Environment

Canadian politicians won't be able to ignore climate change in 2022

In a year that will see more wildfires, deadly heat waves and drought, climate change policy will dominate the federal government’s agenda

A helicopter prepares to make a water drop as smoke billows along the Fraser River Valley near Lytton, B.C., on July 2, 2021 (James MacDonald/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

A helicopter prepares to make a water drop as smoke billows along the Fraser River Valley near Lytton, B.C., on July 2, 2021 (James MacDonald/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Crises have a habit of blotting each other out, given that most of us can only put out, or even focus on, one fire at a time. But while the last two years were given over to coping with COVID-19, another emergency of existential scale has been implacably gathering strength.

With the acute phase of the pandemic finally in the rear-view mirror, and with growing and terrifying evidence that the other threat is immediate, not on the far side of some hazy future horizon, climate change—its effects, its economic and social costs and its potential solutions—is set to be the defining issue of 2022, and dauntingly far beyond the new year. The issue is still often framed merely as a political hot potato, given the regional tensions and economic realities in Canada—and dealing with it will require deft management because of that complicated context, to be sure—but the implications of climate change mock the idea of treating it as mere gamesmanship.

There is rapid change happening, on multiple fronts. Public opinion is shifting dramatically on the importance of the issue and the acceptable range of solutions; the Trudeau government appears to be leaning in on the file—the chicken-and-egg relationship between those two developments is open to debate—and the real world we all live in is now a steady trickle of calamities ripped from the opening reel of a disaster movie.

READ: The B.C. floods are a mere hint of what climate change could do to the food supply 

The ticking is getting louder, and the costs of both action and inaction rise by the second. This will be the year when no one can stick their fingers in their ears anymore, hum and hope someone else will deal with it.

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Early indications are that Justin Trudeau is willing to spend serious political capital attempting to tackle the problem. This year, he will have been Liberal leader for nine years and Prime Minister for seven. Both his government and the man himself have oxidized from the shiny uplift that won them a majority in 2015 to the bedraggled dourness that comes from three terms in power. As the time for political legacy tallying draws nearer, Trudeau has sent multiple signals that, along with attempting to establish a national childcare program, he intends to make climate change policy a centrepiece of what could be his government’s final chapter.

When his new cabinet was revealed and sworn in six weeks after the election, the previous minister of environment and climate change, Jonathan Wilkinson—a former clean tech executive who was regarded by industry as relatively non-frightening—was shuffled to Natural Resources,* and Steven Guilbeault was named to the portfolio in his place. Guilbeault landed a file in which he is a true believer: in his 20s he co-founded Équiterre, a Quebec environmental non-profit, then spent a decade as a Greenpeace activist. His most infamous stunt—the one cited in all the news stories about his cabinet promotion, among them a Washington Post piece that claimed he was known as “Green Jesus”—was scaling the CN Tower in 2001 to unfurl a “Climate Killers” banner, for which he was arrested and charged with mischief.

MORE: Climate crisis 101: Canadian university courses to prepare you for a greener future 

And so, depending on who’s assessing it, Guilbeault’s appointment will either be seen as a signal that the Trudeau government is all-in on the fight against climate change or the ministerial embodiment of a middle finger flipped at the oil patch and the Prairies. “I don’t have a secret agenda as environment minister,” he said on the day he was sworn in, in response to the inevitable grilling about whether he was some sort of tree-hugging anarchist. (“Do people react this way when, say, a Bay Street executive becomes finance minister?” one Twitter user asked.) “It’s a government effort to tackle what many consider one of humanity’s greatest challenge[s], which is climate change.”

Given the long-standing animosity between Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and the Trudeau government, it was a bit of a feat that Kenney managed to look betrayed in describing Guilbeault’s appointment as “very problematic.” “His own personal background and track record on these issues suggest somebody who is more of an absolutist than a pragmatist,” Kenney said. “It’s important for him to send a signal that he doesn’t see the government of Canada as a special interest group to impose a radical agenda.” Kenney’s constituents were appalled by his pandemic management, and he faces a leadership review within his United Conservative Party this spring, so regardless of what Guilbeault does, expect Kenney to aim politically useful bellows at the smouldering tensions between Ottawa and his province’s oil and gas industry and identity.

