“In wartime the provinces were forced to concede their jurisdiction over provincial resources to the central government. Canada passed in the twinkling of a pen from a free enterprise system regulated by ten jealously competing sovereignties to a centrally directed economy regulated by the government’s perception of the needs of the war.”
— historians Robert Bothwell and William Kilbourn, in their biography of Second World War Minister of Munitions and Supply C.D. Howe
After a year in which the pandemic stalled progress on climate mobilization, momentum seems once again to be picking up. The Supreme Court has said the federal government can and should lead. National governments, including Canada’s, are ramping up their greenhouse gas reduction targets. It feels like climate might again surface as a central issue in the next federal election.
Yet a harrowing gap remains between what science says is required and the policy and budgetary commitments we’ve seen so far.
Some say we should make allowances for the special challenges faced by the Trudeau government. “Canada is a country that produces and exports its energy, and so I understand that this will not be easy,” our prime minister said in his speech to last week’s Leaders Summit on Climate convened by U.S. President Joe Biden. True, Justin Trudeau needs to navigate the challenges of Canadian confederation and the reality that some provinces are currently heavily reliant on the extraction of fossil fuels.
If Canada were a unitary state, and not one of the world’s leading fossil fuel producers, acting in the face of the climate emergency might be easier. But we aren’t. Some feel sympathy for Prime Minister Trudeau, forced to contend as he must with premiers like Jason Kenney, Scott Moe, Brian Pallister and Doug Ford, all keen to stymie his best climate efforts.
But consider this: The last time we faced an existential threat — in the Second World War — the prime minister of the day had it pretty rough, too. The wartime government of William Lyon Mackenzie King also faced a squad of provincial premiers that included some notoriously strong and prickly political personalities — William “Bible Bill” Aberhart in Alberta, Mitch Hepburn in Ontario, and Thomas “Duff” Pattullo in B.C. None of these men were keen to relinquish power to Ottawa, all had major disagreements with the prime minister, and the first two strongly disliked or distrusted King. If and when Trudeau and Mackenzie King meet in the hereafter and argue about which of them had to contend with the more troublesome band of premiers, it is not clear to me who would rightly win the debate.
And yet, do you know what all those premiers did in the Second World War? They forfeited all authority over personal and corporate taxation to the federal government for the duration of the war, in exchange for a federal transfer, so that Canada’s dollars could be mobilized for a total war effort to maximum effect. Imagine that, eh?
As last week’s budget made clear, the money is simply not yet forthcoming to realize our critical climate goals, writes columnist @SethDKlein for @NatObserver. #ClimateCrisis #ClimatePolicy #Canada
In the face of a clear threat and generational mission, the provinces accepted that the federal government should be empowered to do what was necessary. Remarkable what becomes politically possible, with the right kind of leadership, when our governments recognize that an emergency exists and that co-operation is needed to ensure an all-embracing national effort.
And makes for quite the contrast with the temper tantrums so many of today’s conservative premiers have pitched over carbon pricing.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in its March decision on the federal carbon price, seems to have recognized a moment of similar imperative, with implications well beyond the modest tool of carbon pricing. As the majority decision of the court stated, the climate crisis represents a “threat of the highest order to the country, and indeed the world… The undisputed existence of a threat to the future of humanity cannot be ignored.” The David Suzuki Foundation (along with the legal team at Ecojustice) had intervened in the case, specifically to argue that climate change constitutes a national “emergency,” something with which the justices seemed to have concurred (even if the feds themselves had failed to make this argument).
The chief justice wrote: “It is necessary to consider the interests that would be harmed — owing to irreversible consequences for the environment, for human health and safety and for the economy — if Parliament were unable to constitutionally address the matter at a national level… This irreversible harm would be felt across the country and would be borne disproportionately by vulnerable communities and regions, with profound effects on Indigenous Peoples, on the Canadian Arctic and on Canada’s coastal regions. In my view, the impact on those interests justifies the limited constitutional impact on provincial jurisdiction.”
So, the federal government has the legal right to act in the national interest and the moral duty to forcefully do so. The mobilization we now need cannot be prevented by the foot-dragging of some provincial governments.
True, the climate mobilization cannot succeed if undertaken by the federal government alone. It needs to be a society-wide endeavour, and all levels of government have an important role to play — the federal government, each province and territory, each Indigenous nation and each municipal government. And fossil fuel-reliant regions need to be fairly accommodated as we ramp up an ambitious climate plan (as I outlined in a previous column). But the feds can and should lead.
There is also a compelling economic argument for federal leadership. As this pandemic year has highlighted, it is the feds who, with the Crown-owned Bank of Canada at their disposal, have the fiscal capacity to spend what is needed to confront this crisis.
Sadly, however, this federal government has so far shown no sign of truly understanding the climate emergency. As last week’s budget made clear, the money is simply not yet forthcoming to realize our critical climate goals.
The government’s tendency to announce and then reannounce big spending commitments, and to spread that spending out over many years, can make it hard to isolate exactly what is being promised. Helpfully, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researchers Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood and Clay Duncalfe have done the task for us. After a careful review of all the federal government’s climate spending commitments last year and this year, they conclude the government is proposing to allocate “just $31 billion (over six years) — approximately $5.1 billion per year — to the cause. That’s the equivalent of 0.25 per cent of Canada’s GDP.”
Meaning nowhere near what it should be. As I explained in my last column, the Biden administration is proposing to spend much more as a share of the U.S. economy. If Canada were to take the advice of leading climate economist Nicholas Stern, we would be spending two per cent of GDP on climate action, or about $40 billion a year.
As former clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb wrote about last week’s federal budget, it was not “transformative,” a tremendous lost opportunity given the confluence of the pandemic, inequality and climate crises. “We talk emergency” on the climate crisis, writes Himelfarb, “but our actions don’t match.”
The federal government’s approach to the climate crisis, in the main, remains focused on incentivizing — with tax cuts, carbon pricing, rebates and cajoling — households and businesses to take climate action. This strategy is destined to fail. If we continue with this approach, Canada will once again miss its greenhouse gas reduction targets.
If our urgent targets are to be met, the government must either take charge of the task itself — spending what it takes to succeed and creating new public institutions to get the job done — or it must mandate that certain action be taken, by both industry and households. That is the only path to victory.