Climate change: Prime Minister Frank Harper and the alliance of what?

What are we going to do about climate change?
March 27, 2014 - Berlin, Germany - Bundeskanzlerin Angela_Merkel (CDU) empfaengt heute am 27. Maerz 2014 den kanadischen Premierminister Stephen Harper im Kanzleramt Berlin. Bei dem Treffen geht es um die beiderseitigen Beziehungen, aber auch um internationale Fragen aus Politik und Wirtschaft. German Chancellor Angela_Merkel (CDU) welcomes today March 27, 2014 the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the chancellery in Berlin. At the meeting it comes to bilateral relations, but also to international issues from politics and business...Credit: Stocki/face to face (Credit Image: © face to face/

Tony Abbott

Frankly, the Prime Minister wanted to be frank about his frankness.

“It’s not that we don’t seek to deal with climate change, but we seek to deal with it in a way that will protect and enhance our ability to create jobs and growth, not destroy jobs and growth in our countries,” he explained yesterday, standing beside his number one fan from Australia. “And frankly, every single country in the world, this is their position. No country is going to undertake actions on climate change—no matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country’s seeking.”

Quite frankly, there might be something a bit obvious about this. Surely no reasonable party leader or head of government would suggest we destroy the present for the sake of the future. For one thing, “Apocalypse now to avoid apocalypse later” is a rather gloomy campaign slogan. For another, people living in the present tend to be rather selfish about not wanting to be inconvenienced.

In a speech in Britain some six years ago, Mr. Harper posited that economic growth and environmental welfare were each half of an answer to the riddle of security.

“It is true that economic growth on our planet cannot be sustained without better environmental preservation,” he said. “But it is equally true, as the current reaction to high energy prices in Europe is starting to show, that environmental progress will never be achieved unless the economic needs of the population are being met.”

We have possibly spent much of the last decade—the last two decades? longer?—wrestling with that riddle. That we shouldn’t have to choose between the economy and the environment is something like the one thing everyone wants to say. So it is really down to the details and the consequences.

The Prime Minister’s solution at the time was a cap-and-trade system, along with options to purchase credits or pay into a technology fund. And the government’s approach to climate policy since then has certainly possessed a certain kind of frankness. There was the retreat from cap-and-trade. There was the new line that cap-and-trade and a carbon tax were the same thing. There was the promise of regulations for the oil-and-gas sector. There were two missed guesses at when those regulations might be announced. And now there is some vague hope that maybe the United States might “like to work in concert” on new regulations for the oil-and-gas sector.

(The Liberals, meanwhile, proposed a carbon tax and then proposed cap-and-trade and now muse only of some kind of price on carbon. The New Democrats vehemently opposed a carbon tax while trying to argue cap-and-trade would be somehow different.)

Frankly, this might all align with some significant portion of the voting public. (Do we truly want to deal with climate change, or was that just a thing we were into for a few months in 2008? And, if we do, at what cost?)

According to the Sydney-Morning Herald, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Harper’s friendly visitor yesterday, is now seeking to establish a “a conservative alliance among ‘like-minded’ countries, aiming to dismantle global moves to introduce carbon pricing, and undermine a push by US President Barack Obama to push the case for action through forums such as the G20.”

The Prime Minister’s Office tells me the government is not part of any “secret alliance,” while arguing the government has done more, faster, to reduce emissions from the electricity sector than the United States (a problematic comparison given our two countries’ differing levels of reliance on coal-fired electricity).

However the two prime ministers are linked, they at least share the same policy prescription. Yesterday, Mr. Harper commended Mr. Abbott’s elimination of Australia’s “job-killing carbon tax.” At Question Period this afternoon, the Conservatives sent up a backbencher to a lob a question at Colin Carrie, apparently so that the parliamentary secretary to the minister of the environment could express some admiration for Mr. Abbott. “Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, agrees with our approach to take actions to limit emissions without destroying our economy, like the NDP would like to do,” Mr. Carrie told the House. “We commend the Australian government for encouraging other countries not to impose a multi-billion dollar carbon tax.”

Indeed, under repeated questioning from the New Democrats today, Carrie would make repeated reference to the dreaded carbon tax (that would make 33 occasions on which he has so far invoked the policy). Conservative backbencher Robert Sopuck helpfully added one more to the official record just before Question Period (Mr. Sopuck is now at a mere dozen references and might want to think about trying harder).

Opposite Mr. Carrie was the NDP’s Francois Choquette, venturing that the real destruction would come as a result of climate change. “Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Prime Minister showed the full extent of his ignorance in combating climate change by pitting it against job creation. His apocalyptic vision for our economy is matched by the increase in extreme climate phenomena,” the NDP deputy critic declared. “We are talking about a cost of five billion annually to the Canadian economy! So it is Conservative inaction in combating climate change that makes the most damage to our jobs and our economy. When will the Conservatives take the necessary measures to comply with their Copenhagen commitments?”

There is something to be said for clarity: Mr. Harper is resolutely against a carbon tax, which his government now seemingly defines as either a direct tax on GHG emissions or a cap-and-trade system which establishes a price on GHG emissions. Fair enough. Now what about everything else?

If the Prime Minister likes to be heard speaking frankly, there are any number of ways he might lead a frank conversation about climate change policy in this country. For instance, does his opposition to a carbon tax include anything like the carbon levy currently being applied in Alberta? Does Mr. Harper want to adopt Mr. Abbott’s “direct action” plan?

There are those who would argue that a carbon tax is more efficient than the sort of regulations the Harper government has so far applied to other sectors and it should be noted that those regulations come with costs, but before we can even get to that discussion, we might need to know what each side is proposing—including, of course, the New Democrats and Liberals. Are the Conservatives willing to do nothing on the oil-and-gas sector until the United States is willing to do likewise? If so, why? Why precisely should we wait to act in concert on that file? Let us see some frank analysis about the economics that would inform such a stance.

What exactly is the choice here? The NDP’s cap-and-trade system or the Conservative government’s regulatory regime that doesn’t cover the country’s largest emitter? Destroying the economy or destroying the environment?

That surely can’t be it.

What about those Copenhagen targets? How are we going to meet those? What if waiting for the United States results in Canada not meeting its targets? Are those targets not important? What will it mean for the future of the planet and the country if those targets are not met?

For sure, not destroying things sounds like a decent idea—indeed it seems to be the very point of the climate change debate. And if Messrs Harper and Abbott wish to oppose a tax on carbon or an emissions-trading system, they’re surely entitled. But frankly it only raises an obvious question: If not that, what?