The windstorms of political change

The status of the environment as the new top issue of 2007, and the coming federal election, is now uniformly accepted in the popular media. PM Stephen Harper is belatedly and desperately rolling out some “new” environmental initiatives (or reintroducing initiatives they previously had canceled) to try to out-green former Environment Minister, Stephan Dion. I doubt this will work, as Harper is going to have a tough time convincing anyone he is sincere, and if he does try to do something meaningful he risks alienating his base, many of whom do not really care about the environment, and think global warming is a hoax.

The Tories badly bungled this issue – a year ago at election time they had essentially no platform on the environment, apart from some vague promise of a “made-in-Canada” cop-out on our Kyoto commitments. Lacking any kind of common touch, Harper greatly misundertood how much Canadians get global warming and its potential to wreak havoc on our kids’ future. Even as the winds started to shift last summer, the Tories did not really get it, and merely sought to cynically capitalize with a new “green plan” grounded in the idea that Canadians would not notice if they shifted the debate from climate change to urban air pollution. And then the cherry on the cynicism sundae was to actually commit to next-to-nothing on either front, apart from trying to take credit of some initiatives they inherited from the Liberals.

Even this manoevre was a carefully plotted switch away from the real issue they had expected to dominate the Fall, the so-called “fiscal imbalance”. This issue was one where they could refashion the country in a more fundamental way that would shrink the federal government through decentralizing powers to the provinces. But bickering provinces revealed an irreconcilable split between Ontario (who wanted more in per capita transfers) and Quebec (who wanted more in equalization) that made this phony issue lose its coherence. So in the wake of Mulroney being crowned greenest PM ever, the Tory brass got the idea that they could win some points on the environment.

Their problem was a major disconnect with public opinion. A considerable majority now accepts that climate change is happening, having lived through extreme weather and seen the climate news from around the world. Let’s face it: Canadians know their weather. My cab driver today shrugged his shoulders “climate change” when we made our oh-so-Canadian remarks on the day’s weather (another snowstorm in Vancouver). While it is possible he had a PhD in climatology from a South Asian country, the more likely explanation is that global warming is now entrenched in the Canadian psyche (call it the “taxi test”, a reading of popular sentiment based on random survey of taxi drivers). Only a few holdouts remain, such as a researcher from the Fraser Institute I talked to the other day who said with a straight face that there is no evidence that humans are causing climate change, and therefore we should not do anything until we have that evidence (I suppose this is an improvement, as just a few years ago the Fraser denied that it was happening at all).

With the election of Dion as Liberal leader, the ante was upped. As others have noted on the blog, there are some good reasons to be skeptical about Dion-omics, but like the old X-Files poster, “I want to believe”. The irony of all this is that the parties that previously had the best platforms on environment, the NDP and the Greens, are the ones least likely to gain from this issue’s newfound prominance and identification with Dion, even though the government that Dion served as Environment and Intergovernmental Affairs minister basically dawdled on Kyoto implmentation.

Dion’s speeches are reminding me of stuff the CCPA was on about years ago: the need to embrace Kyoto as an industrial strategy not something we should do kicking and screaming because it is the right thing to do (see this post). All I can say is: please steal more of our material.

The bigger question is whether we may be on the cusp of something big and new, a once-in-a-generation shift in politics. After being on the defensive for a few decades as the neoliberal/Washington consensus/free market perspective won victory after victory, now could be the time when progressive policies come back, with the environment leading the way. The challenge will be to link that the issues of social justice, as some of the market-based solutions on offer will only exacerbate existing inequalities. The far right sees global warming as an international socialist conspiracy (I kid you not). But maybe they are onto something.

One comment

  • In a couple of recent columns, Andrew Coyne has convincingly developed the theme that the Conservatives do not intend to win on climate change, but rather to do the minimum necessary to neutralize it as a political issue. A related notion is that, while climate change may be the “top issue of 2007”, it may not dominate “the coming federal election”. There is a crucial distinction between issues that people tell pollsters are important and vote-determining issue. For years, most Canadians identified healthcare as ‘the most important issue’, but did not cast their ballots based on it.

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