Climate change and the personal sacrifice debate on the campaign trail

Politicians like to deliver “goodies” during campaigns, not lectures about how voters need to change their lives. What are we willing to hear from the parties, and what are we not?

Rhetoric, few specifics and some drastic suggestions

Several hundred students gather on Parliament Hill in Ottawa as they protest climate change last March. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

There's a political gamble involved in climate change promises. 

As the country gears up for the federal election, all the major parties are offering a vision for how they would deal with Canada's climate concerns. These plans vary in goal, process and degrees of specificity, yet on the campaign trail they all need to be sold to the public. 

It could be a tough sell. 

"It's one of the important things about this election," said George Hoberg at the University of British Columbia's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. He specializes in environmental and natural resource policy.

"Canadians are confronting the stark choices about what kind of contribution they want to make to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Hoberg said.

The party platforms require some form of sacrifice from all of us — whether as businesses or as individuals. How much and what kind of  sacrifice is a matter of debate scientifically and politically. 

"We have seen the polarization of climate [change] occurring throughout the world," said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University.

"There was a time where there was a consensus on this and now it is largely split. We see it dramatically in the United States, we're seeing it in Canada as well," said Bratt.

The language, the rhetoric and substance of each party's climate action plan will have been cautiously nuanced and aligned to overall party values and core voters. But it also will have to take into account the public's tolerance for self-sacrifice so as not to alienate potential voters.

During election campaigns, people are perhaps more accustomed to being told what they will get from a party, not what they will have to give up. 

It is more difficult for political parties to suggest substantive personal sacrifices to tackle CO2 emissions.

"The thing is with science, it is apolitical," said Seth Wynes, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. Wynes researches the personal choices that have the highest impact on climate change.

"And so the science tells us that we need to make drastic changes in our society if we want to mitigate climate change," Wynes said.

Science may be apolitical, drastic solutions usually aren't.

What are we willing to do?

The Canadian discussion around climate change is often contextualized around taxes — carbon and otherwise. 

Writing about a recent poll commissioned by CBC News and conducted by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue, Éric Grenier said, "while nearly two-thirds of Canadians see fighting climate change as a top priority, half of those surveyed would not shell out more than $100 per year in taxes to prevent climate change, the equivalent of less than $9 a month."

That's about paying more, but then there's also the question of what you'd give up. 

Seth Wynes says switching to energy efficient light bulbs, recycling and eliminating plastic bags isn't going to cut it. His suggestions: fly less, have fewer kids, give up the car or go electric, and try a plant-based diet. Such recommendations are becoming more common discussion points in the global conversation around climate change. 

Seth Wynes, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia, has researched the 'big impact' actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint, including having fewer children and going car-free. (Submitted by Seth Wynes)

Hundreds of young Canadians have pledged not to have any kids until the government gets serious about tackling climate change. In Vancouver, some academics are trying to limit flying. And the United Nations is recommending people eat less meat

While these ideas may seem pretty "out there," and there is no consensus around the necessity of such recommendations, they are, and will continue to be, debated, challenged and scrutinized. But not likely on the campaign trail. 

"Sometimes those drastic changes might not seem palatable to politicians," Wynes said.

Who is suggesting what?

Let's take a look at what the parties are saying as gathered on our very own CBC News interactive on the party platforms:

The Liberals' controversial carbon tax remains the centrepiece of the party's climate change plan. The tax is currently $20/tonne of greenhouse gas emissions, or roughly 4.4 cents/litre of gasoline. It will climb $10/tonne every year until it reaches $50/tonne in 2022. And there will be rebates for many Canadians.

The Liberals also say they will phase out coal power by 2030, ban single use plastics by 2021, and end some fuel subsidies by 2025. 

The Conservatives promise to reduce carbon emissions by investing in green technology, funded in part by polluters who fail to meet new standards. But it's unclear which industry would be targeted or how much they would have to pay.

The New Democrats are in favour of continuing with a carbon tax and the rebate program. However, Leader Jagmeet Singh wants to crack down more on heavy emitters. 

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May supports the carbon tax. She says putting a price on carbon has been "one of the cornerstones of Green Party climate policy for many years." She feels the climate reduction target Canada agreed to is not sufficient and hopes to double it.

