Canadians have an historic opportunity to protect the future in the 2019 election
Feature | by Gregory Beatty
“It’s climate change, stupid” is probably a little blunt (to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 campaign quip). But with October’s federal election finally in sight, any party that doesn’t take the growing concern of Canadians over climate change seriously is taking a big political risk, says Peter Prebble of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES).
“Climate change is showing up second in polls behind the economy, so it seems it will be a significant vote-determining issue for people,” he says. “I think that’s encouraging, because that’s where it needs to be to foster significant policy change.”
The science of climate change has been settled for over three decades. For a time, scientists were working from models of how greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from fossil fuel use would heat up the planet, so the warnings were easy to ignore.
But in the last few years, the evidence has become irrefutable. And 2019 topped them all, says Prebble. “It was a very worrisome year. In May, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit over 415 parts per million which is a new record.”
As the global temperature creeps upward, feedback loops are starting to kick in. Melting permafrost in the north, for instance, is releasing methane which is another potent GHG. Similarly, retreating glaciers and melting ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica mean more sunlight gets absorbed to warm the land and water instead of being reflected into space.
This past year we’ve seen severe storms such as the recent hurricane that decimated the Bahamas (and rattled the Maritimes) and the cyclone in March that hammered Zimbabwe and Mozambique. There’s also been record heat waves in Europe, Australia, South-East Asia and the Middle East, where temperatures reached 50 degrees C plus. Throw in raging Arctic wildfires, rising sea levels on islands and coastal regions, torrential rains, devastating droughts, and drastic changes to wildlife habitat, and the evidence is everywhere.
Yet climate change denial persists. In fact, it more than persists. Backed by powerful political and economic interests, deniers have worked effectively to frustrate efforts in Canada and many other countries to tackle climate change.
Nothing illustrates the denial camp’s duplicity better than U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s performance at an Arctic Council meeting in Finland in May. The Trump administration’s “position” on climate change is firm denial. Yet with climate change a top item on the agenda, all Pompeo could talk about was the economic opportunities that were opening up in the Arctic because ALL THE ICE IS MELTING.
PARTIES & POLICIES
In Canada, only the People’s Party of Canada falls into the denial camp — at least officially. But among the parties that accept climate change science, there are big policy differences that voters need to consider, says Prebble.
“Both the Green Party and NDP nationally have ambitious GHG emission reduction plans,” he says. “The Greens are promising to basically make Canada’s targets twice as ambitious by 2030. That’s a significant commitment. One of the strengths in the NDP platform is the thought given to how to protect workers in the transition to a low carbon economy. But both plans are ambitious in reducing GHG emissions.”
The dilemma for green-minded voters, though, is that both parties are long shots to form government. Supporters might hope for a minority, where they share power in a coalition government, but otherwise they’re limited to an opposition role. Which leaves the Liberals and Conservatives to consider.
“Obviously there’s a contradiction with the Liberal government promoting the TransMountain pipeline at the same time as they declare a climate change emergency,” says Prebble. “But they have come forward with some significant policies including the carbon tax, clean fuel standard and important measures to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas industry and phase out coal-fired power generation.”
To rally opposition to the Liberals, the Conservatives have tried to use the carbon tax as a cudgel. They’ve probably had some success, especially with their base, but as concern over climate change mounts, will the issue really resonate with centre and left-leaning Canadians who, in 2015, were 68 per cent of the electorate?
“The carbon tax was never intended to be more than 20 per cent of emission reduction in Canada,” says Prebble. “There are all these other measures such as greening the grid and going off coal, moving to electric vehicles, and efforts to reduce methane emissions in oil and gas. Those are significant policy changes and will achieve far more GHG reductions than the carbon tax.”
The Conservative policy on climate change, like a lot of the party’s positions these days, is murky. “It acknowledges climate change is a problem, but I don’t think there’s any prospect it will meet Canada’s GHG emission target which is 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030,” says Prebble.
One proposal the SES supports, he adds, is a tax credit to encourage energy conservation retrofits in homes.
“The Conservatives are also proposing to reduce emissions in the industrial sector, but they’re vague about the targets they would achieve,” Prebble says. “There are references, too, to carbon capture and storage, and encouraging innovation in green technology. But there’s not a lot of details, other than hoping these technologies come along. Some likely will, but it’s not clear how that will take us to the 2030 target.”
We’ll have more election coverage on climate change in coming issues, but for the SES, there’s no doubt what the top concern for voters should be, says Prebble.
“The SES thinks we are facing a climate emergency. We urge every federal party to set very ambitious GHG reduction targets and come up with policies that will achieve those targets. And we urge Canadians to make climate change a vote-determining issue when they select the next government of Canada.”
Youth Strike For Future
To be eligible to vote, Canadians have to be 18 or older on election day. In an election where climate change is a dominant issue, it’s an irony not lost on 17-year-old Alex Flett.
“The people who are going to be impacted the most by climate change are unable to have a say,” he notes. “Youth aren’t allowed to vote, which is why we are protesting. It’s quite literally the only way we can express our opinion on this issue.”
Flett lives in Regina, and has been attending climate strikes at the Saskatchewan Legislature since they started last March. “The largest protests were at the beginning, but because there was no response from the government the numbers have been dwindling,” he says.
Flett admits he’s frustrated by the lack of action, and the toxic nature of the politics around climate change.
“There seems to be a take what you can and run mentality with our leaders in Saskatchewan which has me extremely concerned,” Flett says. “It seems too that older people feel they are going to die before this has any effect on them so they’ll take absolutely everything they can while they can. It doesn’t matter how much destruction is created along the way.
“It’s like there’s this global procrastination, where we’re setting ourselves up for this enormous disaster,” he adds. “The longer we ignore this, the more hardship our civilization is going to face. Already, we’re going to have some rough times. But the level will be determined by how quickly we take action.”
Green technologies have come a long way in recent years, Flett observes, and the window for us to act to avoid the worst effects of climate change is closing.
“The youth are slowly losing hope and giving up, I think, and feel our leaders don’t care about us,” he says. “So I think it’s really important that those Canadians who can vote consider the youth who will be left with this world and will have to deal with all these issues that are currently being ignored.”