The climate elephant in the federal election


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There's an elephant in the room, and the politicians from the mainstream political parties don't seem to be addressing it.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/09/2015 (2634 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There’s an elephant in the room, and the politicians from the mainstream political parties don’t seem to be addressing it.

Canadians appear to be most concerned about the economy and the environment. A recent poll by Vote Compass, an online survey, shows the economy represents the greatest public concern (36 per cent), followed by environment (11.3 per cent) and then health (7.1 per cent). Taxes came in at 5.6 per cent. Taken together, economic and environmental concerns represent 47.3 per cent of participants’ concerns, and climate change can upset both.

Yet few candidates seem to be talking about these issues.

Environmental issues are inextricably linked to the economy, and vice versa. Deteriorating ecological systems obstruct economic growth and degrade living conditions. Add the long-term effects of climate change to the equation, and our grandchildren’s future begins to look rather bleak. A degraded environment means lower productivity — think of Alberta and California and their current drought crisis this year along with the forest fires along the North American west coast and into the Arctic. The effects include lack of moisture for crops to grow, or for human habitation, and a forest industry faced with unprecedented fires destroying huge areas and loading the atmosphere with CO2. Treating the economy and the environment separately simply speeds up the total collapse of both.

Climate change adds to the problem. In Manitoba, for example, the southwest and central areas of the province faced two horrific floods in the past five years. In many cases, the problems with crops carried over to subsequent years. Increased field drainage, combined with elimination of sloughs and bluffs of trees, added to total cultivated farm acreage, but drastically reduced the capacity of the local area to slow water flow back.

Winnipeg residents cannot deny their role in the problem of algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg, which foul recreation and tourism pursuits, and cut oxygen needed by fish, endangering the sport and commercial fisheries. The culprit behind algae blooms is phosphorus. Hence, Winnipeg needs to do its part by cleaning up its act and constructing sewage-treatment facilities that will eliminate phosphorus from water dumped into the Red River.

Excess release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere constricts heat from being reflected away from the Earth. CO2 absorbed by the oceans is a problem, not a solution. It has reduced ocean pH from 8.2 to 8.1 over the past century. This may sound minor, but studies show a drop to a pH of 7.8 would be catastrophic for ocean species as we know them. Stocks of salmon, lobster and other edible fish will be depleted. Already, the lower pH has resulted in the death of major coral reefs (including serious effects on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef).

Arctic warming may be the most dramatic. Permafrost is melting, especially discontinuous permafrost common in parts of northern Manitoba. Roads, airport runways and rail lines have already been affected.

Reductions in sea ice in the High Arctic have not yet caught the attention of the Canadian public. Issues of community social costs for adaptation, and the effect on their livelihood due to changing wildlife habitat, are only beginning to be observed and discussed.

Linking the economy with environment is essential to viewing future global imperatives. Historically, inappropriate land use led to large areas in Africa and the Middle East becoming deserts.

Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped five per cent from 2005 to 2012. However, they must drop a further 13 per cent to meet the target for 2020, established and accepted by Canada at Copenhagen. This minimal target is unachievable under current policies and regulations.

In 2012, at the provincial level, Alberta accounted for 41 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gases, compared to 26 per cent for Ontario. That same year, Alberta’s share of Canada’s GDP was 17.2 per cent while Ontario’s share was 47.8 per cent.

The elephant in the election campaign is climate change and its direct connection to the economy and environment. Canada needs to go to the United Nations Paris Conference on Climate Change in December with a realistic plan to address our internal targets and provide diplomatic leadership to facilitate an international plan involving all nations in shifting the world away from carbon fuels.

It is not a budget surplus or deficit today that will affect future generations, but the quality of the economy and environment left them by decisions made today about climate change.


Jim Collinson is a consultant and was assistant deputy minister for the Department of Regional Economic Expansion (Western and Northern Canada) and Parks Canada.

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