Make climate change an election issue

By Dennis Gruending

'Politicians are not serious about about a carbon tax'I was in an Ottawa church basement along with about 80 other people a few days after the election call listening to three church leaders on a panel called Environment & Climate in Peril. The frustration was palpable. “Climate change is the key moral and ethical dilemma of our time and we have to engage it,” said Rev. Lillian Roberts from the United Church’s Ottawa presbytery. “We are facing a developing crisis and there is a need for an urgent response, but you won’t hear about it on the leaders’ debates,” said David Selzer, Executive Archdeacon, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.

Sadly that is probably true. American economist William Nordhaus says that any politician who will not support placing a price on carbon is not really serious about slowing climate change. This pricing can come in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which allows companies exceeding set carbon emission limits to buy credits from companies that create less carbon pollution.

In Canada, the whole issue was sidelined after the 2008 election when the Conservatives launched a devastating attack against Stephane Dion’s Green Shift plan to tax carbon polluters and use the money collected to reduce personal income and other taxes. The Conservative mantra was that no tax is a good tax and that Dion’s proposals would ruin the economy. The Harper government promised to introduce intensity-based pollution targets for industry but they are a joke. They might slow the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions somewhat but would still allow them to rise for many years to come.

In the 2011 campaign, the Liberals have announced that they would establish a cap-and-trade emissions system but they don’t say where that cap would be set. The NDP says it would tax big polluters while leaving individuals alone, and would use the money collected from corporations to invest in green programs and technology. So the Liberals offer an undefined cap-and-trade and the NDP a tax on corporations. The Conservatives would oppose both of those.

Temperatures increasing

Fortunately, most people are coming to accept the basic science of climate change and the number of deniers is thinning. Most now agree that carbon dioxide and other gases being pumped into the atmosphere as a by-product of our burning fossil are heating up the planet. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted temperature increases of between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Celsius in the 21st century.

Australian scientist Tim Flannery says the IPCC estimates have proven to be too conservative and are already being overtaken. He says, too, that the difference between the low and high estimate for warming temperatures is profound. “Humanity can probably cope with a warming of less than 3 degrees, but a 10.4 degree warming would be truly catastrophic,” Flannery says.

The signs of what may come are all around us. My home insurance rates have increased by 20 % in the past two years due to severe storms and resulting flooding, but this pales compared to deadly wildfires and flooding in Australia, widespread droughts and global food shortages, glacier melts and a looming water crisis.

Canada has developed an international reputation as a laggard on policy and action related to climate change. Our government’s negotiators played an obstructionist role at recent international conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. We will see what they do at the upcoming meeting in Durban in November 2011.

Modify consumption

We have to modify our profligate habits of consumption if we are to reduce carbon emissions but politicians are afraid to tell us that. In addition, the carbon industry has an immense amount of lobbying power in Canada. It effectively bankrolled the creation of the Reform Party, where our current prime minister apprenticed in politics.

Back in the church basement, Archbishop Brendan O’Brien (Kingston) called for prayerful asceticism. “We are in a critical situation but we have to find ways for people to incorporate all of this into their lives in prayerful contemplation. We should appreciate what we have but the new way we seek is one of being restrained in our consumerism.” O’Brien said a new asceticism would fit well with the church’s prophetic tradition. “Those involved in social movements talk of the impact of social and political structures on people. The ecological situation we face will have its greatest impact on the poor and we must develop a prophetic sense about that.”

The question

My question for the political leaders, or any candidates, in election debates this year is borrowed (with a slight revision) from the church group Citizens for Public Justice: “Should a national carbon tax policy or a mandatory national cap-and-trade system be imposed?”

We are running out of time to address climate change. Stephane Dion was right about the issue but vested interests prevailed. We should ask who will now have the courage to take the next steps.

7 thoughts on “Make climate change an election issue

  1. Thanks for this article, Dennis. It is really hard to believe that the environment has disappeared so completely from the political scene when it is already so apparent how crucial to our survival solving the problem has become.

    I am a card-carrying member of the NDP but I would vote Green in this election if there were a candidtate running in my riding.


  2. Thank you for this excellent explanation of the recent and present positions of government leaders on the crucial climate change issue. You also present several church leaders’ responses to this pressing issue and their challenge to us in the church to reduce our consumption as part of our responsible stewardship.

    Dennis, your framing of the question to ask our leaders (presumably in coming live meetings—and even in correspondence) is extremely helpful. Thank you!


  3. That we universally have abused our inherited privilege of harnessing and grooming the sacred resources offered us in nature’s provision, I have yet to read or hear a comprehensive explanation for the repetitive adjunct,
    ” the most devastating flood ‘in several decades’!” Since each natural calamity mirrors a prior calamity of equal or greater scope, what proof is there that what we see happening today, is more than a predictable cycle?


  4. Climate change isn’t an election issue because it isn’t a real issue. The climate has been changing since the beginning of earth time and will continue to do so. We are not about to return to living in caves with no fire just to please the sky is falling crowd.
    What we need to do is focus on REAL pollution which continues to poison earth and people every day.


  5. Actually, the number of skeptics is increasing – especially since Climategate. The Gore movie information has been shown to be wrong and the Artic ice is returning.

    Dennis replies: Thanks for your comment. I take it the IPCC and the many scientists advising it, those advising the United Nations, and those in the U.S. administration who brought George Bush around have it wrong then. I would be interested in any scientific journals or articles that document a return of the Arctic ice.


  6. The answer to your question Dennis is “No.” It is no because “cap and trade” and “carbon tax” is just another way for the rich and their corporations to make money. Archbishop Brendan O’Brien has it right, our focus should be on justice, because pollution cannot be separated justice. If we follow the prophetic tradition, the Archbishop suggests we will demand political change that will allow all to in a safe and nurturing environment. If you want to know what we are up against and what to do about it I invite anyone who cares to do so listen to The cbc Ideas program, “Saving Salmon”


  7. Thanks Dennis!
    I find it hard to believe that this conversation still swings between denial (that humans are creating a crisis for our home) and the naive belief that a party called “green” has the most holistic environmental agenda. If the voice of the poor and the voices for environmental change listen to one another (as I believe the NDP tries to do) we will build a strong agenda for the kind of change necessary. The NDP just needs to keep raising its voice on these issues. As one who has the privilege of middle class, I am able and willing to shoulder more of the cost of change (lifestyle and financial). The poor (often living in tenant situations) cannot and should not have to pay carbon taxes to offset poorly insulated homes. Landlords should. “Simple” solutions are not always the best!

    NDP Platform: Building a Clean and Sustainable Canada

    A living biosphere and a sustainable environment for future generations are public necessities that require collective action.

    Tackling climate change requires incentives for individuals, tough benchmarks for industry and leadership from the federal government.

    Future generations are counting on action today. Canadians cannot afford to let economic and financial crises become reasons for inaction on global warming, greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental imperatives.

    New Democrats reject the claim of a fundamental contradiction between environmental health and economic growth. Developing green energy industries is an opportunity for a dynamic new era of job creation, building a competitive advantage for Canada in environmental technologies and practices, which in turn help foster innovations in manufacturing.

    Reshaping energy policy for the 21st century means moving away from fossil-fuel dependence toward a green energy future by investing in solar, wind, wave, and geothermal sources, working with provinces and territories to share clean energy; and ensuring energy conservation in transportation and building methods.

    A New Democrat government will make Canada an environmental leader on the world stage by honouring treaty obligations, incorporating strong environmental standards in trade agreements and ensuring Canadian companies operating abroad will be held to standards and practices that reduce their footprint and leave local ecosystems in good health.


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