Thomas Walkom: In defence of Canada's climate change policy
The minivan pulls into the Victoria College driveway and parks beside a dumpster. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna doesn’t emerge. “She’s still working on her speech,” explains an aide.
The speech is for a by-invitation-only gathering of climate-change “stakeholders” later in the evening. I’m there because McKenna’s office phoned up and offered me an interview beforehand. It seemed rude to refuse, so here I am. Besides, she might have something to say.
What I don’t get right away is that all of this is part of a co-ordinated effort by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to make climate change a ballot issue in October’s federal election.
McKenna steps out. She stops to make sure her children’s toys have been salvaged before the minivan leaves. Tonight, after her speech, she’s scheduled to have dinner with her family.
We shake hands. It turns out that we attended different colleges at the University of Toronto. She asks me what University College was like. “Very cosmopolitan,” I reply. What was St. Michael’s College like? “Very Catholic,” she says, laughing.
Inside the (very Protestant) Victoria College building, McKenna’s interlocutors are waiting. I’m sandwiched between a Globe and Mail columnist and my Star colleague Heather Mallick. I’ve also got in my briefcase a copy of Saturday’s Star that includes a telephone interview with the minister by another of my colleagues. McKenna, it seems, is a very busy person.
Eventually, the Globe chap finishes. I’m ushered into a room in which pride of place belongs to a manual typewriter. A card next to the typewriter says it was owned by the late Canadian scholar Northrop Frye.
I ask the minister what she wants to talk about. She seems momentarily nonplussed. “Just about what is going on right now,” she answers. “And my reflections. We need change in a practical way. We have to do it together.”
I try again by asking a question that genuinely puzzles me. If climate change poses the threat that scientists predict, why isn’t the government going all out to counter it? Trudeau’s Liberals talk of taking a balanced approach. But how does government take a balanced approach to something that, if the science is correct, threatens humankind’s continued existence?
It’s comparable to suggesting that the Allies should have taken a balanced approach to the Nazis in the Second World War. Surely, there are some evils that just need to be defeated.
I note that by the government’s own reckoning, it is not on target to meet the carbon emission reductions it agreed to in 2015 and that the latest report from climate scientists indicates that even if Canada and other nations did as promised, the results would be insufficient to prevent disaster.
I remind her that many experts conclude that Canada’s much-ballyhooed carbon tax is too low to significantly change consumer behaviour.
McKenna’s defence of her government is fourfold.
- First, she insists that it is going all-out in the war against climate change. She says that this is the first time that any federal government has had a comprehensive plan to address global warming.
- Second, she says, the “transition” away from a carbon-based economy cannot leave those such as oil workers in the lurch.
- Third, she says, the government has measures other than carbon taxes up its sleeve. While “unmodeled,” she says, these measures — such as spending on public transit — will help Canada meet its emission targets.
- Most of all, she says, the government cannot get too far ahead of public opinion. Both the U.S. under Barack Obama and France under Emmanuel Macron introduced ambitious measures to reduce carbon emissions. But because these measures lacked sufficient public support, they were easily rolled back — by Donald Trump on the one hand and by France’s yellow-vest demonstrators on the other.
“If you forget about people and just focus on policy, you can lose the policy,” she says. “You need to get buy-in. You need to work really hard.”
My 20 minutes are soon up. Outside, in the hall, the stakeholders gather. I spot someone who looks a lot like Finance Minister Bill Morneau eating a canapé. The sun is shining. I walk to the subway.
Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics. Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom