Demonstrators hold placards during a rally against climate change in Paris in October. (Michel Euler/AP)

What, exactly, is a Canadian climate change policy supposed to do? Is it something practical, designed to better the lives of the people of Canada — and indeed, the world — in a material, observable way? Or is it just symbolic — something to do regardless of consequence merely to broadcast the moral enlightenment of politicians?

The pretense is the former, but there’s far more evidence of the latter.

It is not difficult for a government to craft a climate policy. My province of British Columbia has had a tax on carbon since 2008. Experts seem to agree the policy is thoughtfully designed and reasonably effective at achieving its punitive aims. Petroleum consumption in the province has gone down, as have emissions.

Yet the B.C. government’s motive for doing this was hazy from the beginning. Initially, a $10-per-ton tax on carbon was offered as a means to help British Columbia meet the terms of its 2007 Greenhouse Gas Reductions Target Act, which was in turn justified as B.C.’s way to help fight global warming. Questions as to whether puny British Columbia, with its population of 4 million, could reasonably expect to effect much consequence on this front were quickly drowned out as the carbon tax became a purely political object. The cost, the emissions targets and the tax’s effect on the provincial economy quickly became new weapons in conventional political combat. In a few years, to the extent the tax possessed any clear objective, it was to help politicians judge each other.

The same is now happening at the national level. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has carbon emissions targets of his own, and he’s demanding “carbon pricing” be implemented in every province in order to meet them. In response, the federal and provincial conservative parties have made opposition to carbon pricing their raison d’être — a rational choice given voters generally don’t like paying more for things, and being pro-oil and anti-tax is all that’s keeping the Canadian conservative movement together these days. Trudeau’s Liberals have rebutted with at-least-we-have-a-climate-plan sneering.

All this provides a good case study of the difficulties midsize countries like Canada have at imposing a climate change policy that’s even coherent — let alone consequential.

Climate change, as reports like the recent findings of the Global Carbon Project remind, is the story of a looming environmental catastrophe born from collective global misbehavior. Yet responsibility is not evenly divided. Over half of all CO2 emissions are generated by only three countries: China, India and the United States.

Canada may be, by some metrics, the single worst per capita carbon-emitting nation on earth, yet it still contributes less than 2 percent of the world’s total. As the prime minister recognized in October, “Even if Canada stopped everything tomorrow, and the other countries didn’t have any solutions, it wouldn’t make a big difference.” Trudeau’s own carbon pricing policies grant exemptions to high-emitting industries on the defensible logic that our disorganized world is so uneven in regulating carbon, the high-emitters would probably just leave Canada and pollute elsewhere if carbon pricing was applied consistently — the so-called “carbon leaking” phenomenon.

Such concessions greatly undermine the significance of Canada’s Paris emissions targets (to say nothing of newer, even stricter demands), and instead turn climate policy into little more than a highly stylized, painfully disingenuous realm of pure political theater.

To provide cover for their cynicism, Canadian politicians keep their sanctimony levels high, knowing the value of moralizing about saving the planet remains too useful to be humbled by grim geopolitical realities. Trudeau’s climate change minister constantly exploits extreme weather events like British Columbia’s recent bout of forest fires to drum up support for her administration’s agenda, even as her own department strikes a more modest tone.

Conservatives are accused of “inaction” on the climate front, even if the “action” against which they are judged is of dubious consequence. Appeals to national vanity provide final refuge, as voters are told that Canada’s capacity to “lead the way” with this or that climate initiative will surely, surely inspire other nations to summon similar reserves of halfhearted, endlessly equivocating resolve.

Since carbon is a tangible product, it is easier to craft public policy around it than around problems more infused with culture, such as crime or poverty. To a certain class of professional Canadian policymaker, carbon-pricing schemes thus offer refreshing opportunity to design creative incentives and disincentives for easily measured behavioral outcomes. Yet the ultimate goal of climate policy should be to prevent our planet from being rendered unfit for human civilization, not merely raise or lower statistics for their own sake.

What the Canadian example proves is that there is clearly no plausible path to achieving significant global action on climate change through an aloof political process of dozens of countries doing their own thing, at their own pace, policed mostly by political partisanship. Given that’s how our world works, it might not be possible at all, which puts a lot of onus on technological change to pick up the slack — and fast.

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