This is a federal government with a penchant for both well-scripted symbolism and treating its ministers like you can pull a string on their backs to hear one of four pre-recorded phrases, so in spite of his personal commitment to fighting climate change, 2022 will be revealing in terms of how Guilbeault will handle the file (or be allowed to handle the file). But the very fact that the government believes climate change warrants a dramatic gesture at the moment is both telling and meaningful.

RELATED: It’s time to come together on climate 

During the election campaign, the Angus Reid Institute found that climate change was the top issue of concern cited by voters, ahead of other obvious candidates like improving health care, taxes and ongoing pandemic management. That environmental anxiety was most pronounced in adults aged 18 to 34, but it ranked high across all age and gender groups. The trajectory the pollster has seen in the importance people have placed on the issue over the last two years looks like a ball dropped from a great height—a near-vertical plunge in attention over the early months of the pandemic, followed by a steady bounce back up the personal bandwidth scale.

And if the summer of 2022 unfolds anything like the way the summer of 2021 did, it will serve only to focus a more urgent spotlight on the issue. Last year saw flash flooding in Europe that killed hundreds, drought, wildfires and, perhaps most dramatically—and most viscerally close to home for Canadians—a “heat dome” that descended on the West Coast in late June. Great swaths of British Columbia spent days on end punished by record-breaking heat; the temperatures were apocalyptic, boiling shellfish alive on beaches. The village of Lytton, B.C., spent three consecutive days suffering under the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Canada, peaking at 49.5° C on June 29. And then, as if the universe really had a point to make and was not particularly interested in narrative restraint, a wildfire charged down the valley and burned Lytton, which had been home to 250 people, to the ground.

The B.C. coroners’ service would eventually report that 526 people in the province died as a direct result of the heat. About two-thirds were people over age 70, and nearly all died as they overheated inside a house or hotel in a province where air conditioning is not common. The devastating heat wave would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change caused by human activity, analysis from World Weather Attribution, a collaboration of scientists, later determined.

READ: Six Canadian university students on how they’re fighting climate change 

Indeed, the scientific group calculates that, at current emissions levels, global warming by 2040 would make those extreme temperatures one degree hotter, and such events will occur every five to 10 years. Extreme rainfall like that which killed five people in Texas in 2019 has become up to 2.6 times more likely thanks to human-caused climate change, and with a 2° C rise in temperature—not an unlikely scenario—the conditions that caused the wildfires that devastated Australia three years ago will be four times more likely than they were in 1900.

All of which helps to explain why the window of discourse has changed so decisively on climate change in such a short amount of time, and is destined to shift further in the year ahead. Less than two years separated the 2019 and 2021 elections. Yet in 2019, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer trotted out a climate policy that ostentatiously contained no carbon tax, and then in 2021, Erin O’Toole crafted a climate policy that contained a carbon tax he had realized was politically necessary, while ostentatiously refusing to call it that. Tory strategists called climate change “a hygiene issue” for their party and decided that they simply needed a plausible plan to print on pamphlets or rhyme off on doorsteps. But the general electorate is now beginning to insist that political parties really scrub behind their ears. Over the coming year and beyond, the floor of what voters will demand in terms of action and thoughtfulness is going to rise, and so is the ceiling in terms of what they are willing to see it cost, by any metric.

MORE: Sophia Mathur is one of Canada’s most high-profile climate activists. She’s also 14. 

