The new war over the environment in Canada .. can this really be progress?

Feb 2nd, 2007 | By Dominic Berry | Category: Ottawa Scene

Barack Obama, it was claimed somewhere on TV during the past few weeks, has aptly bemoaned that the problems of America today are so big, and its politics so small. In Canada we sometimes imagine that we are at least accidentally immune to the worst troubles of this sort. (Nothing up here, beyond the raw geography, is all that big to start with.) But the monotonous comic-book clashes on environmental policy that settled in as the Canadian federal Parliament got back to business in Ottawa on Monday, January 29 showed just how small politics can be in Canada these days too. Why, e.g., can’t our democratically elected politicians give us the kind of edgy and relevant debate on this suddenly crucial public issue that TV Ontario’s The Agenda managed on the night of Wednesday, January 31? Maybe more voters would actually vote in elections if they did?

Very quick deep background … why is environmental policy so suddenly crucial?

This past October the Canadian Institute of International Affairs kicked off its fall season of local meetings in Toronto with a panel discussion on environmental policy. The subject was already very warm. But it wasn’t quite what it has subsequently so suddenly seemed to become (and perhaps especially in Canadian federal politics?).

Back then the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon from the University of Toronto made a point that still seemed quite compelling. Having duly pondered all the scientific evidence as best he could, he was convinced that there was something real about the whole global warming / climate change scenario. But he also suspected that, humanity being what history has so often shown it to be, it would probably take some utterly appalling disaster (the sudden flooding of the same lower Manhattan area already besieged on 9/11, e.g.) to mobilize the kind of popular political will required to do something serious about the issue.

Now, a mere three months or so later, no such utterly appalling new disaster has occurred, but there are those who say the required popular political will has finally arrived anyway. And this is apparently as true for the US as it is for Canada. “There has been a sea change in this issue over the last year,’ said Cathy Duvall, [US] Sierra Club national political director. It went from a back-burner issue to something people understand is a problem. Now they are looking for leaders to take action.’” And in Canada itself: “In a sudden, seismic shift in public opinion, the environmental crisis, especially air pollution and climate change” has become “the number 1 issue in the public mind and will be the central issue in the next and future elections.”

What happened? And, whatever it may be, is it something real that will last? These still seem good questions, to which all the answers remain at best unclear and at worst still quite mysterious. The largest speculation may be that several natural and “man-made” events of the more recent past have at last crystallized some broad public feeling that the depredations of the robber barons in the new gilded age of the global village have now spun altogether out of control. There is an increasingly perceived democratic public need for a great new moral cause with which to club the greed of the almighty dollar back into line, in the interests of planetary survival. And the crusade to save the natural environment for our grandchildren has suddenly become that club. This may ultimately prove a very flawed and far too wild speculation. But it does at least make what is going on at the moment seem quite exciting, for the time being.

The comic-book clashes in Ottawa …

In Canada this broad North American environmentalist surge has also become mixed in with the rawest partisan dynamics of current federal politics – and even the ultimate question of whether there will be yet another Canadian election this year – in some particularly twisted ways.

Obviously worried about the new Dion Green Grits at its back, even before the federal Parliament in Ottawa resumed Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government had released clever TV attack ads on how Stephane Dion’s party just hadn’t got the job of effective environmental policy done when the Liberals were last in office. (And the ads were apparently scheduled to climax during the Super Bowl on Sunday, February 4 – almost as popular in Canada as in the USA today.)

With this background, on January 29 Dion and the Liberals inaugurated the new parliamentary session with attacks on Harper as a “climate change denier,” whose recent fresh environmental policy gestures were fraudulent at best (as well as frequently stolen from past Liberal programs that the Conservatives had earlier cancelled, etc). Harper and the Conservatives, including their combative new environment minister John Baird, just kept shooting back that the Liberals hadn’t got the environmental policy job done when they were in office – even during the brief period when Stephane Dion was actually environment minister.

On Tuesday, January 30 the Liberals released a fund-raising letter Stephen Harper had written to supporters in 2002. It said the Kyoto Accord on the global environment that the then Liberal government signed was “essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations … Implementing Kyoto will cripple the oil and gas industry, which is essential to the economies of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia .”

I.e., Mr. Harper certainly was a climate change denier five years ago, whatever else he may or may not be now. Harper and Baird and the Conservatives just kept talking about how the Liberals hadn’t got the job done when they were in office. But they seemed to singal they had been wounded by the 2002 letter, when it was announced that John Baird would go to Paris for the UN conference on the latest scientific report about just how real global warming “very likely” is.

The Liberals then started pressing the Conservative minority government to get back on board the Kyoto Protocol bandwagon – that the earlier Liberal government had signed, but that the new Conservative government had at first rather clearly turned its back on. (After the fashion of the other current “Anglosphere” conservative governments in the US and Australia, e.g. And here it should also be made clear, no doubt, that while the earlier Liberal government had signed Kyoto, it had in fact never bit the bullet on the economic costs of implementing it, especially in a cold and rugged industrial country like Canada. Very little was done to meet the Kyoto targets. Canadian carbon emissions have actually increased since the deal was signed, and so forth.)

Meanwhile, Jack Layton’s troubled New Democrats were visibly struggling with a dilemma nicely characterized by a University of Regina sociologist, traditionally sympathetic to their grand old cause. On environmental policy in particular “Harper is desperately wooing the NDP, hoping to convince Jack Layton to save him should the Bloc Quebecois and the Liberals decide to pull the plug … Layton and the NDP don’t want an election because in a polarized, anti-Harper crusade the soft NDP vote in Ontario and BC will slip to the Liberals in large numbers … Layton faces the toughest choice. If he supports going now, the NDP will suffer. On the other hand, will he ever live down the stigma of saving the Harper government, thus giving it a chance to massage public opinion in order to win a majority government later?”

