The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion When will Canada’s Conservatives take climate change seriously?

Jean Charest, left, and Pierre Poilievre, who each wish to lead the Conservative Party of Canada, debate May 5. (Blair Gable/Reuters)
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Watching Canada’s Conservative Party leadership debate on Wednesday, you’d never know the planet was speeding toward 3 degrees Celsius of warming this century, blowing past the Paris agreement goal of 1½ degrees. Life at 3 degrees of warming would be unrecognizable. And we owe it to those who will be alive then to forestall as much disaster as we can.

That is the sane, responsible position. But that’s not what the hopefuls for Conservative leadership in Canada seem to believe.

The debate ran for nearly two hours, though you’d be excused for thinking it lasted much longer. The band played the hits: lowering taxes, reducing taxes, having less taxation, cutting the income tax, plus expanding pipelines and increasing natural resource extraction. Climate warranted next to no attention until the moderator, as though begrudgingly, asked about it in the dying minutes.

If you thought the climate section would be about offering real solutions to the climate crisis, you’d be mistaken. Instead, it was about “clean” Canadian fossil fuel energy (an oxymoron designed to sell the gullible a few more degrees of warming while shareholders cash their dividend checks), cutting carbon pricing, expanding extraction and pipelines, and technologies, many untested and unproven, that won’t save us.

In fact, this portion of the debate was basically another section about the economy. Someone should have mentioned to the CPC leadership candidates that you can’t have an economy amid systematic global collapse.

Of all the candidates, former Quebec premier Jean Charest took climate change the most seriously, though he didn’t speak to the structural market and social transformations necessary to tackle the problem. “This is a key issue for us,” he said. “We need to do a lot of things, including carbon capture and storage, hydrogen blue-green, biofuels, small modular reactors.” He also called for replacing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon pricing system, but at least he understands that climate change is an issue.

Scott Aitchison, a long-shot contender who’s proved to be one of the more even-keeled and policy-driven candidates, echoed Charest’s plan. He also drew on former prime minister Stephen Harper’s preference for a “balanced regulatory approach.” Again, not nearly enough.

The other candidates, unsurprisingly, had nothing substantive to add.

The Conservatives are not the only ones failing to respond sufficiently to approaching climate disaster. Canada’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change and the Trudeau government’s recent budget echo some of the ideas floated by a few of the Conservative leadership candidates. That includes funding for new and evolving technologies plus alternative energy approaches such as carbon capture — risky and years from viability at scale — renewables and electrification. The Liberal budget also includes plenty of money for critical minerals and the mining industry, some of which are slated for the zero-emission vehicle supply chain. Like the Conservative offerings, it’s not nothing. Nor is it enough to meet the country’s climate targets.

The Liberals support resource extraction and pipelines, too, despite the Conservatives more or less demonizing them as eco-Marxists. When it looked like the Trans Mountain pipeline was going extinct, the government bought it to spare the market the indignity of letting the project die. In April, the government approved the Bay du Nord offshore oil project. The Liberals will do more to combat climate change than the Conservatives — they certainly talk about it more often — but the parties are cousins, not strangers, on the issue.

The Conservative Party leadership debate reminded us that the party, by and large, doesn’t take climate seriously. The Liberal government, meanwhile, doesn’t take climate seriously enough. Canada is locked into a status quo of extraction, production and consumption, beholden to a theory of endless maximum growth that is driving the country — like so many others around the world — toward climate collapse.

At this point in a column, the writer typically inserts a call to action or tries to end on a hopeful note. But, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned us this year, it is “now or never” if we wish to avoid climate catastrophe. Our policymakers, expressly or implicitly, are choosing never. Hopelessness is not productive. But instead of the traditional call to action or hopeful conclusion, I can only end with rage, scorn and frustration for those in positions of power who can stand on a stage and doom those whom they seek to lead.