify Canadians that might otherwise have been repulsed by the take-no-prisoners tactics of the Petroleum Producers.
'It now seems probable that no party can hope to govern Canada if it does not promise voters a serious climate agenda,' @zerocarbon writes #cdnpoli #climatechange
We can count ourselves lucky that Andrew Scheer devolved into an inauthentic persona, leading a lacklustre campaign whose pocketbook promises clashed increasingly jarringly with his rabid attacks on fellow leaders and on the great majority of Canadians who really, really would like to keep our little rock inhabitable.
We can allow ourselves a moment of relief that Canada has, at long last, an actual set of climate policy mechanisms in place that have been battle-tested and prevailed. We can now focus politically on turning those policy knobs up to the levels required. We are not going back to years of unbridled extraction populism and climate pollution.
But we cannot allow ourselves to rest for long. And we cannot allow ourselves the indulgence of avoiding the hard analysis necessary to keep driving forward. As in so many things, success can contain the ingredients of its own demise.
The twin nemeses
We have got to be self-reflective at an important moment like this, and we should beware the twin nemeses of victory — factionalism and triumphalism.
Let’s start with the obvious: the broad public agreement on climate is fractured between four political parties. The zealous partisans for each are so-often blinded by tribal allegiance that they cannot see what seems obvious to the rest of us: that each of them, once burdened with the responsibilities of power, would crushingly disappoint its true believers (Need I point to the massive, carbon-spewing LNG plans and fracking industry in B.C. whose lead cheerleader is the province’s New Democrat government?).
Some of you may not even remember the last time we saw this movie in the national theatre. After many years of dithering, Canada had a climate plan actually worthy of the name. Real dollars for Reconciliation were finally in play as well. And then?
Progressives jockeying for power pulled the plug on a Liberal minority parliament. Canada spent an entire decade with Stephen Harper at the helm.
We can’t allow the parties’ activists and operators to go on placing politics above planet.
The dangers of triumphalism are equally stark.
For starters, the oil barons are not likely to take this well. ‘Thousands upon thousands’ are in apoplectic rage. Many more of our fellow Canadians are desperately worried about their livelihoods, their mortgages, their families. Our goal cannot be a pitched battle with the dead-enders like Kenney and Ford.
We have got to make every effort to ensure that as many as possible of our colleagues and family members do not see their only option to be the cauldron of nihilism that the Petroleum Producers will — if the recent past is any guide — be fuelling even hotter.
Surely we do not want to end up in an endless battle with extraction populism — each election a pendulum swinging like a wrecking ball through climate action (Hello, Australia). Our next big structural objective for politics should be to strive for a relative bipartisan consensus on efficient, speedy carbon reductions much like the United Kingdom.
The U.K. — that origin point for coal-powered, black lung industrialization — has reduced carbon emissions by more than 40 per centin the past few years, despite oil and gas operations in the North Sea and the consequent regional politics. Most has come under Conservative governments. One of Theresa May’s last acts, even in the midst of utter Brexit bedlam, was to commit the U.K. to zero carbon by 2050. Her predecessor as Conservative leader campaigned under the slogan “Vote Blue, Go Green.”
There are still vehement public climate deniers in the UK, of course. But they are marginalized from mainstream society. Some are recognized as eccentric and relatively harmless kooks, the more dangerous ones are ostracized for being threats to the country’s children.
A path with heart
(Yes, I know I cribbed that phrase…. I don’t think Kornfield would object)
One key lesson from the U.K. is that we need to raise the chorus demanding deeper, faster action and simultaneously convince sensible, normal people that the policies needed are completely reasonable.
We don’t have to win over every raging Rex Murphy. We probably can’t. And we don’t need to. What we can do is convince your libertarian brother-in-law that his identity is not at risk. We can address your aunt’s anxieties about the price of the gas and her ability to get to work.
This may require some humility on the part of climate activists. Understand that when we lead into the conversation with your brother-in-law by calling for the abolishment of “capitalism,” he quite understandably hears “we are going to abolish the right to private property and entrepreneurship.” We might have more success highlighting the grave injuries giant fossil corporations are causing to the sacred rights to life and property.
In a similar way, we can help your aunt picture life in countries around the word where people are getting to work just fine and carbon-spewing cars are exiting the picture. She is much less likely to be moved by lectures on the finer points of carbon pricing. I have a dear friend (a brilliant public opinion analyst) who frequently exhorts climate activists to ‘stop talking about the pot — talk about the chicken.’
Hard work ahead
The work ahead is hard. By mid-century we have to finish the job of eliminating carbon emissions. That may sound like a long way off. But it is now just 30 years away and we have wasted a lot of time increasing the size of the challenge. Coal must go yesterday. Oil and gas have to be replaced by electricity generated from clean energies. There are thousands of our fellow Canadians now employed in those fossil industries.
Hard as it is, we must be honest with people: there is no “both, and” for climate safety — the atmosphere does not care how much clean energy we build, it cares only that we eliminate fossil fuel emissions.
Alberta has options — those vast carbon reserves could make the province a global hydrogen powerhouse. But that’s an infinitely easier transition for technocrats to initiate from a legislature than it is for oil workers to hurdle — retraining in midlife for a job that, maybe will exist, maybe in a different town, all with bills raining down every month.
So as we drive the ball forward, let’s make every effort to do so with open hearts, empathy for those that have different worldviews to the typical climate activist, and insisting on real, tangible support for our neighbours who are being asked to make painful, life-transforming sacrifices.