The Conservatives' climate change conundrum: Don Pittis

After a campaign rejecting climate change politics, can the Conservatives create a policy to satisfy their base and a growing external climate consensus?

Tories facing the difficult task of building a voter-friendly plan to cut greenhouse gases

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is shown during the recent election campaign, where promoting carbon-producing industries was a selling point in oil country, but likely did not click with many voters elsewhere. (Emilio Avalos/Radio-Canada)

Much has been made of the difficulty facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he tries to manage a fractured country with a minority Liberal government. 

But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer himself is facing a burden so onerous it seems almost impossible.

The Herculean task for Scheer — or any successor — is how to formulate a climate change plan that is friendly to the party's base, but also convinces voters across Canada it will actually be effective.

The essence of the problem — and its difficulty — were framed by points of view expressed on CBC's live election night extravaganza.

"This should be the last election that any party in this country believes it can win without having a serious plan for climate change," said Chantal Hébert, a well-known political columnist and a regular on The National's At Issue panel.

What Hébert was addressing was a strong feeling in areas outside the country's oil-producing regions that climate change is a make-or-break issue for any party hoping to form government. It also reflects the view that Scheer's climate plan, such as it was, had little chance of moving the needle toward Canada's international commitments.

Following Monday's vote, it is easy for pundits to declare "this or that" was the issue that decided the election. It is seldom so simple.

No longer a fringe issue

Hébert's historical view was more convincing, harking back to the time when Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion ran on the promise of a carbon tax and was soundly defeated by the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives.

Since that 2008 election, climate change has grown from being a concern of the environmentalist fringe, to one of both national and global importance.

"If the issue was bigger this year than a decade ago, when Dion lost, it will be larger in the next election," Hébert told host Rosemary Barton.

But the stunning difficulty of creating a Conservative plan to defeat climate change was revealed in comments made later that night from Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, a well-known progressive Alberta voice who, like most Albertans, supports expanding Canada's output of fossil fuels with the building of more pipelines.

An Edmonton man defaced a newly painted mural of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. ( Andreane Williams/CBC)

To the majority of voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan, it appears that the economics is clear: Attempts to control the growth of these provinces' fossil fuel outputs is an unreasonable attack on an industry crucial for their collective welfare.

The trouble is that increasing fossil fuel output without increasing Canada's carbon output, while possible, is not cheap or easy.

"Albertans are upset because after being the economic engine of this country for so long, we feel like our issues are ignored, and that we are being caricatured as people who don't believe in climate change," argued Nenshi.

There are still plenty of Albertans who refuse to accept the simplest principles of climate change, including the mayor of Medicine Hat, who recently insisted carbon dioxide is not pollution but rather one of life's building blocks.

But at least a few oilsands executives have repeatedly said they are willing to move toward a low-carbon future. And scientists and businesses across Alberta have schemes to cut carbon while creating local jobs.

Meanwhile, other conservative politicians across the country are taking the national vote as a signal to move ahead on climate change policy. New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative premier, Blaine Higgs, has announced he plans to create a provincial carbon tax that falls in line with Ottawa's requirements.

The difficulty for the federal Conservatives is partly one of their own making: By pointing fingers at Trudeau as the author of their misfortunes, and by provoking the party's right with anti-carbon pricing rhetoric, it becomes really hard to step back.

By almost all measures, carbon pricing, vilified as the carbon tax — charging consumers money for producing carbon, but giving it back so it can be spent on something else — is one of the easiest and most business-friendly ways of demonstrating you are taking baby steps away from climate change.

Caving in to dark forces

But for Scheer and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who have been campaigning so adamantly against carbon pricing, such a simple move would likely be seen by supporters as caving to dark forces.

"Don't give an inch" may have seemed like a brilliant plan before losing the election. But surely some Conservative political strategists must now be having regrets, thinking that by going even partway to creating a convincing climate plan, they might have reassured voters — and thus could've prevented the undecided from switching to Trudeau as "less bad" alternative.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Enmax CEO Giana Manes show off solar panels atop the roof of the Southland Leisure Centre in Calgary, part of a plan to reduce carbon costs. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Canada is full of smart business-minded people who could help the party change direction; climate strategy is one industry that has been fast-growing.

People like Mark Jaccard, a professor of sustainable energy at Simon Fraser University who helped the B.C. Liberals develop their climate plan, has plenty of ideas, including alternatives to carbon taxes — which he has said are politically inefficient.

If Hébert is indeed right, and climate change continues to grow in political importance in subsequent elections, future Conservatives will have an even heavier lift in order to show they have a plan to actually cut Canada's carbon output. 

And they have to start planning now.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.