The speech Stephen Harper could give on climate change

’We can’t just keep saying, we’re just going to keep consulting’
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks about the upcoming session of Parliament during a speech to supporters, Monday, September 15, 2014 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/CP


With the United Nations convening a conference of nations on the challenge of climate change, the New Democrats and Liberals were keen to make a fuss. And with the Prime Minister and Environment Minister otherwise occupied, it was for Colin Carrie, unlucky parliamentary secretary, to convey the official reassurances and equivocations.

Thomas Mulcair first demanded to know why the Prime Minister was “boycotting” the UN summit, a question the parliamentary secretary basically sidestepped with news of the latest move to align our vehicular reduction policies with those of the United States.

Inevitably, there was some reference by some member of the opposition to the outstanding (third meaning) matter of regulations for this country’s oil and gas sector. And, inevitably, it was for Colin Carrie to stand and plead that it was too early to comment on such stuff.

“We are continuing to work with the provinces on reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector,” Carrie explained. “It is premature to comment further on any future regulations.”

It was also premature to comment last week. And in March. And in February. And last November. And on June 4, 2013. Indeed, if it is premature now, it was wildly premature then. But, on that June day of last year, the previous environment minister, Peter Kent, with his very next answer, had said that he intended to “have them well before the end of the year.” But that was after the regulations had been promised for mid-year, which was after the regulations had been promised by the end of 2012.

So it’s not quite that NDP and Liberal MPs are merely impatient; it’s also that there is some basis to ask.

It’s also that the deadline to meet this country’s official targets is now not far off. And it would seem that our chances of reaching those targets is near nil. Most particularly, so long as national regulations are not being imposed on the oil and gas sector. That much it is not premature to say.

For the record, at least as of five months ago, the Harper government remains committed to those Copenhagen targets. But to meet that target now would, by the estimation of Marc Jaccard, require policies equivalent to a $200-per-tonne price on emissions. This would, Jaccard hypothesizes, “crash the economy.” Most would agree that’s not optimal.

Jaccard figures we might’ve acted earlier and cheaper, but now we are in a spot with Copenhagen similar to where we used to be with Kyoto—left facing targets we cannot meet. Jaccard recalls that he was one of those who agreed with the Harper government’s conclusion in this regard on Kyoto. Now, Jaccard is telling them, seven years later, that they are faced with basically the same problem.

But, as of now—three years after they started consultations on new regulations for the oil and gas sector—the Harper government says it wants to wait until the United States is ready to act in concert. Which raises other questions. In the estimation of David McLaughlin, former president of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and a former chief of staff for Jim Flaherty, it is now time for a new “Canada-first climate policy with a realistic, greenhouse-gas-emission target extending beyond 2020.”

That might look good in a Liberal or NDP platform in 2015. Or in a joint statement of the provinces. Or maybe even in some dramatic announcement of the Harper government in the next 12 months. But, until that or some other resolution, it will be for the likes of Colin Carrie, clutching a blue piece of paper on which were apparently written the official assurances, to stall.

So today we heard, again, that the government’s “priority is to protect the environment while keeping the economy strong.” That regulations imposed on the coal sector will, over the course of 21 years, be equivalent to removing 2.6 million vehicles from the road. And that this “government is a world leader when it comes to addressing climate change.” And that “Canada represents less than two per cent of global emissions.” And that, thanks to the government’s actions, “carbon emissions will go down close to 130 megatonnes from what they would have been under the Liberals.”

That last one is a dubious claim, but it, at least, sounds nice, and fills space and time, as words spoken aloud tend to do.

Equally space-filling is the commitment that, whatever the government has done, it did so without a carbon tax. Carrie managed to use the phrase “carbon tax” no fewer than eight times this afternoon. We are now nearing a thousand Conservative interventions since 2011 that have included the phrase. (Carrie himself was responsible for 35 of those entering today.) All references to a policy the government has foresworn, at least since deciding that what it once supported was the same as what it once opposed.

Of course, it is much easier to be against a policy option, as long as you won’t commit to actually being for any other idea.

And so it continues to be too early to say what the government will do to regulate our fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and greatest environmental policy challenge. But what if it wasn’t? What if the Prime Minister were to attend this week’s summit on climate change and then used that platform to heed his critics, take a stand and commit to new action?

It is an old trick of journalists covering politicians to write the speeches they wish they could hear. It is an exercise that can easily turn silly. But let us give it a try, if only to imagine something other than the talking points with which we have become so familiar.

He might acknowledge the obvious: that he has been criticized for not doing enough on greenhouse gases. He might promise an unprecedented regulatory regime. “The reason no government has done this before—federal, provincial or municipal—is there is no way to do this without imposing costs on our economy in the short term,” he would explain. “That’s why all previous governments have talked a great game and shied away from it. We believe it has to be done. We believe the costs are manageable. We believe, over the mid-term, they provide some economic opportunities in technology development. But, in the short term, there are costs.”

“They will bite,” he might warn. Premiers might protest. Industries might beg off. Some might say the government is doing too much. “But it has to be done,” he might say.

He would go on.

“The climate change file is a very difficult file. You know, you look at the Bali conference. Everybody in the world was beating their chests. I never saw so much grandstanding in my life.

“I know that, whatever we do, the radical edge of the environmental movement that gets most of the press will not think it’s enough. And I also know that, as soon as we impose costs on the economy—and there is no way of making progress without some short-term costs—that others, industry and others, will complain we’re going too far. That’s why the previous government was paralyzed with inaction for a decade, because they couldn’t square the circle. There is no squaring the circle. Sometimes, you have to make a decision and realize that you’re going to get criticized . . . that you have to stand by the decision and see it through, and encourage people to judge you by the results.

“I don’t think it’s feasible that we keep deciding, ‘Well, hey, let’s float another plan.’ That’s what the Liberals did. As soon as you’re getting close to actually implementing, you say, ‘Well, hold on, we’re getting some kickback here, so let’s float a whole new plan and do consultations on that.’ So you do a series—what the Liberals did for a decade—a series of rolling consultations that never actually end. But I don’t think that’s feasible.”

“You know, we inherited the worst record of greenhouse gas emissions of any industrialized country, at least relative to the commitments we took on in Kyoto. It’s a terrible record. Now we have to do something. We can’t just keep saying, ‘We’re just going to keep consulting.’ So that’s what we’re doing.”

He could say all that, and he would likely be applauded for doing it. Here would be some frank talk about climate change policy, the columnists would write. Here might even be something that would shore up one of the Conservative party’s weaker spots, the pundits would speculate. (Maybe he would have to concede some fault, but here he could re-engage the conversation.)

But then he has already said it (minus, of course, the conceding of fault). He said it all seven years ago in an interview with the Canwest News Service (now Postmedia), around the same time he was making similar comments to the Toronto Starthe Globe and Mail and the CBC. (I’m indebted to Andrew Coyne for leaving this trail of breadcrumbs in October 2008.) Six months earlier, he had mused that climate change was “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.”

To its credit, the Harper government subsequently announced regulations for several sectors. But when it came to finally squaring the circle, or, rather, fully smashing the very notion of there being a circle to square, the Harper government lost its nerve.

Its reasons for that might someday be explained in another frank assessment. But, as of now, it would seem to be for Justin Trudeau or Tom Mulcair to simply repeat Stephen Harper’s words of December 2007. Lucky them.