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Opinion

Politicians should keep their promises to fight climate change, or face lawsuits

By Michael Harris      

Tom Mulcair and some old colleagues from all sides of the political spectrum recently got together and came up with a way to make current governments perform better on the climate file. Keep your promises, or face lawsuits. The catch phrase is to create an 'obligation of result.'

A few weeks ago, David Suzuki, pictured on June 14, 2019, on the Hill, made what to me was a stunning statement. 'Environmentalists can’t save the environment.' After all, if they couldn't who could? The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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HALIFAX—A few weeks ago, David Suzuki made what to me was a stunning statement. “Environmentalists can’t save the environment.”

After all, if they couldn’t, who could?

There were a lot of reasons for Suzuki’s conclusion, but at its heart it came down to this. A much bigger tent was needed to build support for enacting the kind of emergency measures that climate science tells us are needed.

In other words, though environmentalists had the facts and science on their side, they couldn’t move the stubborn needle of public opinion. They were good scientists and global citizens, but failed marketers.

Suzuki outlined some of those shortcomings. There wasn’t enough buy-in from NGOs. There wasn’t enough celebrity involvement in the cause. There wasn’t enough concerted pressure on politicians at every level of elected office to make dealing with climate change the issue.

On top of that, the movement itself was too fractured and not focused on the big picture of climate change. It was not just about saving whales, or snow leopards, or old growth forests, or pristine waters— it was about the whole enchilada, including humans. It was about saving the planet.

As a result of these failures, though the public might think that the house was uncomfortably warmer, it still didn’t believe it was on fire.

Former PM Stephen Harper once said global warming was a scam by poor countries to suck money out of rich ones, writes Michael Harris. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Perhaps that is why Canadians are still letting politicians away with profound failure on the environmental file. Justin Trudeau was applauded in Paris for saying “Canada is back.” Yes, back with Stephen Harper’s emission targets, his timelines, and many of his former officials.

It took the Liberals until the final year of their mandate to come up with their carbon tax. That is not how people faced with any emergency, let alone a looming planetary catastrophe, act.

Even the program they came up with is itself seriously tentative. The price the Liberal carbon tax places on pollution is pathetically low, rising slowly over time to a number that is also inadequate to the task at hand. It is more politics than planetary planning.

According to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the carbon tax will have to be increased after 2023 if Canada is to meet the GHG emission targets it agreed to in Paris.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals declare a climate emergency, and then in the same 24-hour period announce approval of a highly controversial pipeline, the public is left in front of the dubious proposition that the country and the planet can have it both ways—resource development and sound stewardship of the economy. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

With the point of reference set at the beginning of the industrial era, Canada’s obligation is to ensure that average temperatures rise by no more than 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and preferably only 1.5 degrees. It’s not working. For now, the projection is that the country will even miss its 2030 targets by a whopping 79 megatonnes of GHG emissions.

So when the Liberals declare a climate emergency, and then in the same 24-hour period announce approval of a highly controversial pipeline, the public is left in front of the dubious proposition that the country and the planet can have it both ways—resource development and sound stewardship of the economy. That is a national delusion created by a delusional, or perhaps cynical, government.

The eleventh hour “plan” put forward by the Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is a national joke. And a very political one. Here is a party that was long dedicated to the notion that everything can’t be a park. Here is a party that gutted environmental protection for thousands of rivers and lakes. Here is a party that made Canada the first country to abandon the Kyoto Protocol.

Former PM Stephen Harper once said global warming was a scam by poor countries to suck money out of rich ones. He also famously declared that it would be “crazy” economic policy to regulate the energy sector at a time of low oil prices, and refused to act on cutting GHG emissions until the United States made cuts first. It is worth noting that both Scheer and Jason Kenney still consult Stephen Harper before making any major policy decision. Reassuring, yes?

As for the Conservative plan itself, at this point in the rollout it is made of the stuff that fills those hot air balloons that hover over sports events.

There is bluster without detail followed by just plain silliness. The Conservatives crow that they have embraced the Paris Accord. Any day now they will announce that the Earth isn’t flat.

The proof that this plan, at least at this stage, is all cheesy moon? Scheer is apparently going to meet the targets agreed to in Paris, and he is going to do it without Canadians having to pay a dime.

His secret weapon? Investing in green technology. That’s right. As his political cousin in Ontario, Doug Ford, is busily uprooting every green initiative begun by the last government, Scheer is going to charge “large emitters” who exceed an amorphous “Green Investment Standard.” That money will then be theoretically invested in research into new technology for reducing emissions.

Mind you, Scheer doesn’t say what that standard is, he doesn’t say how much the large emitters would be taxed, but what he does say gives a glimpse of his own version of Harper-think on cutting emissions.

Canada, Scheer claimed, wouldn’t make a “global impact” by reducing emissions only within its own borders. Andy, that is the only measure that the Paris Accord lays out, reducing emissions in your own territory. You are tipping your hand, and it looks like a pair of two’s.

The fact is that every federal Government of Canada, regardless of political stripe, should hang its head in shame when it comes to fighting global warming. Why? Because none of them has met its international obligations on climate change.

Chrétien missed the targets after signing the Kyoto Accord, Harper walked away from them altogether, and Trudeau is on track to join his predecessors with his “have it both ways” approach to climate change. Canada’s signature on climate commitments has up until now been no more than a political gesture and an exercise in bad faith.

So if environmentalists can’t save us and politicians won’t, are we doomed to swelter in despair as the planet’s fever rises? Former NDP leader Thomas Mulcair isn’t ready to surrender to that scenario.

The eleventh-hour ‘plan’ put forward by the Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is a national joke. And a very political one. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

In a profound article based on his Mallory Lecture at McGill University last April, Mulcair reminds everyone that former prime minister Brian Mulroney and president George H.W. Bush beat acid rain by enacting a system to cap sulfur dioxide emissions. “What was arguably the first real cap-and-trade system was born and it was a success,” Mulcair said.

Led improbably by Ronald Reagan, the world also swiftly reacted to a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica the size of the United States. The Montreal Protocol was signed to eliminate the chief cause of the problem, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s. Though the problem has not been vanquished, the hole in the ozone layer has been reduced.

Mulcair credits the swift action that was taken on these massive problems to the fact that there was no partisan divide, and no challenge to good science. He and some old colleagues from all sides of the political spectrum recently got together and came up with a way to make current governments perform better on the climate file. Keep your promises, or face lawsuits.

The catch phrase is to create an “obligation of result,” a legal concept central to French Civil Law.

“It describes an intensity of obligation where it would never be enough to say you had acted in a reasonably prudent manner. You would have the obligation to produce the required result and anything else would be actionable,” he said.

And there was one more thing Mulcair noted.

“There’s an old saying in public administration: that which gets measured, gets done. Requiring objective reporting and subjecting future resource and industrial projects to fit into a measured carbon budget is the only way to ensure the result, and get rid of the political hot air.”

Amen to that.

Michael Harris is an award-winning author and journalist.

The Hill Times

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