Rejecting climate change’s reality shows many conservatives have lost touch with reality
Politics by Gregory Beatty
It didn’t have the high-stakes intrigue (or bloodshed) of Trump Nation storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 but the recent flex of right-wing power at the federal Conservative Party’s convention was formidable, nonetheless.
The convention, which was held online March 18–20, was Erin O’Toole’s first as leader since replacing Andrew Scheer last August. In his keynote, O’Toole delivered a blunt message to delegates: to have any hope of winning the next election the party needed to soften some of its harder edges.
In other words, rabid conservatives need to get over their contempt for climate change action, environmental protection, labour rights, taxes and social justice. Etcetera.
If the party didn’t, O’Toole warned, they would suffer a rerun of the last two elections: the Conservatives strong in rural and Prairie Canada but losing to Liberals in urban areas with heavy concentrations of seats.
In several policy votes after the keynote, a tug-of-war broke out between those supporting O’Toole’s message and those firmly opposed. The fracas was highlighted by a 54 to 46 per cent vote against a motion to recognize human-made climate change as real.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with delegates expressing their views. That’s democracy. But the dispute was telling, says Simon Enoch.
“The old split between western conservatives and ‘Red Tories’ in central and eastern Canada continues to fracture the party,” says Enoch, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Saskatchewan director.
“It might be that a strong personality like Harper can convince people to moderate their extreme positions to win power,” says Enoch. “But it doesn’t seem O’Toole is that sort of personality. As we saw, there was open revolt to sabotage the convention by western conservatives.
“It certainly seems his call to moderate the party to appeal to those constituencies they absolutely need to win to form government fell on deaf ears,” he says.
The convention left University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith shaking his head, too.
“The motion about human-made climate change being real, I thought that was amateur hour,” says Smith. “There’s no way that should have made it to the convention floor. Now, is that democratic? That’s a bigger discussion. But you don’t want to give your opposition fodder like that.
“The Conservatives gave the Liberals exactly what they need to run a campaign saying ‘Conservatives don’t believe climate change is real’, and that’s going to play really well for the Liberals in suburban Toronto and Vancouver,” says Smith. “Even certain ridings in Edmonton and Calgary could be in play, given that kind of messaging.”
A few years ago, Canada’s conservatives were riding high. Trump was in the Whitehouse, and Scheer and premiers Doug Ford (ON), Brian Pallister (MB), Scott Moe (SK) and soon-to-be premier Jason Kenney (AB) were poised (or at least posed, in an infamous 2018 Maclean’s cover) to be Justin Trudeau’s “worst nightmare”.
Now Trump is gone and the Republican Party is a dumpster fire of QAnon science-denying, Bible-belting, gun-loving social conservatives. And with Biden in the White House, Trudeau has an ally on climate change.
Meanwhile, the federal Conservatives appear weak and disorganized.
It’s been 40 years since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher kick-started the conservative revival with their election wins, so turbulence from time to time is to be expected.
Enoch thinks the rot goes deeper than that.
“One of the things that is becoming more and more apparent is that the facts on the ground are increasingly hostile to conservative solutions,” he says.
The pandemic is one example, says Enoch.
“U.S. journalist Matthew Sitman talks about how it’s eviscerated conservatives, because one, it requires them to rely on expert opinion; two, it requires broad government intervention in society and the economy; and three, it shows individual actions have consequences for the collective,” says Enoch.
“Given those facts, typical conservative policies have no purchase as they can’t really do anything.”
“Everything Conservatives point to for success — the free market, smaller government, lower taxes — is not going to work in a pandemic. Their entire ideological worldview has been cracked and they don’t know what to do. Modern conservatism simply doesn’t play well when citizens are demanding government action to protect them — both against the virus, and the economic fallout.”
Life After Iron Fist
Stubborn loyalty to policies that are grievously inadequate for 21st century global society’s challenges is bad enough. But today’s conservatism also has alarming toxicity, with far-right nationalists, Christian supremacists, Jim Crow bigots and others expanding their pestiferous influence.
Trump Nation is a clear and disturbing example in the United States but dimwitted malfeasance was on display at the Conservative convention, too. Behind the scenes, social conservatives secured seven of 18 seats on the party’s powerful national council with a slate of candidates endorsed by anti-abortion organizations.
“It suggests they’re moving to consolidate power within the party,” says Enoch. “So it does seem that a lot of the social conservatives who were told to take a back seat during the Harper years are finally trying to influence the party’s direction in ways that they see their values reflected.”
“The party did push out [Ontario MP] Derek Sloan,” says Smith. Note* Derek Sloan was expelled from the Conservative caucus Jan. 20 after it was revealed his campaign accepted a donation from White nationalist Paul Fromm. Sloan is also strongly pro-life and has said he would “vote his conscience” on legislation restricting abortion; has said he will not march in Pride parades; opposes bans on conversion therapy; and says most young people who identify as transgender will “grow out of it.” “Given how reactionary and racist his commentary was, that was necessary. But he’s not the only person in the party who has those opinions — and many of them have influence and are vocal about their dislike of O’Toole trying to reach out to unions, working class people, to not touch the abortion issue.
