It's the environment, stupid. Not just carbon taxes

D. Simon Jackson column

With week one in the bag, it seems fair to say that this is Canada's first environmental election.

Sure, the issue is sharing the spotlight with the usual suspects — health care, the economy, and leadership — but never before have green issues played such a dominant role in the punditry, the platforms and the policy debate.

So, with an emboldened Green party, an NDP roster stocked with environmentalists and a Liberal platform centred around its much promoted Green Shift, why are the Conservatives — the party widely panned within the environmental community for inaction on climate change — running away with the election, according to most polls?

There could be several reasons for this. For example, Jonathan Malloy, in an Ottawa Citizen editorial, suggested that the small 'g' green vote is notoriously fickle. Others, including the Globe and Mail's Toronto columnist, John Barber, blame it on vote splitting of the so-called progressive parties on the left.

All of these reasons certainly are valid, but I'd add another potential contributing factor to the mix: lost somewhere in the great carbon tax/cap-and-trade debate of election '08 is the fact that the environment is about more than just greenhouse gas emissions.

While the meteoric rise of the environment in the public conscience can be generally traced to Al Gore's blockbuster documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Canadians for the most part appear to see the issue as more complex than simply global warming.

A real to-do list

No one is suggesting that climate change — and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, possibly by pricing carbon — is not a critical issue that should be debated in a high profile setting.

But many small 'g' green voters that I have been speaking with across the country concur that when they think of the environment, they think equally of land conservation, endangered species protection, pollution reduction, managing harmful chemicals, and water sustainability.

Moreover, forgotten in the haze of the carbon pricing debate is the fact that other issues — land conservation, endangered species protection, water sustainability among them — are, in reality, key factors in reducing overall emissions and often more easily achievable.

Harper's real record

The environmental record of Stephen Harper's Conservative government is often given a failing grade by environmentalists and the public when asked which party is the best equipped to manage the environment.

Yet during the Harper government's two-and-a-half-year term in office, air pollution regulations were introduced, plans were created to manage chemicals harmful to the environment and massive swaths of the Canadian wilderness were protected — more than any government since Brian Mulroney was prime minister.

When the Conservatives expanded Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories, one columnist wrote, "A Stephen Harper government is going dark green on files ignored since Liberal icon Pierre Trudeau was a rookie prime minister. No wonder environmentalists are calling (the) developments 'mind-boggling.'"

Even the highly controversial seal hunt, according to Barbara Cartwright of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is more likely to end under Conservative rule, than Liberal.

"Under the Conservatives, the seal hunt almost grinds to a halt, but with the Liberals it gets ramped up," she told me, adding: "Conservatives have traditionally been better on the environment than Liberals."

Then there is the tar sands

Assuming that this is in fact the case — Tory blue Brian Mulroney was, after all, selected by Corporate Knights magazine as the greenest prime minister in our nation's history — could it be that the green vote is alive and well and supporting the best party to handle the environment in this election?

"Absolutely not. The tarsands alone knock this Conservative government out of the running of best environmental stewards," says Cartwright.

But …

"The reality is none of the major parties are strong on the environment."

With more and more political parties designing policy and platforms around polling, it might be possible that in a rush to out-green each other on the global warming file, the established political parties of the left have lost sight of the forest for the trees.

In so doing, they may have also lost the ability to fire up the small 'g' green base.

A federal Liberal strategist I know, who asked not to be named, agrees.

"Just because the environment rose to prominence after Inconvenient Truth, doesn't mean every environmental policy should be carbon-related," he argues.

"The reality is, the environment has always been championed by young people and many young professionals think carbon policy is no longer ground-breaking on its own, without addressing other environmental issues.

"It's like bragging to your neighbour about buying a colour TV, when your neighbour has been enjoying a plasma TV for months."

We young'uns

And what about we idealistic young people, the supposed champions of all things green? My sense is that today's young people almost embrace a post-partisan pragmatism.

Justin McElroy, a young environmental advocate and editor of the University of British Columbia's student newspaper, Ubyssey, drove this point home recently, stating, "The majority of today's young people have moved on (from Kyoto), yet the Liberals are stuck in 2005, environmental groups are stuck in 1995, and the Conservatives are stuck in 1985.

"Sure, we're idealistic, but we also want real solutions to environmental problems that recognize the market economy and, as a result, we don't support one party blindly."

So when the National Post's Don Martin exclaims in his Saturday column that it was a lonely week for the Liberals, "not even the tree huggers turn out for Dion events," it may have less to do with the collapse of the small 'g' green vote and more to do with a lack of a comprehensive environmental policy that truly excites environmentalists, young people, and mainstream Canadians who want their environmental policy to include clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and their natural inheritance conserved.

Alas, Canada's 40th election, I suppose, is not the environmental election I was hoping for but simply the carbon election of 2008. For most of us small 'g' green voters, an important issue has been twisted for partisan gain and has drowned out a much larger agenda that Canadians deserve to see debated.