Tough decisions ahead for Liberals

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It is hard to overestimate the sea change that is presently occurring in Canada's approach to the climate change crisis. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's stunning unveiling of its climate change policy Sunday, flanked by representatives of oil companies and environmentalists, would have been inconceivable mere months ago.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/11/2015 (2504 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is hard to overestimate the sea change that is presently occurring in Canada’s approach to the climate change crisis. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s stunning unveiling of its climate change policy Sunday, flanked by representatives of oil companies and environmentalists, would have been inconceivable mere months ago.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is off to the climate change conference in Paris accompanied by a cheering section of premiers (excepting Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall playing the curmudgeon) intent on showing “Canada is back.”

“No more delays, no more denials. We need to act,” says gung-ho Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.

Canada’s new approach remains to be fully articulated. There has been little time since the election to do the massive course correction required. The need to co-ordinate with provinces adds another layer of complexity. For Canada, much of the hard bargaining will take place in the 90 days following the Paris conference rather than during it. This we do know, however: the prime minister and his key decision-makers are the most environmentally plugged-in group of Canadian politicians ever to attend such a meeting.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion has been on this file for more than a decade, campaigned strongly in favour of a carbon tax in 2008 and, as environment minister under Paul Martin, demonstrated strong leadership at the Montreal COP 11 conference in 2005. McKenna once worked as a legal adviser to the UN. Science Minister Kirsty Duncan worked with the intergovernmental panel on climate change. The prime minister himself, prior to becoming an MP, lent his support to conservation groups. His principal adviser, Gerald Butts, is the former executive director of the World Wildlife Fund.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper distrusted scientists, deliberately cut himself off from their advice and fashioned policy accordingly. He could sleep at night having convinced himself he was doing the right thing. That is a luxury the new government does not have. It knows too much.

It knows if it is to claim any kind of leadership role internationally, it must announce emissions-reduction targets that at least meet Canada’s prorated share of the reductions required to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius. That is the baseline upon which our targets will be judged.

Because the research has already been done, the Trudeau government also knows such a target would involve at least a 35 per cent decrease in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2025, as opposed to the previous government’s target of a 30 per cent decrease by 2030. It also means committing to a carbon-free economy by 2050. Announcing the targets would be the easy part.

Trudeau and his ministers must know meeting such targets is incompatible with further development of the oilsands. The International Energy Agency calculates roughly two-thirds of the globe’s fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if the world is to meet the target. A cap on oilsands emissions 43 per cent higher than current production, as proposed by Notley, goes in the opposite direction.

They know meeting the target would involve putting a price on carbon sufficiently high that most Canadians would be motivated to make important lifestyle changes. The Alberta carbon tax, however revolutionary it may be for that province, is too low to accomplish that to the degree required.

They also know there would be hell to pay politically because Canadians are not prepared for the kind of adjustments needed. They have been lulled by politicians from all parties — even the Greens — into believing relatively little personal sacrifice will be required. There is already push back against the modest Alberta plan.

If they know the Alberta plan doesn’t cut the mustard in terms of doing our fair share, why are Al Gore and other environmental advocates heaping such unqualified praise on Notley? Because they recognize the skill and courage it took to achieve even that modest plan, and they know Notley could not have gone further in the political and social context she finds herself in. They are hoping more actions will follow as public understanding is broadened.

For Trudeau to forge ahead in doing what needs to be done will be an ultimate test of political courage and leadership skills. He and his ministers are cursed with uncomfortable knowledge. They know how much they have to stick their necks out and, if they don’t, this idealistic bunch will find it hard to look at themselves in the mirror. Because the price of failure in Paris would be too difficult to contemplate.

They know, or should know, there will never be a better time than now to make tough decisions on climate change. In the heady aftermath of the election, with a co-operative approach from the provinces, especially Alberta, the Trudeau government has more political capital than it is ever likely to have. Now is the time to be bold.

 

Roger Turenne is a writer, political analyst for Radio-Canada and past president of Nature Manitoba.

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