“An iron fist in an iron glove is how I define Harper,” Smith adds. “Once that was gone, segments of the party that were empowered by a Scheer victory in the 2017 leadership campaign didn’t go away. And now O’Toole’s people are struggling to contain them.”
While the political drama is certainly exciting, the bottom-line reality is that the health and well-being of humanity and our home planet Earth literally hang in the balance.
With existential threats of climate change, the pandemic and environmental collapse staring us in the face, what’s top of mind for conservatives? Judging by recent outrage, it’s fighting pointless culture wars against a Bigfoot cartoon (condemned as anti-Alberta oil propaganda by Kenney’s UCP government), publishers delisting obscure Dr. Seuss titles, whatever the Mr. Potato Head thing was about, Pepé Le Pew and a “devilish” Lil Nas X video.
And where conservatives are in power, they’re busy passing voter suppression laws and cracking down on LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive choice (in the U.S. South); gaming the education system to try to promote the conservative fantasy of reality (Kenney again); failing to address a major non-pandemic health crisis (Scott Moe’s Sask. Party with opioid addiction); and just generally not providing good government.
At the same time as O’Toole was pleading with far right delegates, he did throw the few remaining fiscal hawks in the party a bone with a promise to balance the federal budget in 10 years.
In today’s political climate, Enoch doesn’t see that as a vote-getter, either.
“All you do with commitments like that is paint yourself into a corner,” says Enoch. “We don’t know when this pandemic is going to be over, and what might be coming down the pipe in the future. We know climate change is going to be very expensive, we’re going to face multiple natural disasters on all sorts of fronts.”
Far-right advocacy groups such as the Fraser Institute and Canadian Federation of Independent Business are trying to raise alarm about the debt and deficit too, says Smith.
“Nobody is thinking about that now,” says Smith. “Canadians are more interested in the vaccine rollout and what the post-Covid build back is going to be.
“The Conservatives’ answer is they’re going to balance the budget and start cutting, and I’m not sure that’s the message Canadians want to hear,” says Smith. “Whereas the Liberals and NDP can rightfully say they’re going to use the state to build back more equitably.”
Exhibit A for the poverty of the austerity mindset is Texas. After a weather-related power disruption in 2011, the state was advised to winterize its grid. Republicans refused to act, and when an even fiercer week-long cold snap hit in February the state collapsed — unable to provide power and water to over 4.5 million homes and businesses, resulting in 111 deaths and an estimated $130 billion in property damage and lost economic activity.
“I really think the future is not going to be kind to conservative policies,” says Enoch. “It’s going to require a much more robust state, and a more egalitarian sharing and distribution of wealth.
“Conservatives are still trying to make the same old arguments,” he says. “But as the realities on the ground continue to unfold, they are going to look completely anachronistic because of the challenges we face and the amount of change that’s going to come upon us.”
On March 25, the Supreme Court ruled six to three that the federal carbon tax was constitutional under Ottawa’s Peace, Order and Good Government power.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Richard Wagner said: “[POGG] applies when there is a ‘provincial inability to deal with the matter’ and where the ‘failure of one or more provinces to co-operate would prevent the other provinces from successfully addressing it.’”
When it comes to climate change, says Mark Bigland-Pritchard of Climate Justice Saskatoon, that describes Saskatchewan and Alberta to a tee.
“We have this ridiculous situation where two provinces with 15 per cent of the population are responsible for 48 per cent of Canada’s emissions,” says Bigland-Pritchard. “Meanwhile, we’ve seen emission reductions in most other provinces.”
The legal challenge cost Saskatchewan over $2 million. And judging by premier Scott Moe’s surly response to the ruling, more legal battles lie ahead.
Rather than remain under the federal plan, Moe said Saskatchewan would implement its own climate plan. The province has that right, but it must meet federal standards.
Early indications are that the plan won’t. Rather than everyone getting a rebate at tax time, Moe wants to give motorists a rebate at the pumps. There’s also some sleight-of-hand on carbon offsets and heavy emitters, and a hail Mary shout-out to small nuclear reactors.
“Scott Moe’s proposal for what to do now that Saskatchewan has lost the court case is feeble. It shows no commitment whatsoever,” says Bigland-Pritchard.
That’s the verdict Ottawa will likely deliver too. New Brunswick did get sign off on a similar plan in 2019, but per capita, its GHG emissions are one-quarter of Saskatchewan’s (18.7 tonnes versus 67.7 tonnes).
Plus, international pressure is growing on Canada to meet its commitments.
“I think Canada could be seriously embarrassed at COP26 this November if it doesn’t follow through on a much tougher climate policy,” says Bigland-Pritchard. “Trudeau is pretty savvy about that, so I’m sure he will want to take action.”
The U.S. seems poised for a major push on climate change, so that helps Ottawa. And now, there’s the Supreme Court decision.
“I’m not a lawyer,” says Bigland-Pritchard. “But I think there are clauses in the judgment that could be used to address a so-called climate plan that essentially sabotages the real climate plan.” /Gregory Beatty