(And note such recent perhaps somewhat misleading headlines as “$30M seals NDP, Tories pact … Ottawa’s funding for BC rainforest seen as satisfying one of party’s concerns.”)

Finally, on TV we heard someone from the Bloc Quebecois – traditionally very pro-Kyoto and all that – say that he had met with the new Conservative environment minister Mr. Baird. As clever as he obviously is, in the opinion of the BQ Mr. Baird still really has no serious understanding of or warmth toward the environmental gospel. So it seems that the BQ decided to focus its first fresh burst of parliamentary warfare around the much more visceral issue of just how much new investment the Quebec-based aerospace industry is going to get, as a result of the Harper minority government’s airplane purchases from Boeing for the Canadian forces.

(And then there’s actually the Green Party of Canada and Ms. Elizabeth May, of course. But it still doesn’t have any seats in Parliament, and so does not get to play in these particular reindeer games. Which is too bad, because Ms. May often says sensible things.)

Joseph Romm’s Hell and High Water and the car-culture panel on TVO …

If you have wondered what any of this seriously has to do with shifting gears into some kind of more effective Canadian environmental policy, you are not alone. Fortunately, for those who live in anglophone central Canada at any rate, just as the dysfunctional noise in Ottawa was reaching truly annoying levels, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, on TV Ontario, came up with an environmental policy debate that actually made some sense, on the evening of January 31.

First on the agenda (pun intended – except is it exactly a pun?) was an extended interview with Joseph Romm, a former US Department of Energy assistant secretary under the Clinton administration, who has more recently published a book called Hell and High Water: Global Warming – the Solution and the Politics – and What We Should Do. (More exactly, he is also now “the founder and executive director of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions and a fellow at the Center for American Progress. Under President Clinton he was acting assistant secretary at the Department of Energy, heading the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy … he holds a PhD in physics from MIT and lives in Washington, DC.”)

Mr. Romm had many interesting and helpful things to say. But he seems to have left three especially strong impressions in my mind:

(1) For people like Mr. Romm effective environmental policy has become the great “moral” challenge of the present era ;

(2) Any aggressively effective environmental policy in Canada will almost certainly restrain any over-aggressive development of the oil sands in Alberta (which, as Mr. Romm did not mention, could have further troubling implications for Canadian east-west regional tensions, as well as Prime Minister Harper’s dream of Canada as a rising new global energy superpower : and judging just by the online editions at any rate, this past week the press out west has seemed less interested in the new concern with environmental health than the press back east) ;

(3) Doing his high-minded patriotic best to be non-partisan in today’s fractious political climate, Mr. Romm seemed to claim that there actually is some serious near prospect of new and improved federal gas-mileage standards for automobiles in the US, even under the last days of the climate change denier George W. Bush.

The interview with Joseph Romm was followed by a panel discussion on the North American “car culture” – and just what that it might mean for the new challenges of effective environmental policy today.

On the panel were: auto industry expert George Magliano from New York ; Jane Holtz Kay from Boston, an “architecture critic for The Nation” and author of the book Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back ; and, in the studio in Toronto, automotive journalist David Booth, automotive journalist Greg Keenan, and venerable regional transportation guru and “professor emeritus at the University of Toronto” Richard Soberman.

This panel helped bring some welcome realism to the debate. The strongest impression I took away was that aggressive new environmental policies which try to push everyone into some common new green life style are unlikely to succeed.

The charming Ms. Kay, e.g., lives close to where she works in the public-transit depths of Boston, and no longer drives an automobile at all. (A good thing, since auto emissions are apparently said to account for as much as a third of the current greenhouse gas problem.) She urges this life style on others – and I sympathize, as a confirmed inner-city urbanite who seldom drives anywhere these days myself.

Yet Ms. Kay’s fellow panelists made clear that the North American majorities in the suburbs and exurbs are still deeply in love with the automobile. For them such things as hybrid cars are the right first steps in some right new directions. There ought to be many green paths to reducing our individual carbon footprints. The best public policies will help us as individuals find the ones that work best for us.

What is to be done … in the real world today?

According to a recent US article that seems to have originated in the Los Angeles Times: “Legislation to curb global warming is still a long shot in Congress because there is no consensus on a solution.” But then there is Mr. Romm’s claim that new and improved federal gas-mileage standards for automobiles in the US are conceivable even under the last days of the climate change denier George W. Bush.

On TV Ontario on January 31 Mr. Romm also said that if and when the US does enact this kind of legislation, he hopes that Canada will follow suit. And this seems to be the clearest piece of practical policy advice I have so far taken away from the fresh wave of Canadian environmental debate, that was officially launched in the federal Parliament at Ottawa on January 29, 2007.

As yet Canadian federal politicians – in any of the four parties that currently hold seats in Parliament – still don’t appear ready to start giving we mere voters the kind of debate on the subject that would generate further practical advice of this sort.

They have just started in earnest of course. Things may get better as we get closer to the rites of spring. Or the sudden new popularity of the environmental crusade in Canada may start to fade, as the Conservatives keep screaming that the Liberals didn’t get the job done when they had a chance, and the Liberals keep screaming that the Conservatives are still climate change deniers, and the NDP keeps trying to pretend that it is somehow better and more moral than either of them, and the BQ keeps worrying about getting 60% of new military aerospace investment for Quebec instead. As with so much else about Canadian federal politics these days, we will just have to wait and see – and just keep hopin’ and prayin’ for real greener pastures soon.

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