Trudeau’s action on climate change is falling short of success

At first glance, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals seem well-placed to fight an election centred on climate change.

Unlike their Conservative rivals, they’ve long had a plan for attacking global warming.

More to the point perhaps, weather-related disasters — such as the current flooding in New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec — have made climate change top of mind for many voters.

If global warming itself is the ballot box question in October’s federal election, the Liberals — in theory, at least — should be able to finesse any voter unhappiness with Trudeau’s government.

But reality has a bad habit of interfering with theoretical success stories. And there are three elements of that reality that promise to give the Liberals trouble.

The first is that their climate-change plan does not fully address global warming. It is based on Ottawa’s promise to meet Canada’s self-imposed target of carbon reduction as set out in the 2015 Paris accord.

But the accord itself was always flawed. The global emission-reduction targets agreed to in Paris are, according to United Nations scientists, insufficient to significantly reduce global warming.

As well, many countries (including Canada) are not on track to meet those targets.

Moreover, U.S. President Donald Trump has effectively withdrawn his country — a major emitter — from the pact.

In short, it’s not clear that the Paris accord is going anywhere.

The second element is that Ottawa’s carbon tax, its main tool for dealing with climate change, has proven remarkably unpopular.

I say remarkably because the tax itself has not been onerous. Its effect on gasoline prices, for instance, has been less than that resulting from the usual ups and downs in the petroleum market.

Moreover, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office, the federal government has kept its word and rebated virtually all of the revenue raised by this levy on gasoline and heating fuel to individuals via the income-tax system.

Why the resistance then? In part, it reflects the usual human hypocrisy. We all decry climate change, but are reluctant to pay anything to fight it.

But in part, it reflects a feeling among many that the entire exercise is useless. The tax itself is too small to alter consumer behaviour.

Auto sales data show that Canadians overwhelmingly prefer SUVs and pickup trucks to lower-emission sedans. The carbon tax is unlikely to change that.

And even if the carbon tax did reduce emissions significantly, the effect on global warming would be minimal. Canadians produce a high level of carbon emissions per capita. But because Canada is a small-population country, it produces less than two per cent of global greenhouse gases overall.

Finally and ironically, the fact that climate change has become more visible has shifted the focus of politicians away from the cause of global warming.

They are zeroing in on the immediate effects of climate change instead — and on ways to mitigate them.

“We’re going to have to help Canadians adapt to the new reality,” Trudeau said this week, referring to the flooding in three provinces.

He was right. But as government concentrates its attention on short-term needs by encouraging homeowners to, say, waterproof their basements, or by moving people out of flood plains altogether, it changes the focus away from the long-term causes of extreme weather.

If October’s election is a referendum on who can best contribute to the global battle against climate change, Trudeau’s Liberals still have the edge on Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.

If, however, it turns out to be a referendum on who can best help Canadians adapt to the new reality posed by climate change, that edge disappears.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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