Pandemic, not climate change, is the priority for now

‘We know climate change is sitting out there. It is not going farther away, it’s coming closer’

Climate change is not the most urgent issue facing Canadians at this moment, and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson can live with that — for now.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’re not at the end of it, and we’re probably going to be in this for some time,” Wilkinson said in an interview. “That has to be the government’s first priority.”

If Canada wasn’t sitting at the precipice of a second wave of COVID-19, Wilkinson’s climate-change plans would likely have been front and centre of the government’s agenda.

He is still busy working on those plans, he says, but all the talk of a “green recovery” — still a hot topic as recently as last month — was basically too much, too soon in the context of a pandemic.

All that green-recovery talk, says Wilkinson, “got a little bit ahead of the Canadian public in terms of where we were at.”

Being an environment minister is all about choosing your battles, even in non-pandemic times, and Wilkinson says nothing has changed or wavered in terms of his government’s commitment to meeting its climate-change goals.

Although the throne speech didn’t contain any immediate measures to lower the temperature of the planet, Wilkinson believes it’s possible to lower the temperature of the debate in Canada over climate change — even in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where antipathy to Justin Trudeau’s government runs high.

“I do believe that there are pathways to engage Alberta and Saskatchewan in a more constructive conversation around climate and how that can work for them from an economic perspective,” he says.

“While there’s certainly economic anxiety in those two provinces around the energy issue, I do think that there are opportunities for better conversation than perhaps we’ve been having.”

Wilkinson doesn’t spell out exactly how that will work, but this isn’t his first time at the centre of federal-provincial tension.

Long before he was a minister in Trudeau’s government, he worked in the government of Saskatchewan, as a special adviser to premier Roy Romanow during the intense days of constitutional negotiation in the 1990s.

This is actually where our paths crossed many years ago, when I was covering those talks as a reporter on that long-running national-unity drama.

That full immersion in federal-provincial tension has made Wilkinson a little skeptical about all these claims, revived by Conservatives, that Canada has “never been so divided.”

He remembers the 1992 Charlottetown accord, which he helped negotiate, as a pretty divisive and polarizing moment in the nation’s history.

“People who think that in Canada, there’s ever been a time where everybody’s happy, the provinces are always happy with the federal government and vice versa … I don’t remember any time like that,” he says.

What he does regret is how political debate since then has become even more binary, always reduced to either/or choices.

Action on climate change is a perfect example — always pitted against the resource industry as a binary choice.

Now, in 2020, it’s climate change versus the pandemic, as though government can’t “walk and chew gum at the same time,” as he puts it.

He does believe there are ways in which the pandemic may have made Canadians more acutely aware of their vulnerability to big global forces, and how their own behaviour and choices are connected to the overall health of the nation and planet.

I asked Wilkinson whether the government had learned anything during the pandemic about how to nudge the citizenry. Just as we are wearing masks and washing our hands in 2020, could another kind of individual citizen action take root — this time, to combat climate change — once the pandemic has passed?

Yes, Wilkinson said, though he didn’t get specific.

“There will be elements of the (climate-change) plan that will provide choice for Canadians about taking action in their own daily lives.”

While it might be a stretch to call that a silver lining to the pandemic, there is a way to see this crisis as a training ground for another one looming in the not-so-distant future.

Wilkinson doesn’t mince words when asked to compare COVID-19 to climate change in that respect.

“We know climate change is sitting out there. It is not going farther away, it’s coming closer,” he said, and without some action, “it will be far more significant than the effects that we’ve seen from COVID-19.”

But first we have to get through the pandemic.

Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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