The Bloc Québécois is in favour of a carbon tax and is pushing for green equalization payments. They envision higher taxes for provinces with greater greenhouse gas emissions. 

The People's Party plans to get rid of the carbon tax and will allow provinces to voluntarily reduce emissions.

The merits of each of the above plans will be hotly contested — politically, socially and scientifically. Yet the core idea is there for each party: "something needs to be done, so we are going to do something." That something primarily involves taxes. 

In fairness, it's possible more specific details will come out during the campaign. But it's unlikely we'll see platforms recommending fewer children or less meat.

Even when it comes to carbon taxes, there are criticisms that the plans are weak on specific details.

Bold promises and reluctance

"This is what politicians tend to do," Hoberg said. 

To look at the two biggest parties, political pressure may be preventing either the Liberals or Conservatives from putting forward highly specific numbers that would meet Canada's Paris commitment. 

"They tend to put forward bold promises but are reluctant to commit themselves to significant actions that may cost constituencies that are very important to them and obviously to the Conservatives," he said.

When it comes to tackling climate change, the oft-touted goal is to meet our commitments under the Paris Agreement. Canada has pledged to an economy-wide target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. 

"None of the expert community that analyzes climate policies considers the Conservative plan a real plan," said Hoberg. 

"The Conservatives have a target but they don't have a plan that can plausibly meet that target," he said.

But, Hoberg says, while it's easier to measure the potential impact of the Liberal plan, that, too, will fall short of Canada's 2030 targets.

UBC professor George Hoberg, who specializes in environmental and natural resource policy, says climate change is an important election issue. (UBC website)

"Their plan is stronger and more coherent but also comes short of meeting their goal," he said.

The Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated the carbon tax will have to double from its projected 2022 rate to $102/tonne in order for Canada to meet its 2030 Paris Agreement target. Trying to sell numbers like that could cost votes.

"Climate policy has been extremely polarizing within the federal electoral environment," Hoberg said. 

While the Conservatives fear upsetting their base in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Liberals may be held back by opposition to the carbon tax in a number of provinces, including vote rich Ontario, where 121 seats are up for grabs. 

"It has been very politically challenging for him [Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau], especially given the opposition coming from Alberta and now from Ontario as well," said Hoberg.

According to poll aggregator, the Liberals have just 15 seats considered "safe" in Ontario and another 33 identified as "likely" wins. 

Hoberg recalls that in 2008, when former Liberal leader Stephane Dion introduced the Green Shift plan, it drew fire from then Conservative leader Stephen Harper — and likely cost the Liberals the election.

He says current Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has adopted "many of the same rhetorical tactics and political strategies" that Harper did.

Bratt agrees the debate hasn't changed much over the years.

"The Liberals are saying if you don't support the federal carbon tax, you're a climate change denier; and the Conservatives, on the other hand, say that the carbon tax has nothing to do with the climate, it's simply a tax grab," he said.

This is the debate over a carbon tax, no less a debate over the idea of giving up vacations that require airplanes, watermelon in February, or that third child.

We're not ready

"The public isn't prepared for that kind of discussion," said David Taras, a professor of communication studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University. 

"The public doesn't have ears yet to listen to this, and the parties could look foolish, extreme, bizarre and marginal."

"Those are the dangers, that you're just so out of kilter with public expectations that you're ridiculed," said Taras. 

Taras says politicians like to deliver "goodies" during campaigns, not lectures about how voters need to change their lives.

"To have a serious discussion about climate change is not handing out goodies. It's, in fact, a change in lifestyle and getting people to make sacrifices. That's a whole different order of magnitude, and it's dangerous waters for politicians," he said.

The survey mentioned in this story was commissioned by CBC News and conducted by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue. It was conducted between May 31 and June 10, 2019, interviewing 4,500 eligible voters. Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have registered to participate in the Maru Voice panel. The data have been weighted to reflect the demographic composition of Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Because the sample is based on those who initially self-selected for participation in the Maru Voice panel rather than a probability sample, no estimates of sampling error can be calculated. However, comparable samples of this size have a margin of error of +/- 1.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


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