On the issue of climate change, Canada’s Conservatives comprise three factions of skeptics.
First are those who dismiss all talk of global warming as mere left-wing alarmism, and therefore something that barely matters at all.
Second are those willing to concede the issue matters in some abstract sense but who believe “addressing” it will extract too high a cost on Canada’s economy.
Third are those who think it’s worth addressing but are skeptical the policies offered by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal administration in particular will work.
Trudeau’s Liberals, for their part, seek to flatten all flavors of conservative skepticism into a single indictment of the Tories as climate change deniers indifferent to environmental suffering. At a time when the Liberals are reeling from scandal, an increasingly hostile press and unfavorable polls, emphasizing climate change as the defining philosophical cleavage of Canada’s two major parties may be one of the few obvious routes to salvaging Trudeau’s prime ministership in October’s general election.
The climate change position of the Conservative Party of Canada is closest to the third type of skepticism — formally worried and prepared to act but opposed to virtually everything Ottawa has done to date. This includes a national carbon tax, which Trudeau’s administration has been controversially (and possibly unconstitutionally) attempting to implement on a province-by-province basis, as well as any effort to impose new climate-conscious regulation on Canada’s energy sector.
Both forms of recalcitrance are largely outgrowths of the Tories’ preoccupation with being champions of Alberta’s oil industry, whose present hardships they universally blame on Liberal policy. This is partially because the province is such a reliable source of Tory votes and partially because any party that defines itself through faith in free markets must be seen sympathizing with dominant sectors of Canadian capitalism.
“I will not apologize for standing up for Canada’s oil and gas workers and to defeat a government that is intent on phasing them out,” Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer thundered on Facebook, following reports he attended what the Globe and Mail characterized as a “secret meeting with oil executives” to coordinate election plans.
Under Scheer, Conservatives have been cautious about taking public positions that could be easily caricatured as stereotypically right-wing, or (God forbid) Trumplike.
An uncompromising defense of big oil at the expense of climate activism may seem counterintuitive to this strategy, but it is easily rationalized with the logic that oil is fundamentally an “economic issue.” Secular, suburban, middle-class swing voters love parties that campaign on economic issues, declares Conservative Party conventional wisdom — what they hate are parties that wade into “moral” matters such as abortion, immigration and LGBT rights. The Tories have accordingly surrendered to the Liberals on these fronts, subordinating personal convictions to honing an image of a nonthreatening party interested only in swelling the gross domestic product.
The problem is that many Canadians, particularly younger ones, may not accept this framing. To them, a robust defense of Albertan oil is not a demonstration of a party’s trustworthiness as a guardian of jobs and the free market, but rather a deep moral failing scarcely different from racism or homophobia.
There was a time when virtually every young person I met, upon learning I identified as conservative, would immediately demand to know my position on gay marriage. Today they insist on knowing where I stand on climate change. Like gay marriage, climate change seems to be morphing into one of those issues that’s so infused with sociocultural significance it’s virtually impossible for appeals to pragmatism to get a hearing. You’re either on the right side, or not.
That said, even if climate change is closer to a moral cause such as gay marriage than an economic issue such as tax rates, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Tories will immediately suffer for it.
Back when gay marriage was still being debated, Canadians were generally far more skeptical of the idea than is popularly remembered, and in 2006 they even elected a prime minister who had opposed it. On the other hand, we also see a long tail to that resistance, with assumptions of certain attitudes toward homosexuality now permanently entrenched in the Conservative brand. Opposition to gay marriage helped the Tories consolidate a favorable reputation among Christian, rural and socially conservative voters, while proving an ongoing deal-breaker to others.
If Scheer is elected prime minister, reasonable minds will conclude that Canadians don’t take climate change as seriously as they claim, and that Scheer framing the debate as primarily economic was persuasive. Beyond 2019, however, it could prove a difficult legacy for a rising generation of voters to forget.
Of course, what’s missing from such purely political analysis is the more substantial question of whether Canadian domestic policy will make much impact on global temperatures and weather patterns one way or another. If the worrying global warming trends are ultimately curbed by policy changes and technological innovations in nations responsible for a vastly larger share of emissions than Canada, then the climate change arguments of Canadian politicians in the 2010s may prove as irrelevant and forgotten as their debates over nuclear war in the 1980s.
Climate change indifference may well be a political problem for the Conservatives. It may also be one someone else solves for them.