‘Compared to What?’ Judging the Tory Contenders on Climate Policy

Former Green Party leader and COP frequent flyer Elizabeth May sizes up the CPC leadership candidates on climate policy, with Jean Charest leading the pack for experience – with an asterisk.

Elizabeth May

June 28, 2022

Before approaching any relative weighing of the climate plans of leading candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership, one should consider the most fundamental question: “Compared to what?”

To anyone paying attention to the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the only sensible answer is “Compared to what is required.”

The Paris commitment to hold to well below 2 degrees C global average temperature increase as compared to the global average temperature at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and, if possible, to hold to 1.5 degrees is not a political target. The Paris target is not comparable to the Pearson Commission’s laudable 1970 goal that overseas development assistance (ODA) should rise to 0.7 percent of GNP no later than 1980. Similarly, it has nothing in common with the NATO goal of getting defence spending to 2 percent. Or, for that matter, the 1989 House of Commons motion to end child poverty in Canada by 2000.

Politicians are used to setting these kinds of targets. And used to missing them. None of those targets had the added feature of deadly trip wires attached to failure. None of those missed targets have irreversible consequences that could bring our little experiment of human civilization to an end.

The commitment to hold to no more than 1.5 degrees C is based on the science of atmospheric physics and chemistry. It is a best guess at how much humanity can disrupt global climate systems before making the planet uninhabitable. The IPCC has always said that 1.5 degrees is not a “safe” landing place for a new climate equilibrium, but it is the best one possible given that we have already so significantly altered the climate, with more warming already – pardon the double entendre – “baked in” to any future climate projections. And 1.5 is a gamble. It gives us better than a 50 percent chance at holding onto a viable human civilization – but there are no guarantees. We rarely talk about the worst-case scenarios, which might compel political will toward what must be done – as in Samuel Johnson’s witticism on how nothing focuses the mind like a rendez-vous with the hangman. The problem is, at a time when major authoritarian players are fixated on geopolitical domination and major democracies are fighting so many battles stemming from that fixation, that our immediate systemic crisis is the new wicked problem. Indeed, the new parade of them.

But climate change isn’t going away. We are already at 1.1 degree C global average temperature increase. We are experiencing in Canada and globally how very dangerous and unpleasant is a 1.1 degrees hotter world. Based on what is already in the atmosphere, and in our oceans, exerting powerful disruptive influences, few scientists think we will hold to 1.5. The tally of current promises from the Glasgow COP26 meeting demonstrated that, even if all promises were kept, the planet could warm to over 3 degrees C. And that bets on not tripping into self-accelerating and unstoppable warming from accelerated feedback loops of melting permafrost, forest fires and ecosystem collapse in places such as the Amazon.

The most qualified of the candidates on climate should be Jean Charest. Thirty years ago, he played a central role at the Rio Earth Summit, bringing the Biodiversity Convention and the Framework Convention on Climate Change into being.

In the last federal election, B.C. economist Mark Jaccard created a new metric for climate action. He measured different election platforms based on “climate sincerity” – or “How likely is this party to achieve its goals?” This led to weaker platforms with clearer details getting top marks. By this approach, at the beginning of the Second World War, Winston Churchill would have lost out to Neville Chamberlain every time based on what was perceived as achievable. It would always be less daunting to learn to speak German than to win a war against Hitler.

The climate targets are, as Seth Klein pointed out in The Good War, like that. As C.D. Howe said when asked if he wasn’t worried about the mounting war debt, “If we lose the war, nothing else matters.”

None of the major parties in Canada seems to understand the science. They develop every climate policy with an eye to offending the fewest number of interests (whether industrial sectors or provinces) while appearing to do something meaningful. Doing what is actually required is never even considered. It would mean canceling the TMX pipeline, scrapping drilling in Bay du Nord and banning fracking – for starters.

The Liberals defend their moral cowardice by pointing across the aisle to the Conservatives: “They are so much worse! And if we did the right thing, we would lose the election!”

As Bill McKibben has said, the difference between climate policies that fail to hold to 1.5 from deniers and policies that fail to hold to 1.5 from people with good intentions is “losing more slowly.”

Measured against what really matters – doing what must be done – the Conservative candidates are a collective zero. But that does not mean there are not differences among them.

