Hey, Saskatchewan: voting Conservative won’t make climate change go away

News | by Gregory Beatty

If climate change was a referendum issue in the Oct. 21 federal election, the denial side would be headed for a decisive defeat. Just tally the poll numbers for the four parties that accept climate change science (Liberal, NDP, Greens and BQ), and the two parties that don’t (Conservative and People’s Party of Canada), and the verdict is clear.*

Climate change isn’t a referendum question though. It’s one issue (albeit a dominant one) in the actual election. And the problem for Canadians who want action is that with their support divided between four parties, there’s a very real chance, thanks to Canada’s flawed first-past-the-post system, that the Conservatives might win enough swing ridings to form government.

With a modest carbon tax, a California-style clean fuel standard, and commitments to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas industry and phase out coal-fired power generation, the Liberals have started Canada on a path to meet our international commitments after the total inaction of the Harper years. Like the NDP and Greens, they’ve also committed to making Canada carbon neutral by 2050.

Should the Conservatives win, they’ve vowed to kill the measures we have now in favour of half-baked plans sorely lacking details. In fact, if the performance of their allied governments in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan is any indication, far from tackling climate change, they would aggressively promote fossil fuels and downplay climate change. Squelching climate research, reneging on green energy contracts, censoring references to climate change on government websites, churning out pro-fossil fuel propaganda, even harassing environmental activists and organizations — we’ve seen it all, and more.

Canada’s conservative political parties are committed to stopping real action on climate change.

The thing is, no matter how Canadians vote on Oct. 21 and no matter which party forms government, it’s not going to change reality.

When Facts Attack

Scientists first flagged climate change from fossil fuel use as a concern in the 1850s. That’s not a typo — the EIGHTEEN fifties.

In 1988, a NASA scientist testified before a U.S. congressional committee that climate change was real. In recent years it’s become apparent that impacts once forecast to hit in the 2030s are happening now.

One problem is that despite some positive steps by progressive jurisdictions to switch to green energy, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Then, says Peter Prebble of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, there’s the wildcard of feedback loops.

“A recent study said that over the last 50 years the permafrost line in the James Bay area has moved 120 km north,” says Prebble. “We’re definitely seeing permafrost melt and methane being released into the atmosphere, to the point that the U.N. has flagged this as a major problem.”

The polar ice caps and glaciers are melting too. Normally they’d reflect sunlight back to space. Now, with open water and land, that heat is being absorbed.

Wildfires are growing in size and intensity, which is releasing mega-tons of carbon. And as temperatures warm, evaporation from oceans and lakes is increasing, which adds water vapour to the atmosphere.

These feedback loops all intensify the greenhouse effect — which accelerates the rate of warming on Earth, which accelerates the feedback loops, which accelerates the warming, and so on.

“The window is getting narrower and narrower, and we can’t even seem to get inadequate initiatives through,” says Simon Enoch, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Saskatchewan director. “We just keep spinning our wheels. I don’t know if that’s the conservative long game — to try to run out the clock until we all collectively shrug and say ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do so let’s live life to the fullest’. In effect, that’s what’s happening.”

The Saskatchewan Party’s Prairie Resilience climate plan is a perfect example. It pays scant attention to our sky-high emissions, and instead focuses on adapting to climate change through infrastructure investment and monitoring all the changes to croplands, forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife we’re destined to see.

That needs to be done. But we also need to cut our GHG emissions, otherwise we’re just adding fuel to what’s already a raging fire with record heat waves, “Category 6” hurricanes, rising sea levels and storm surges, droughts, torrential downpours and more.

Changes are also taking place at the micro level, says Prebble.

“As carbon dioxide is being absorbed by our oceans, acidification is becoming a big concern — especially as it impacts on shell-forming marine life. And there’s a lot of desire, particularly in coastal areas with rising sea levels, for action on climate change.”

