A conspiracy is afoot within the Conservative Party of Canada. Not all the plotters have been identified, but they’re known to include a handful of senior strategists, one former cabinet minister, and Jean Charest, the only leadership candidate with any hope of beating Pierre Poilievre.
Their goal is to make the party adopt a serious climate change policy.
“The party has to get it right on this issue because if we don’t, we are just not going to get elected,” Charest told me on a call at the end of May. “I think there is a cumulative realization after ’15, ’19 and ’21 that this is the challenge we have.”
Caveats apply. For one, the notion of a “cumulative realization” is quite a stretch. I was at the leadership debate in Edmonton and can report climate concern was not a prevailing vibe either on or off the stage.
Roman Baber may not have a snowball’s chance in a 3 C world of becoming the next Conservative leader, but he did capture the mood in that cavernous room with his opening remark about turning Canada into a natural resources superpower: “I am not going to let oil and gas be cancelled.”
Charest distanced himself as far from that kind of talk as possible for a man standing five feet away from it. When the subject of climate change finally came up (after an hour and a half on tyranny and Bitcoin), the man who attended 1992’s Earth Summit in Rio as Canada’s environment minister, who regularly lambasted the Harper government for shirking its Kyoto obligations while he was premier of Quebec, and who is now the sole leadership candidate with an actual climate platform was the only person to mention more than pipelines.
Charest spoke about green hydrogen, biofuels, small modular nuclear reactors and a tax on large emitters, concluding with the elevator pitch I’ve heard a dozen times from him and others since: “We need to have a credible campaign on this in the next federal election, ladies and gentlemen, otherwise our government will not be elected.”
Is this pitch sincere? You could park a glacier between Charest’s plans and the average climate scientist’s idea of “credible.” A Charest government would weaken Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction target by a quarter, effectively taking us out of a Paris Agreement that explicitly calls on countries to increase their ambitions over time.
Not all the plotters have been identified, but they’re known to include a handful of senior strategists, one former cabinet minister, and Jean Charest, the only leadership candidate with any hope of beating Pierre Poilievre, writes Arno Kopecky. #CPC
“We have not been hitting our targets in Canada,” he said when I pressed him on this two weeks later. “The Americans are not going to meet their target of reducing by 50 per cent by 2030 on 2005 levels. So I’m taking the approach that I’m going to set a target and I’m going to meet it… I want us to move out of the world of setting targets and never meeting them and then creating more cynicism and more of a sense of powerlessness because we just can’t seem to get it right.”
It’s true that replacing a difficult goal with an easier one improves the achievement odds. Whether that strategy also alleviates public cynicism is debatable.
Still, Charest and his co-conspirators are correct about at least one thing: Canadians are no longer willing to elect a party without a serious climate policy. However profitable it is to ignore this truth in a leadership race, doing so becomes extremely costly the moment you win.
That’s the hard kernel of truth at the heart of this conspiracy to make federal Conservatives stop ignoring climate change. Reams of data support it, including the last three elections and a 2021 exit poll in which 57 per cent of voters said they “cannot vote for a Canadian political party unless they have a strong plan for addressing climate change.”
“In every part of the country, including Alberta, the large majority of voters say that climate change is an important issue to them and they expect something to be done,” said Dan Robertson, Erin O’Toole’s chief strategist in the last election. “That includes people who currently vote Conservative.”
That’s a shocking development for a party that spent most of the 21st century flirting with climate change denial and denigrating every attempt to lower emissions. Obstructing climate action used to win federal elections, not lose them.
“If you look back at the 2008 election, opposing Stephane Dion’s climate plan was actually a benefit for the party,” Dan Mader, director of scripting and policy for the O’Toole campaign, told me. But as time and climate catastrophes ticked on, the benefit turned into kryptonite.
“After the 2019 campaign, we heard from several candidates who said that climate change came up regularly at the door and was the most difficult issue for them to answer on,” Mader said. “There were a lot of voters out there who said, ‘We agree with you on other things, but we won’t consider a party that we don’t think takes climate change seriously.’ And a lot of my thinking and others’ recently has been based around that.”
That was the catalyst for like-minded Tories who formed a support group called Conservatives for Clean Growth. Think of it as the HQ for the Conspiracy To Make Conservatives Take Climate Change Seriously (or at least make Canadians believe they do). In early May, the group’s co-chairs — former federal cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and former Alberta MLA Jim Dinning — spelled out their vision in an article for The Line entitled, “Cutting emissions can be a win for Canada.” What it boiled down to was this: There’s money to be made in renewable energy, and isn’t making money what Conservatives are all about? Plus, don’t worry, we can keep producing all the oil and gas we like so long as we invest in carbon capture.
My requests to speak with Raitt or Dinning were re-routed to their colleague Ken Boessenkool, once a senior adviser to Stephen Harper and now the executive director of Conservatives for Clean Growth.
“When the [Conservative leadership] race started,” Boessenkool recalled, “we had a very quick chat between five or six of us and we said we should really make sure that there's an intellectual space in this leadership race for people who are serious on climate change. Any candidate that wants our assistance in writing a climate plan, we would put a team together and help them do so.” So far, Charest is the only candidate to have publicly taken them up on this — Charest’s climate platform, Environment And Clean Growth, amounts to a bullet-point reprise of the Raitt/Dinning article. “I get a lot of environmentalists calling me and saying, ‘Why are you making that stupid argument that’s only good for Conservatives?’” Boessenkool told me. “I’m like, that’s who my audience is!”
