April 5, 2020

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Cheating environment cheats the young

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/4/2016 (1448 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Now that our mercifully short provincial election campaign nears the finish line, it might be useful to look at the parties’ environmental proposals.

This need not be a detailed survey, as few votes are swayed by what the parties and their minions say about the environment. Consider the Green Party of Manitoba; its single-issue raison d’etre is the environment, and yet the Greens are compelled to cobble together a much broader range of policy ideas, knowing environmental issues may capture hearts but not votes.

The Greens propose a carbon tax — two-thirds of which will be returned to taxpayers, thus churning cash from one set of hands to another while accomplishing nothing for the environment — and free bus rides. They characterize the Manitoba economy as having been dominated by "extractive" industries; mining, forestry and agriculture actually account for less than 10 per cent of our gross domestic product. As a shopping list of worthy, if unoriginal ideas (restoring wetlands, promoting sustainable agriculture and ideas for weaning us off our addiction to fossil fuels), there at least is some substance here.

The Conservative platform appears to be a trip down memory lane. There’s a grab-bag of hoary old natural resource management issues. De-regulation and the use of market forces, the environmental strategy of the Harper government, are featured. The party does pledge to set up an "arm’s-length, demand-side management agency" to replace Manitoba Hydro’s Power Smart programs. That might set our hearts racing if it weren’t for the fact Power Smart is one of the more successful of such programs across Canada. They promise to complete the Lake Manitoba outlet project, which may be a good idea, although until we begin to deal with water management as a fully integrated system, we really can’t be sure. The usual platitudes on climate change — such as carbon pricing — are trotted out with no supporting details. Compared with the welter of detail on the party’s seven priority areas, environment gets a token acknowledgement. This doesn’t mean the Tories are anti-environment, just that their strategists have decided, correctly, that most voters’ attention lies elsewhere.

Under the heading "Better Life," the provincial Liberals identify "protecting our environment" as No. 9 on a list that includes "better price on liquor" as No. 5. While not saying how, they pledge to protect us from invasive species and reduce algal blooms. Under "Smarter Government" they too pledge to drain Lake Manitoba, stop us from leaving our cars running while we hop into the supermarket, and to revive a provincial subsidy for fuel-efficient vehicles. None of these proposals is absurd but with no supporting detail, they are simply meaningless.

Climate change is the NDP’s environmental focus. It has released a substantial list of partnerships and actions aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The list includes a blizzard of agreements that government has signed with other governments, both domestic and international. There is much focus on inventories, best practices and adaptation, but nothing about anticipated, quantifiable targets and results. The NDP does promise an additional $500,000 for Lake Winnipeg research; since their government was presented with a report in 2006 urgently recommending a five-year, $40-million research program, this seems a little tardy. This government has made some useful contributions to environmental protection; it has not been unfriendly to the environment.

This cursory overview has probably been even-handedly unfair to all parties, but it does fairly represent the fact that environment is not a central issue in this election. Polling is telling us a couple of things. First, that Canadians care deeply about the environment; and second, that if and when issues determine how we vote, the economy and health care dominate. And also, more often than not, we cast our vote not because we have fallen in love with particular policies and their advocates, but because we want to turf out the incumbents.

There are many reasons for the dichotomy between how we feel about the environment and how we vote. For many families, both parents must work, or there’s a single parent, a mortgage and other debts; a job loss or health crisis spells disaster. The media also remind us on a daily basis of the importance of the economy. Environmental issues have no such regular venue. When gas prices tumble, it’s a "good news" story, and bad news when they’re on the rise. If we have the choice between the LEAP Manifesto and cheap gas, most leap to the pump. It’s more complicated than that, but however complex, we have to understand the reasons for this disconnect if we hope to remedy it.

If we continue to vote for any party that promises to give us a tax break that puts a few extra bucks in our pocket, but has nothing meaningful to say about climate change or Lake Winnipeg, it may benefit us immediately, but it does a long-term disservice to those too young to vote or who are yet to be born. We are devoting a great deal of governance to ensuring future generations inherit a sound economy — as we should — but not nearly enough to preserve their environmental capital.

Norm Brandson is a former deputy environment minister under Gary Filmon and the founding deputy minister of the departments of Conservation and Water Stewardship under Gary Doer.


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