Can B.C. lead on climate change without moving forward?
Critics say continued freeze of vaunted carbon tax marks a failure to lead on crucial issue
The NDP haven't held power in B.C. since 2001, but the governing Liberals still love to draw a 'bad old days' picture of their record at the slightest hint of any criticism of current policies.
When it comes to action on climate change though, Premier Christy Clark is mainly running against her predecessor, Gordon Campbell.
And judging by last week's bummer of a roll-out of her new Climate Leadership Plan, the differences are pretty stark.
Campbell set the province off on an ambitious path to lower greenhouse gas emissions with the help of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The celebrity actor and buttoned-down premier seemed unlikely co-stars for a real-life eco-buddy caper, but they promised to save the world, and the climate plan Campbell unveiled in 2008 contained all the dramatic language of the best Hollywood pitches: "The challenge we face is enormous but, with decisive action, it can be met."
Clark, by comparison, unveiled her long-awaited strategy in front of what looked like a science fair on a Friday afternoon in mid-August — as close as you can get to a media dead-zone without actually exchanging Christmas presents.
She started by rejecting the key recommendation of her own 'Climate Leadership Team': the government would not be increasing the carbon tax.
And a missive from Environment Minister Mary Polak, tucked into the end of the new 52-page plan, made it clear the heroic days of 2008 are long gone: the pathway "is not always clear"; "it is a complex issue"; "there is no silver bullet."
The reason, as always: the economy.
'It definitely makes me feel used and angry'
Not for the first time, Clark is walking a fine line between boasting of her government's accomplishments in building a Canada-leading balance sheet and warning that the slightest deviation from plan could lead to disaster.
There is, after all, an election looming. But is pitting the economy against the environment a winning strategy?
Environmental Studies professor Tzeporah Berman sat on the team tasked with advising the government on the new climate change plan. The former Greenpeace activist says she did so against her better judgement.
Berman faced criticism from friends and colleagues who claimed the Liberals wanted to 'greenwash' the process by using her name. But she says she decided everyone deserves "the benefit of the doubt."
She and the others spent six months coming up with recommendations specifically designed to balance economic and environmental sustainability. They suggested making the plan to raise the revenue-neutral carbon tax more palatable to the public by cutting the provincial sales tax from seven to six per cent.
Berman says she feels like she's been had.
"It definitely makes me feel used and angry," she says. "It was a waste of our time, it was a waste of taxpayers' dollars, and clearly they had no intention of implementing the plan, and they weren't operating in good faith."
'In my view, B.C. is seen as a leader'
Clark froze the carbon tax at $30 per tonne in 2012 after taking over the leadership from Campbell. The review panel's report says greenhouse gas emissions have been rising since then, making it "extremely difficult" for the province to reach its own targeted levels for reducing emissions.
The panel recommended increasing the tax by $10 a year starting in 2018.
As part of her rationale for continuing the freeze, Clark pointed out that B.C is still a leader when it comes to carbon pricing.
Alberta's carbon tax won't hit $30 a tonne until 2018. Ottawa has mused with the idea of introducing a federal carbon tax, but that move is strongly opposed by Ontario and Quebec, which each have their own cap and trade programs aimed at cutting greenhouse gas.
Clark's challenge to the rest of the country: first catch up, then maybe we can talk about increases.
LNG Alliance CEO David Keane also sat on the Climate Leadership Team. But he didn't sign off on the recommendation to raise the carbon tax.
He believes the final plan represents a "balanced approach" to a very tough issue.
"When you start talking about having to wait until other jurisdictions catch up, I think we have to look at that from a global perspective as well, so we're not talking about whether Alberta catches up or Quebec or Texas, it's where are we in terms of East Africa, Russia, Iran and other global jurisdictions in which we're competitors," he says.
"People are saying B.C. needs to be seen as a leader. In my view, B.C. is seen as a leader."
Climate change leadership or hot air?
Reaction to the plan has generally fallen along environment versus business fault lines.
Berman believes the issue could work against the Liberals at the polls.
Ironically, there's precedent to show betting against the carbon tax is bad politics; the NDP lost an election to Campbell in 2009 after running on an 'Axe the Tax' campaign.
"The polls show that British Columbians are proud of being climate leaders. We actually like the carbon tax," says Berman.
"The carbon tax worked. It reduced pollution. It created a stronger economy ... And it only stopped working when she froze it."
Clark, for all her skill at public relations, may have an uphill battle convincing voters she's interested in actually leading the charge on climate change — as opposed to just bragging about it.
- An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced a B.C. election in 2008. In fact, the election in question was in 2009.Aug 24, 2016 12:23 PM PT