On Friday the federal NDP joined the Liberals and Green Party by releasing a climate change strategy. The NDP plan is bold, aggressive, and would likely significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in a short time. Are Canadians ready for bold? Will an appeal to assertively combat the climate crisis make Canadians more or less willing to support bolder public policy?
Of the four major parties, only the Conservatives have yet to announce their plan to reduce GHGs. According to Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski, leader Andrew Scheer is in no rush. Conservative voters rank climate change as eighth or ninth on their list of election priorities.
“…the Conservatives don’t think that most people who rank climate change as one of their top concerns are going to consider supporting them,” Radwanski wrote in an insightful May 3 column. “So despite those people likely constituting a plurality if not a majority of the electorate, Mr. Scheer won’t bother playing to them as he pursues the 35 per cent to 40 per cent of votes needed to win government.”
A 2018 Abacus Data poll for the Ecofiscal Commission, a group of academics who support carbon pricing, sheds some light on the CPC strategy.
When asked to rank “taking action to solve climate change” as a priority, 49 per cent of conservative respondents considered it a low or moderate priority. Shifting to a clean energy economy received similar support. On almost every climate and energy transition-related question, Canadian conservatives are reluctant to support forceful climate policy.
What about Canadian not inclined to vote Conservative?
Respondents who voted for the other four federal parties (including the Bloc Quebecois) certainly support climate and clean energy policies more than CPC voters. And Canadians as a whole supported climate and clean energy policies from 73 per cent to 80 per cent depending upon the question, making us sound downright European.
When given a list of 14 possible public policy priorities and asked how they would rank them, however, improving the environment clocked in at ninth, shifting to a green energy economy was twelfth, and taking action on climate change finished dead last.
A few insights into this contradictory view of climate policy can be found elsewhere in the sprawling survey.
For instance, only 11 per cent of Canadians consistently identifies as committed environmentalists, the type of voter who might sign on for the Green Party’s climate plan, which is inspired by “Churchill’s courageous World War II campaign to defeat fascism” that would place “Canada on something equivalent to a war footing…” Leader Elizabeth May left no room for doubt about where she stands in a tweet that accompanied the launch of “Misson Possible” – “Climate change is not an environmental issue, it is the gravest security threat the world has ever seen.”
While the NDP plan doesn’t envision re-organizing the economy and putting large swathes of it under government control, leader Jagmeet Singh promises to out New Deal the US Democrats’ Green New Deal with “Power to Change: A new deal for climate action and good jobs.” “In many ways, the NDP plan builds on the federal government’s pre-existing efforts, particularly in transportation and buildings, two of the largest sources of emissions in Canada,” says Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada. If you think of the NDP plan as the Liberal plan on steroids, you’ve got the essence of it.
Which brings us to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and environment minister Catherine McKenna. To Alberta oil and gas executives, the Liberals secretly hate hydrocarbons and scheme to phase out the oil sands as soon as they can. To West Coast environmentalists, the Liberals aren’t serious about climate change and their policies are too little, too slow, and too late.
“Most Canadians believe that climate change is something we need to address. But on the other hand, they don’t want it to hurt too much which I think is always the case with any public policy question,” David Coletto, CEO of Abacus Data, told Energi Media last year. “It’s about finding a balance. That’s certainly what the federal government has tried to do: a national climate change plan that incentivizes less emissions, but also continuing to build pipelines and make sure that we get value for the resources that we have as this transition [to a low-carbon economy] happens. That’s the key piece.”
This is where Canada sits on climate change and mitigation policy: a fifth of Canadians support Green and NDP-style aggressive policy; another fifth scoff at the idea of human-caused global warming and efforts to reduce emissions; and the rest want climate policy to cost nothing, be as convenient as possible, and preferably have the burden fall on their neighbours rather than themselves.
Many observers think climate change will figure more prominently in this fall’s national election than it has in any election previous. If that turns out to be true, perhaps we’ll get an answer to a fundamental question: are Canadians willing to accept more pain and cost to hasten the transition to a low-carbon economy?
One could argue that recent extreme weather events and the wildfire smoke covering parts of Alberta and BC will push Canadian to the left, increasing support for the Green Party and NDP climate platforms. One could also make a case that the election of conservative governments in Ontario and Alberta, and Scheer’s bump in the polls after the SNC Lavalin kerfuffle, suggests climate mitigation will figure lower in voter calculations than it did in 2015.
Whichever way Canadians lean this fall, the election may be seen as a referendum of sorts on our intentions as a nation. Are we serious about climate change or are we not?