Obama's climate-change talk stands in stark contrast to Canada's main party leaders

An international summit on Arctic issues that seems designed to burnish the green legacy of U.S. President Barack Obama is highlighting the near absence of climate debate so far in Canada's federal election.

U.S.-led Arctic issues conference highlights absence of election climate debate

U.S. President Barack Obama's Alaska trip and tough talk on climate change stands in stark contrast to the Canadian election campaign, where the topic has largely been avoided thus far. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

An international summit on Arctic issues that seems designed to burnish the green legacy of U.S. President Barack Obama is highlighting the near absence of climate debate so far in Canada's federal election.

Foreign ministers from eight countries met Monday in Anchorage, Alaska, at the invitation of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, where they discussed "challenges and opportunities" related to climate change in the ecologically and geo-politically sensitive region.

Canada, with the world's longest Arctic coastline, had an official delegation in Anchorage headed by a senior civil servant rather than Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson.

Nicholson's absence was "due to the ongoing federal election," according to departmental spokeswoman Diana Khaddaj — an apparent nod to the "caretaker convention" that discourages all but the most routine and uncontroversial ministerial actions during the election period when Parliament is dissolved.

In his closing statement at the Alaska summit, Kerry made a passing reference to Canada's absent foreign minister.

"The bottom line is that climate is not a distant threat for our children and their children to worry about … It is happening now," said Kerry.

"And I think anybody running for any high office in any nation in the world should come to Alaska or to any other place where it is happening and inform themselves about this. It is a seismic challenge that is affecting millions of people today."

Nary a peep about environmental policy

Canada's two main opposition parties have been railing against the environmental policy record of Stephen Harper's governing Conservatives for almost a decade but the Alaska summit in Canada's northern backyard raised nary a peep from the various campaigns.

In fact, climate change as been largely absent from the election dialogue to date.

The New Democratic Party has yet to release its carbon policy — although Leader Tom Mulcair, a former Liberal Quebec environment minister claimed the NDP leadership in 2012 with a detailed cap-and-trade plan.

The tallest mountain in North America has been renamed Denali instead of Mount McKinley, Obama announced this week. The Alaskan mountain is roughly 6,194 metres high. (Becky Bohrer/Associated Press)

The NDP's biggest environmental splash so far in the campaign came when high-profile Toronto candidate Linda McQuaig stated "a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground," if Canada is to meet its international climate commitments. Under withering criticism, Mulcair reiterated his party's belief in "sustainable" development of the oil sands.

The Liberals linked some of their deficit-financed $60-billion infrastructure pledge to green projects, and have promised to work with provinces to co-ordinate some kind of price on carbon.

The Conservatives announced in May that Canada will attend a UN climate conference in Paris this December with a commitment to cut emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — but have presented no national plan on how Canada will achieve the target.

Canada's silence on this issue is not new.- Louise Comeau, Climate Action Network Canada

"I think the party leaders are afraid to really get into the nub of the matter, which is that we've got to confront our energy system and the approach we've been taking," Louise Comeau of the Climate Action Network Canada said in an interview, calling it "a fundamental state of denial we are in as a country."

"Canada's silence on this issue is not new," added Comeau, noting Canada was the chair of the Arctic Council for the past two years where it pushed a northern development agenda "and actually ensured climate change wasn't discussed."

A spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq strongly disputed Comeau's characterization.

"Thanks to our actions we saw the development of a portal to help communities adapt to climate change and the development and signing of a landmark agreement to enhance reductions of black carbon and methane in the Arctic," Ted Laking said in an email.

Greenpeace Canada energy campaigner Keith Stewart had a more positive take on the absence of climate clamour so far on the campaign trail.

Stewart argues climate change is becoming baked into economic and infrastructure assumptions and no longer is consigned to a separate policy silo.

"The Linda McQuaig incident proved that it is still considered heresy to suggest that we aren't going to extract every last drop from the tar sands, but the question is becoming harder to ignore," Stewart said in an email.

"Our political leaders need to stop fearing the wrath of the oil industry and speak out on the benefits for Canada of being a leader in the new green energy economy that will solve the climate crisis."

One party that has made the environment central to its campaign is the Green Party. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May's 2015 platform includes a range of initiatives on climate change, including a $1-billion fund to accelerate the development of green technology and a rapid phase-out of coal-fired generation plants in Canada.

Obama to walk on melting glacier

Obama's trip to Alaska, more about powerful visuals than words, is expected to peak Tuesday when Obama flies by helicopter to Seward to hike the famed Exit Glacier, a sprawling expanse of ice in Kenai Fjords National Park that's liquefying under warmer temperatures.

Some 1,800 square kilometres in the Kenai Mountains are blanketed by glacier ice, remnants of the Ice Age,
when roughly a third of the Earth was covered with sheets of ice. One of nearly 40 glaciers springing out from Harding Icefield, Exit Glacier has been receding for decades at an alarming rate of 13 metres a year, according to the U.S. National Park Service.


  • An earlier version of this story was headlined: "Obama's climate-change talk stands in stark contrast to Canadian party leaders." The headline has been amended to specify that Obama is in contrast with Canada’s main party leaders, not all Canadian leaders. The story also now includes a paragraph about the Green Party and its climate change stance.
    Sep 28, 2015 10:23 AM ET