He was deliberately vague about how much support his group has received from the Conservative caucus, saying only that “a number of MPs have been in touch to chat.” Poilievre, who has been campaigning on a promise to “axe the tax” and build “pipelines in every direction,” doesn’t seem to be one of them (the Poilievre campaign, perhaps more focused on the conspirators at the World Economic Forum, ignored my numerous interview requests).
I asked Boessenkool what he thought about the odds of the party’s likeliest next leader ever working with Conservatives for Clean Growth. “He’s said he’s going to address climate change through technology. I admit this is a generous interpretation, but for me, Poilievre’s admitted that he’s going to deal with climate change, and so I look forward to working with him.” He insisted that Poilievre was reachable. “I have the ability to talk to Pierre Poilievre, I have the ability to talk to almost all these candidates. As does Lisa Raitt. As does Jim Dinning. These are serious people with serious reputations, putting those reputations on the line to put their name behind this.”
Those of us who have been worried about climate change since before it was politically advantageous to do so might be permitted a moment’s schadenfreude in contemplating the devilish trap Conservatives now find themselves in: Having spent most of the 21st century seeding climate denial, their caucus is now bound to a hard-core base that drank every last drop of the Kool-Aid. These are the active members whose votes determine the leader.
“You have to distinguish between Conservative voters and Conservative party members — the activists, the people who logged onto our virtual convention last spring and voted to deny that climate change was even happening,” said Dan Robertson, who helped O’Toole win the Conservatives’ last leadership race before they went on to lose the general election. You can’t become leader without appeasing those members. But “whoever wins this leadership race is going to run into exactly the same research that I find.”
So do Conservatives for Clean Growth regard climate change as anything more than an impediment to power? Or is there also some sense of moral obligation — an acknowledgment, perhaps, that humanity is facing an existential threat?
“Here’s what I believe,” Boessenkool told me. “I believe that climate change is an important issue. I believe every credible political party wants to address climate change. But it’s not my number 1 issue. It’s not my number 2 issue. It’s maybe in my top five. But there’s no way that Conservatives can make progress on issue one, two, three and four if we don’t have a credible plan on number 5. So, it’s an existential threat to the election of Conservatives and doing all the things I think Conservatives need to do — and, it’s something we should do.”
Today, the chances of Conservatives for Clean Growth converting the masses of Tories signed up to vote for a new leader look vanishingly small. Poilievre claims to have signed up over 300,000 new members to the party compared to the “tens of thousands” Charest’s camp vaguely insists are enough to provide “a confirmed path to victory.” On paper, even Patrick Brown has a better chance than Charest, and so far, the closest thing Brown has to an official climate policy is his statement that “the only just transition is Justin Trudeau transitioning out of office.”
Still, given that oil and gas production has reached record highs under Liberal governance, and that Trudeau’s Liberals supported Keystone XL, bought the Trans Mountain pipeline, and approved both Bay du Nord and the largest LNG project in Canadian history — LNG Canada — one could reasonably ask if there’s really much difference between the Conservative vision of climate policy and our current reality.
Dan Woynillowicz, an energy-transition policy adviser and the founder of Polaris Strategy & Insight, agrees there is some “alignment” between the two parties’ vision of oil and gas production for export. But he sees a “stark contrast” in their overall climate policies. For even as Liberals encourage the export of Canadian oil and gas, they are aggressively decarbonizing our domestic economy. Whatever you think of that don’t-get-high-on-your-own-supply approach, it’s much tougher on emissions than anything a Conservative has proposed.
Even if Charest beats all the odds and became the next Conservative prime minister, the Liberals’ key climate policies would be watered down at best. “I’m very skeptical we would see an aggressive oil and gas emissions cap that declines to 2030,” said Woynillowicz. “I would be surprised if they pursued as aggressive a methane emissions reduction. I would be surprised if they kept the zero-emission vehicle mandate that’s going to ban the sale of internal combustion vehicles by 2035.”
I put the same question to Charest: What separates his vision of climate policy from that of a Liberal government that seems to be allowing the unfettered expansion of Canadian oil and gas?
“In the case of the Liberals, they seem to be doing it reluctantly,” he answered. “They’re dragged into it. In our case, there is a very realistic approach that says we are going to be living with oil and gas for a while — even in 2050, there will still be oil and gas — and we agree on the target of zero emissions by 2050. The issue is the transition, how we get there.”
Charest insisted that he regards climate change as “one of the greatest issues that is facing our generation.” Environmental conservation hasn’t always been anathema to conservatives, he added, pointing to environmental initiatives his party championed prior to the Harper era, like the Montreal Protocol — the global ban on ozone-depleting chemicals that Brian Mulroney helped sell to the world.
“It pains me that the party does not seem able to claim its legacy,” Charest said. “We do have a tradition. But it seems like in the last few years because of the way the [climate] debate has been approached, it’s been so partisan that we’ve been unable to even recognize that in our history and claim that position.”
He could have been talking about any one of the issues that separate his vision of conservatism from Poilievre’s. Of the many ways to interpret their battle for the party’s soul, one is to see it as a fight over history: Charest wants to build on all that’s come before, Poilievre wants a clean break and all the freedom that comes with it. Seen in that light, “climate policy” becomes one more invocation of Conservative tradition.
“Party members should feel proud of what we’ve accomplished as opposed to feeling that this is someone else’s issue,” Charest said at the end of our conversation. “It is not someone else’s issue. It is our issue.”
A generation ago that might have been true. In September, when the leadership vote is announced, we’ll find out if it has any chance of becoming so again.