As affordability woes dominate the national political conversation, the Liberal environment minister says climate change is linked to cost-of-living concerns and will remain high on the federal government’s agenda.
Although climate issues are “probably not as much at the forefront as they've been … it's still an area of concern for many, many Canadians,” federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer in an interview.
“Frankly, in terms of climate change, the arrival of Pierre Poilievre doesn't change anything for me,” he said. “If anything, it's going to make the contrast between what we're proposing, which is to really tackle in a way no other government has done before the issue of climate change, for many different reasons.”
The Conservative Party of Canada’s newly elected leader, Ottawa-area MP Pierre Poilievre, ran on issues like housing, affordability and the economy. Days after his leadership victory was announced, the federal government unveiled its new plan to tackle affordability.
With such pressing cost-of-living concerns, the federal government has two choices, said Mark Winfield, a political scientist and professor of environmental and urban change at York University. Climate could be sidelined, or the government could integrate climate into its proposed solutions, he said.
Guilbeault said climate solutions can help Canada prosper. That’s the direction the economy and investments are going, and jobs are being created in the cleantech, battery and renewable energy sectors, he said. Other climate measures also make life more affordable. More public transit helps Canadians drive less and save on gas; energy efficiency programs enable people to use less power in their homes, resulting in lower energy bills.
“We can work on affordability while we're working on climate change, and that's a message that's coming up loud and clear here from many of my colleagues,” said Guilbeault. He added that at the caucus retreat, “I haven't been in one session since I've been here where people haven't talked about climate change, where people haven't talked about the links between climate change and affordability.”
Demonstrating continued engagement and commitment on the climate file is key for the Liberals because it “is an important component of retaining its base,” Winfield explained.
“Climate has worked very well for the Liberals as an issue, which has been very effective in marginalizing the Conservatives,” he said, pointing to the last three federal elections. Not having a credible stance on climate change and refusing to respond to this “very evident” problem could be, and has been, “a factor which has limited the appeal of the Conservative party,” said Winfield.
Poilievre, like many Conservatives, has attacked the federal government’s carbon price and promised to scrap it early in his campaign.
As affordability woes dominate the national political conversation, Liberal environment minister @s_guilbeault says #ClimateChange is linked to cost-of-living concerns and will remain high on the federal government’s agenda.
Given concerns around affordability, Winfield said the Liberals will likely want to pay more attention to the impacts the carbon price has on low-income households and think about how to manage that.
Over the course of Poilievre’s leadership campaign, his team put out press releases promising to repeal Canada’s environmental assessment legislation and double Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil production. In the 38 press releases issued by Poilievre’s team during his leadership campaign, there was no mention of advancing climate policy. In fact, the word “climate” only appears twice. In his victory speech Saturday, Poilievre did reference “fighting climate change with technology and not with taxes.” This direct reference to climate change is rare for the Ottawa-area MP, who has instead pledged to scrap Trudeau’s aforementioned “anti-energy policies.”
Poilievre did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.
“The kinds of statements Poilievre was making are counting on voters being more concerned about other issues, that they will decide which party to vote for based on things like housing and cost of living rather than climate change,” said Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia who specializes in climate policy. Her guess is Poilievre will count on capturing Liberal voters who are frustrated by issues like affordability.
It’s impossible to say when the next federal election will be or how Canadians’ priorities will have shifted. If climate change is a prominent issue in the polls, the Conservatives under Poilievre may have to speak up, said Harrison. But if enough voters are preoccupied with other issues come election time, she says, it will be interesting to see if the Conservatives can succeed without offering much, or any, reassurance to climate-concerned voters.
When the House resumes on Sept. 20, the Liberals must be prepared for Poilievre’s trademark combative style. The recent out-of-control wildfires in B.C. also illustrate how climate change tends to force its way onto the political agenda. But Guilbeault thinks it will be easy to expose the Conservatives’ lack of preparedness on climate issues.
He recounted the hypocrisy of Conservative MPs speaking in Parliament about climate impacts during the November floods in B.C. “They have nothing to propose in terms of how we deal with climate change.
“I'm sorry, but you can't be serious about climate impacts if you're not serious about tackling climate change,” said Guilbeault. “I think the more time passes, the more this contrast between their lack of a plan, their lack of willingness to do anything about climate change and what we're trying to do will become so apparent to Canadians that I don't think ... we'll have to deploy a whole lot of efforts to just show those differences.”
Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer