The Climate is Changing; Why Can’t the Debate?

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In this week’s edition of Governing Past the Next Election, Dr. Warren Mabee from Queen’s University examines the issue of climate change as we head into the federal election. He notes that Canadians are increasingly united on the need for a significant and credible plan to fight climate change. But we remain divided on an appropriate strategy. Instead of trying to build consensus and support for broader, meaningful solutions, political parties are exploiting this divide. He argues that any new government will have to openly and transparently bring forward demonstrably effective policies to win public support.

The Climate is Changing; Why Can’t the Debate?

By Dr. Warren Mabee
, Associate Dean and Director of the School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University

July 2019 may have been the hottest month ever recorded — perhaps not a surprise to anyone who suffered through heat waves in North America or Europe. Spring floods in eastern Canada once again affected thousands of homes in Ontario and Quebec, bringing dire warnings that some areas may become uninsurable. Fires in western Canada forced the evacuation of thousands and destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests.

Canadians agree that climate change needs substantive action; we remain unsure of the best way forward. The current political debate is not helping. Unfortunately for Canadians, not to mention the world’s climate, we are being asked to choose between two divisive and inadequate approaches. The Liberals, NDP, Green Party and others are proposing a price on carbon to fight climate change — and are turning it into a litmus test of one’s belief in climate change itself. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are proposing a technology and regulatory approach which drops the carbon price altogether.

Few issues illustrate our lack of consensus on how to tackle climate change more starkly than carbon pricing. Polling by Ipsos has found that a majority of Canadians (58%) believe that a price on carbon will be effective at lowering Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, there is widespread dissent in regions that play a critical role in deciding federal election outcomes. Just ahead of the 2018 election that saw Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives sweep to power in Ontario, a majority of Ontarians (72%) saw carbon taxes as simply a tax grab.

Simply put, carbon pricing has become a wedge issue in the upcoming election — a topic being used to fire up and energize political bases, rather than a topic for measured discussion. Instead of moving toward a shared understanding and support for collective action, we are being divided into camps for short-term political gain.

Yet Canadians are drawing the link between extreme weather events and climate change. This is seen clearly in polling data, particularly over the last six months. Approximately 82% of Canadians see climate change as a serious problem. An Ipsos poll indicates that 75% of Canadians agree that we need to do more to address the issues around climate change, while Abacus data reports that about 42% of Canadians think that climate change constitutes a national emergency. The number of people with contrary positions is declining; recent polls suggest that only 6% of Canadians do not believe in climate change. Numbers like these suggest that Canadians are ready to have a serious conversation about this issue. In fact, concern about climate change is hardly new — as far back as 2006, Ipsos reported that a near consensus (90%) of Canadians expressed some degree of concern about climate change, with 63% feeling “desperately concerned that if we don’t take drastic action right now, the world may not last much longer than another couple of generations.”

While Canadians recognize the problem of climate change, there is no consensus on how to respond. Putting a price on carbon is one of the more contentious approaches. In a recent Clean Energy Canada–Abacus Data poll, Canadians were asked what policies they would include in a climate plan. Of the eight options provided, putting a price on pollution received the least support, with 21% of respondents suggesting that it shouldn’t be included. Pollution pricing had a significantly higher negative response than for any other policy option, including better regulations and new technologies.

As putting a price on carbon is one of the Liberal government’s signature policies to combat climate change, it is perhaps not surprising that the Conservative Party has made the repeal of carbon pricing a key plank in their election platform. The Conservative platform, while promising a climate plan which focuses heavily on new technologies and regulations, is light on actual greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Provincial elections have also seen carbon pricing used as a wedge issue. In Alberta, Ontario, and in the 2011 Manitoba election, the winning parties each ran on platforms that reduced or removed existing carbon pricing (or in the case of Manitoba, rescinded a planned tax). Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario released climate plans that were panned for their lack of detail and scope. A common criticism was that these governments are offering plans that are too simplistic, ignore significant sources of emissions, or underestimate the scale of the challenge: by avoiding any hint of economic penalties for emitters, these policies are often seen as lacking teeth and unable to achieve significant greenhouse gas emission reductions.

It is important to make a distinction between carbon pricing and effective climate policy. Indeed, carbon pricing itself is not the only effective tool in reducing emissions. No matter what combination of tools are used, however, it is important that they provide a comprehensive solution with clear and measurable emission reduction goals. It is also important to remember that unlike carbon pricing, which can be applied across entire economies with relative ease, a regulatory or incentive- driven approach without a comprehensive plan can leave significant gaps. An effective climate plan may not need to include a carbon price, but it should be inclusive, fully costed, and have credible projected emission reductions.

Carbon pricing is widely seen by economists as one of the most efficient ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Certainly this is a tool that should be kept in the toolbox as an option for any future government. The Liberal party has been known to change direction on unpopular policies, perhaps most famously by adopting the Conservative-introduced GST after winning the 1993 election. From a practical perspective, any government would be wise to remember that at some point carbon prices may be necessary to help achieve our climate goals; designing a strategy which leaves the door open to use this tool is nothing more than good politics.

Canadians are concerned about climate change and increasingly showing a willingness to do some- thing about it. In order for Canada’s new government to remain relevant, effective and accountable, and to preserve its legitimacy in this complex and divisive policy environment, it is essential above all that policies are brought forward that can effectively and demonstrably respond to climate change. Our parties should not turn carbon pricing into a wedge issue; they should present strong alternatives which can be assessed and defended in an open and transparent fashion.

Contributing Author: Dr. Warren Mabee

Dr. Warren Mabee (Ph.D. 2001, Toronto) is Associate Dean and Director of the School of Policy Studies, and a Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University. He holds a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Renewable Energy Development and Implementation, and is cross appointed to the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s. His international research programme focuses on the interface between policy and technology in the area of renewable energy and fuels, addressing issues that bridge the gap between researchers and decision-makers using tools such as life cycle assessment, geographic information systems and agent-based logistical models. His past work experiences include stints at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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This article is the third in the Governing Past the Next Election series with Ipsos Canada. You can visit the series webpage here.

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