Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to institute backstop carbon pricing on provinces that refuse to adopt their own plans in the form of a tax. In a speech at Humber College in Ontario, in premier and carbon-price-holdout Doug Ford’s provincial riding, Trudeau pledged that 90 percent of the revenue collected under the plan will be returned to Canadians in the jurisdiction in which the money was collected. The rest will be divided among schools, hospitals and small businesses that can’t forward the cost to consumers.
The backstop pricing will apply only in provinces that refuse to price carbon themselves. So far, that’s Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Most residents of those provinces will receive more money than they pay. Checks will start to arrive before the 2019 federal election.
Most of Trudeau’s speech was statesmanship —looking into the future, asking what those looking back at us will think of our action or inaction, what they’ll say, how they’ll judge. The prime minister cited research in support of taxing emissions. He concluded: “This is not about politics or about the next election, this is about leadership.”
The rest of the speech was campaigning. He criticized the opposition Conservative Party for failing to develop a plan of their own, arguing that the economy and the environment go hand-in-hand, carefully avoiding pipeline chatter. The balance seemed about right a year out from what may be a close election against the backdrop of increasingly alarming warnings that we as a species are about to get cooked and drowned and starved to death.
But campaign or no campaign, Trudeau did something that is often hard to do in politics: He told the truth about just how urgent and serious our troubles are — even if he didn’t discuss how much more, beyond a modest carbon tax, we need to do to save ourselves.
It could be the stark and plain admission that we are responsible, here and now, for what comes next for us and for all of those who follow us. The past — the old ways of consuming, the promises we were made, the incentives and expectations that were built into our economies and our lives — offer an untenable model for not just the future but also the present.
Time after time in pre-speech interviews, during the speech and in the question-and-answer period that followed it, Trudeau repeated another line we should expect to hear more often: To date, pollution has been free, and therefore we have freely polluted. But in Canada, those days are over. Good riddance.
If you take the prime minister at his word (and you should), and if you believe that Canadians are either already used to and fine with carbon pricing (as they are in British Columbia or Quebec) or that they will quickly come to appreciate rebate checks once they begin to arrive (they will), then the conclusion follows that a national carbon scheme is probably here to stay. (Especially given that carbon pricing works.) So, even if Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer forms a government in 2019, he will have a hard time undoing what will by then be a system, expectation and even a norm well on its way to becoming entrenched. And not a moment too soon. In fact, several moments later than would have been ideal.
I say carefully that the scheme is probably here to stay and that Scheer would have a hard time ditching it. But not an impossible one. The government has work to do.
The Trudeau government now faces the task of helping both the country and itself by barnstorming for the plan both as a declaration of values and of value. It’s all well and fine and important to sell the plan as the right thing to do in and of itself, which it is. But it must also be sold as a value proposition, which is to say, it must answer the question “What’s in it for Canadians?”
One of the challenges of selling climate-change solutions is that the threats remain abstract and distant, although increasingly less so. The government must still convince Canadians that the plan not only won’t make it harder to make ends meet, but that it will in fact make it easier for (especially lower income) families to do so. That task will be eased by the arrival of cash in the mailbox. But that will take time. Until then, the message from Trudeau, his ministers and lawmakers of his party must be clear: A carbon tax is both the right thing to do and good for your pocketbook. If the recent performance by the prime minister is any indication of what’s to come, however, the odds of success are in his favor.