Defending Canada’s climate change policy

The minivan pulls into the Victoria College driveway in Toronto and parks beside a Dumpster.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna doesn’t emerge. “She’s still working on her speech,” an aide explains.

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.

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.

Inside the Victoria College building, McKenna’s interlocutors are waiting.

I’m sandwiched between a Globe and Mail columnist and my Toronto Star colleague Heather Mallick.

Eventually, the Globe chap finishes. I’m ushered into a room. 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 “unmodelled,” 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 canape. The sun is shining. I walk to the subway.

Thomas Walkom is a Torstar Syndication Services columnist.

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