The most qualified of the candidates on climate should be Jean Charest. Thirty years ago, he played a central role at the Rio Earth Summit, bringing the Biodiversity Convention and the Framework Convention on Climate Change into being. That climate treaty is still the foundation of every climate action and every Conference of the Parties (COP).  As Canada’s minister of Environment and with crucial support from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Canada was worthy of being called a leader.

The treaty Charest helped craft called on the world to reduce Greenhouse Gases (GHG) to avoid “dangerous levels.” We have clearly failed. We have emitted more GHGs since the signing of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and now than between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the Rio Earth Summit.

Charest is in the same bind in which Trudeau finds himself. While Trudeau panders to avoid antagonizing Big Oil and Alberta, Charest wants to avoid angering the climate denier crowd which, based on the vote at the last Conservative convention, was the majority of members.

Charest is clearly a Canadian hero. In 1998, public pleas from the likes of then-prime minister Jean Chrétien and others persuaded him to abandon his role as leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives to become the Quebec Liberal leader. He did this selflessly in the interests of national unity. What a country where such a thing is possible. As premier of Quebec, Charest’s environmental record, like that of his environment minister, Thomas Mulcair, was hardly perfect, but the carbon cap-and-trade pricing scheme with Ontario and California was innovative and showed the potential for North American climate cooperation.

Of the federal Conservative leadership candidates, Charest has provided the most detail about his carbon intentions. The plan includes many elements Greens would also support, such as a fully renewable electricity grid by 2035 and the use of border carbon adjustments to ensure a level playing field in trading with countries lacking carbon pricing. Like the Liberals, he is keen on controversial, inefficient and expensive technologies such a carbon capture and storage (CCS) and small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).

Charest’s climate plan, like that of former leader Erin O’Toole, set a climate target of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That was Harper’s target, left in place by the Liberals until Earth Day 2021, when Trudeau at long last strengthened it to 40-45 percent below 2005 by 2030 – not enough to meet the demands of climate science but enough to fool people in the 2021 election.

The big problem with reversing course and reverting to 30 percent is that the Paris Agreement specifically prohibits weakening a target. That is part of the central architecture of Paris. Each country determines its own target and can change it at any time, but only to “ratchet up.”

Regardless of what else Charest knows about climate, and he knows a lot, that is an unnecessary, unforced error.

That is a mistake that Patrick Brown has not made. In an interview with Vassy Kapelos on CBC’s Power and Politics, Brown held to the current target tabled by Canada with the United Nations; 40-45 percent below 2005 by 2030.

For more details, Brown says we have to wait until he has thoroughly consulted, presumably after the leadership contest wraps.

Both Charest and Brown support carbon pricing, as both have done in their previous lives, Charest as premier and Brown as provincial Tory leader. Neither of them supports the scheduled increase in the carbon price this summer.

And now to Pierre Poilievre. The only thing his climate plan has in common with the Greens is that we would both stop importing any foreign oil, relying on Canadian oil only. Of course, there the similarity ends. The Green Party’s Mission Possible would set end dates to fossil fuel production and use only Canadian fossil fuels as the industry was phased out and shut down. Pierre Poilievre seeks new pipelines and a huge expansion of Canadian fossil fuel production, which he – as did Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole before him – claims is “clean.” Not in any way that matters to the atmosphere.

Poilievre is against carbon pricing, and says he will cancel Liberal legislation such as bills C-69 (we agree on that for different reasons) on impact assessment and regulation and C-48, on crude oil transportation. It is not clear that Poilievre has even a rudimentary understanding of the dangers of the climate emergency.

Although MP Scott Aitchison is not a front-runner, his experience dealing with serious flooding as former mayor of Huntsville, Ontario, informs his position recognizing that the climate crisis is dangerous. Still, he would scrap carbon pricing.

All the candidates for the federal Conservative leadership claim they can hold to net zero by 2050, further buttressing the Greens’ point that “Net Zero by 2050” is a marketing ploy and not a meaningful target.

Many have commented on this leadership race being for the soul of the Conservative party. I wish them well. Meanwhile, I wish leaders and MPs in all parties would pay attention to the risks not just of climate change, but of fake climate promises.

Policy Contributing Writer Elizabeth May, MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands, is House leader of the Green Party of Canada.