Holding an election in the middle of a pandemic is a gamble, and it’s one the Trudeau Liberals may yet end up paying for. But there’s another crisis unfolding in front of our eyes that may prove an even more important backdrop: climate change. As wildfires continue to burn out of control across British Columbia and smoke season becomes a regular part of summer in places like Calgary and Edmonton, the climate crisis may quickly eclipse COVID-19 as the dominant ballot issue for voters.
That might suit the Liberals just fine, and even help explain why they decided to roll the political dice in the first place. After all, what better way to underline the importance of the climate issue — and the disparity between the two biggest parties on it — than by holding an election at the time of year when the impacts of climate change are most obvious?
According to a recent Abacus poll, 29 per cent of Canadians say they have become more concerned about climate change just over the past few weeks, as this summer’s heat wave and forest fires offered a preview of what the future may look like. Those expressing greater concern about climate change include 37 per cent of people in B.C., 30 per cent in Alberta, and 34 per cent among those 60 and over.
To their credit, Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives have stopped pretending climate change isn’t a real issue. Their climate policy, which grudgingly accepts the necessity of a carbon tax, is an improvement over Andrew Scheer’s “plan,” which might as well have been written on a napkin from Calgary’s Petroleum Club. Clean Prosperity’s Michael Bernstein described it as a “credible path to meeting Canada’s 2030 Paris targets,” while University of Ottawa professor Nic Rivers described it as “a serious plan.”
But their party’s belated acceptance of a carbon tax is hardly the slam dunk some Conservative partisans are suggesting, especially when their plan proposes to halve it from the $40 per tonne it sits at today to just $20 per tonne. The Conservative plan’s proposed ceiling of $50 per tonne is the same as the minimum price the government’s plan calls for next year. And it’s a far cry from the levels experts believe we need to meet our emissions reductions targets. Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, for example, suggests the tax must reach $210 per tonne by 2030.
And while Conservative policy wonks have traded their steadfast opposition to carbon taxes for grudging acceptance, their climate plan still refuses to reckon with the oversized role the oil and gas industry plays in Canada’s emissions profile. Their policy platform declares they will “make pipelines that bring Canadian oil to export markets a priority,” and it has the familiar noises about ending the tanker ban, streamlining the regulatory process for new projects, and subsidizing new oil production — including a proposed $1.5 billion for Newfoundland’s offshore industry. Aside from the mention of hydrogen and carbon capture, this language could just as easily be from 2011 as 2021.
The policy wonks within the Conservative ranks, meanwhile, may still be way ahead of the party’s actual members and elected officials. Remember that at the party’s March convention, 54 per cent of CPC members voted down a resolution stating that “we recognize that climate change is real'' and “the Conservative Party is willing to act.” Its caucus lived up (or down) to those words in June, when every last one of them in both the House of Commons and the Senate voted against the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.
You can forgive Canadians for not taking O’Toole’s party seriously on this issue just yet. But the Liberals aren’t home-free either when it comes to climate change, given they’re responsible for buying and building a new oil pipeline that runs right through some of the areas of British Columbia hardest hit by wildfires right now. The contrast is an obvious one, and the NDP will surely draw attention to it, especially in the B.C. ridings where they have a decent chance of knocking off the Liberals.
Either way, an election that began with no obvious narrative could quickly morph into a renewed national conversation about climate change. As University of Calgary law professor Martin Olszynski noted on Twitter, “assuming a majority, (the) next governing party will set (Canada’s) climate policy into late 2025. That’s the game right there.”
We may not have needed this election, but we shouldn’t waste the opportunity it presents to have a serious conversation about climate change in Canada and what it demands of us.