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Steady, predictable increases in the price of carbon, and the certainty of knowing that the system will stay in place no matter who wins the next election, will be crucial for encouraging greener decisions on both a household and industrial level. This is particularly true of “lumpy” consumption decisions around big expenditures made only once in a while, like a new car or furnace, says Jennifer Winter, scientific director of the energy and environmental policy research division at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. Paying for a pricier electric vehicle or energy-efficient furnace is more palatable if you know the price of carbon is headed to a place that will save you money over the long term, she explains. “It’s similar, but at the industrial level, you’re not thinking about buying a car that you will replace in five to 10 years; you’re thinking about building something that’s going to last 30 or 40 years,” she says. “With that time horizon, and with the amount of money they’re spending, policy certainly matters a lot.”

For new technologies like carbon capture and storage, where the only reason to invest is to reduce emissions, that’s especially the case, Winter says. “Businesses are generally not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts,” she says. “It relies on an economic incentive.”

The incentives appear to be working. In 2019, Royal Bank of Canada committed to providing $100 billion in sustainable financing by 2025, but it saw so much demand from companies that it surpassed that goal in less than two years and has upped the amount to $500 billion. “We’re seeing a significant shift underway in investor interest,” says John Stackhouse, senior vice-president in the office of the CEO at RBC, adding that the shift is “not binary” but favours both newer sustainability innovations and established companies with serious transition plans. “The price of capital for organizations that have a clear net-zero strategy and can demonstrate progress is going to go down relative to the cost of capital for others,” he says. “There’s just more supply of capital for those opportunities.”

Flooding in Toronto’s Don Valley in 2013 (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Flooding in Toronto’s Don Valley in 2013 (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

If the announcements at COP26, the UN climate change conference held in Glasgow in November—billed as “the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control”—are any indication, the fossil fuel industry isn’t going anywhere imminently, but it is simply not where the sure bet is anymore. By the end of 2022, the Trudeau government, among a list of 24 countries including the United States, will stop funding the operations of oil and gas companies overseas and redirect the money to clean energy projects. Wilkinson presented the move as a first step toward ending funding for the oil patch domestically—though he was carefully non-specific about a timeline for that. The federal government eschewed the Beyond Oil and Gas Coalition led by Denmark and Costa Rica, which calls for placing a hard deadline on the production of fossil fuels, but announced it would impose a hard cap on emissions from the sector, with the specifics yet to be determined. The oil and gas sector accounts for 26 per cent of Canada’s emissions, with the transportation sector right behind, at 25 per cent.

RELATED: How Canada became an environmental outlier 

COP26 saw the release of a study that found Canada stores one-quarter of the world’s soil carbon, mostly in peaty wetlands filled with millennia worth of decomposing plant matter, and keeping that sequestered in the ground will be crucial to fighting climate change. Canada committed, along with other countries, to ending the sale of cars that run on fossil fuels no later than 2040, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from some international shipping routes and making heavy trucks and buses zero-emission within two decades.

While Canada is a relatively small contributor to global carbon emissions, Canadians have a big per capita carbon footprint, driven in large part by transportation and heating their homes. Canada’s big-picture commitments are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to 1.5° C to avoid irreversible catastrophe. But the perpetual criticism of the big, splashy targets that get trotted out at international meetings like COP is that there are scant details about exactly how to reach those goals, so it’s a road map that contains only a starting point and an endpoint with no path between them.

The Trudeau government has, to this point, insistently talked about tackling climate change as an undiluted win-win that will save the environment while providing a boost to the economy and good jobs for anyone who wants them. That might be the case while we are still in the early stage of plucking the low-hanging fruit—and even then, it’s almost certainly wishful thinking—but the scale of action and change that will ultimately be needed to save us from ourselves was never going to be painless, or free.

MORE: The urgency to act on climate is surging in Canada 

It is a near certainty that 2022 will bring more devastating evidence that climate change is not a problem for other people in another era but a here-and-now crisis, which, in a darkly fortunate way, means that when the costs of fixing it become unmistakable, the government will find itself facing a citizenry that is increasingly willing to pay the bill. What choice do we have?


CORRECTION, November 29, 2021: This story originally claimed that Jonathan Wilkinson was shuffled from being minister of environment and climate change to infrastructure. In fact, Wilkinson is the minster of natural resources.


This article appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Hot and bothered.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.