One denial “argument” that gets repeated ad nauseam is that the climate has always changed. Obviously that’s true. Over its 4.4-billion-year history, Earth has been a giant ice ball, a waterworld and everything in between — many times over.

What’s different now is that change is happening so rapidly that plants, animals and nature in general just can’t keep up. Plus, there’s the stark reality that Earth is now home to 7.7 billion people. Many of them — especially in tropical, island and coastal regions — are going to face severe hardship from climate change.

“One of my bigger fears is, what’s the political climate going to be like in the new climate we’re entering into?” says Enoch. “It strikes me it’s going to be very scary, very authoritarian.

“We’re already getting a taste of it with all the immigration rhetoric,” he says. “It’s just a very early taste of the authoritarian language and draconian measures that politicians are going to use to fortress-up our borders and prevent the masses of climate refugees from streaming in.”

Politics, Law & Money

A key plank in the Conservative platform is to create an “energy corridor” via a network of pipelines that would move diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands to the West and East Coasts for refining and export.

But it’s not like the Conservatives can just wave a magic wand and make it happen, says Enoch.

“There are a lot of constituencies that have very different ideas about pipelines,” he says. “The Conservatives are fooling themselves if they think the country is just going to clear a path. If Andrew Scheer became prime minister, he’d have to deal with the same challenges and opposition. It’s not easy terrain to govern right now.”

Another reality that must be faced is that there’s a growing movement of cities and countries on the front lines of climate change suing the fossil fuel industry. As of May, the total number of lawsuits was over 1,000 — the majority in the U.S. but also in Europe, the Asia/Pacific region, Africa and South America.

“Most of the cases we’ve been advocating for focus on the cost of infrastructure and otherwise managing risks that communities are likely to face based on climate model projections,” said Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law in Vancouver in a July interview.

“There’s more and more science that lets you show that a particular event, such as the B.C. wildfires, was tied to climate change,” Gage added. “But the low-hanging fruit has focussed on the cost of preparing for those events. No one wants to be rebuilding after a loss, so if we can make sure we have climate resilient communities before the harm occurs that’s much better.”

Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that carbon emissions were causing climate change. Had they been good corporate citizens, they would’ve helped society transition away from fossil fuels.

Instead, starting in the early 1990s they funded a massive denial campaign.

The tobacco industry did the same in the 1950s and ’60s to deny the link between cancer and tobacco use, and it cost them dearly.

Spooked by the climate lawsuits that are underway, shareholders and lenders are pushing fossil fuel companies to take real steps to address climate change — both because it’s the right thing to do, and to show good faith which courts might accept as a mitigating factor in assessing liability.

Banks with assets exceeding $47 trillion, Business Insider reported in September, have adopted UN-backed climate policies that will move loan money out of fossil fuels. So absent major government support, the Conservatives and their provincial allies might struggle to find private backers for their energy corridor.

Of course, government support for fossil fuels isn’t exactly unheard of in Canada. And it’s an interesting question whether the liability that’s likely to attach to fossil fuel companies would extend to compliant governments that ignored the science themselves and championed fossil fuels. It’s not an unreasonable argument to make, and if successful, it would expose their citizens to considerable financial risk.

The bottom line is that when Canadians go to the polls on Oct. 21, we don’t get to vote on reality. It is what it is.

And one way or another, we’ll have to deal with it.

“Personally, I think the future of human civilization is at stake,” says Prebble. “If we don’t address climate change in a serious way, our quality of life on Earth is going to diminish significantly. We need to move to a carbon neutral world by 2050, and it’s really important for Canada’s government to put forward policies that will achieve that.”

* The assessment of the six party positions is based on a recent survey where Canadian environmental organizations canvassed them on climate change and issues such as habitat destruction, single-use plastics and a Canadian environmental bill of rights. There were 10 questions, and except for three answers judged Partial and one No, the Liberal, Green, NDP and BQ responses were all Yes. The Conservative responses were all No, and the PPC didn’t reply. See election2019envirosurvey.ca for details.