Politics·Analysis

Whatever else happens, this Parliament looks set to be (mostly) about climate change

As the 44th Parliament since Confederation gets down to business this week, parts of British Columbia are still under water. The province has only just begun to recover from what could prove to be the most expensive disaster in Canadian history. Whatever else happens, climate change is going to be front and centre in Parliament.

With one big crisis starting to abate, MPs must now turn the focus back to the other one

Lloyd Allen helps clean up his friend's home after flooding in Princeton, B.C., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

As the 44th Parliament since Confederation gets down to business this week, parts of British Columbia are still under water. The province has only just started to recover from what could prove to be the most expensive disaster in Canadian history.

Torrential rains and flooding caused thousands to be evacuated. Major highways were blocked or washed out, farms were swamped and livestock lost, towns were left isolated, supply chains were snarled and motorists were asked to conserve gasoline. Four people are known to have died.

But it's just not the floods weighing on the opening days of this Parliament. Before the floods came this summer's heat dome and wildfires. The extreme heat killed nearly 600 people in B.C. between June 18 and August 12 — the deadliest weather event in Canadian history. On June 29, Lytton, B.C. registered the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. The next day, a wildfire consumed the entire town.

And before that heat wave came floods in Ontario and Quebec in 2019Eastern Canada's heat wave of 2018major floods in New Brunswick in 2018 and 2019, record-breaking wildfires in B.C. in 2017 and 2018 and the wildfire that roared through Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2016.

A helicopter battles a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Wednesday May 4, 2016. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The 43rd Parliament — which ran from December 2019 to this past August, when Justin Trudeau triggered a fall election — was consumed by the public health emergency that started a few months after it began. History will record the 43rd edition of the Parliament of Canada as the Pandemic Parliament.

The 44th Parliament could be about a lot of things, as most parliaments are. There are a great many things to do and debate. COVID-19 is still not done with us and the aftershocks will be felt for some time to come.

But this Parliament might be judged by how it met the other crisis unfolding before our eyes — by what it does to deal with the impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable, and to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that would make things even worse in the future.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau watch as Usher of the Black Rod Greg Peters leaves to summon members of the House of Commons for the throne speech in the Senate chamber on December 5, 2019 in Ottawa. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

It seems like ancient history now, but there was a throne speech in December 2019, a few weeks before reports surfaced of a mysterious illness affecting people in China. Julie Payette was still governor general. It was a slightly simpler time.

Climate change was at the centre of the agenda Payette presented on the government's behalf that day.

"Canada's children and grandchildren will judge this generation by its action — or inaction — on the defining challenge of the time: climate change," she said.

After ending the 2019 election with a minority government, Trudeau seized on climate change as an issue that united voters across parties: 63 per cent of voters had cast ballots for parties that supported putting a price on carbon emissions.

People attend a climate change protest in Montreal on Nov. 6, 2021. (The Canadian Press)

The pandemic did not entirely upend that agenda. A year after the throne speech, the Liberals laid out a new climate plan. This past April, they increased the ambition of Canada's national emissions target and then, in the waning days of the last Parliament, the Senate passed the government's new climate change accountability legislation.

But the case for acting is only more obvious now — to everyone. According to recent polling by Abacus Data, 66 per cent of Canadians say they believe governments should put "more emphasis" on reducing emissions — that's up ten percentage points since the spring of 2016.

And while many people complained that this fall's election was unnecessary or pointless, the Liberals ran on a climate, conservation and adaptation platform that included more than a hundred bullet points promising either to continue pursuing previous actions or to implement new ones.

The new ministers of environment and natural resources — Steven Guilbeault and Jonathan Wilkinson — already have asked the government's net-zero advisory panel for advice on how to implement a gradually declining cap on emissions from the oil and gas industry.

Guilbeault will soon have to present an updated plan to Parliament on meeting Canada's 2030 target to meet the conditions of the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (the deadline is December 29, though that could be extended by three months).

The official consultation on "just transition" legislation was launched this summer (a report on those consultations was originally due this fall, but the timeline has been extended). A task force on flood insurance and relocation — established to advise the government on two campaign promises from 2019 — is expected to issue its final report in the spring. The promise of a new disaster assistance benefit for those who can't work because of floods or fires also remains unfulfilled.

The Liberals say work with the provinces and territories to update flood mapping will be completed in the next three years and Canada's first national climate change "adaptation strategy" will be finalized by the end of 2022. All federal subsidies for fossil fuels are to be phased out by 2023.

A car is charged at a charge station for electric vehicles on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Liberals also have promised to implement a Clean Electricity Standard, a zero-emission vehicle mandate, new methane regulations and new climate-related financial disclosure rules for federally regulated institutions.

Inevitably, there will be other things to worry about. The Conservatives seem eager to argue that inflation is the most worrisome storm bearing down on Canada; some voters might be inclined to agree. From provincial capitals, the premiers will continue agitating for a long-term commitment to more federal funding for health care. The Liberals themselves will want or need to move forward on child care, reconciliation and reform of the Canadian Forces.

There will be new controversies and gaffes. Opposition-dominated committees will agitate for new investigations.


CBC News will have live coverage of Tuesday's Speech from the Throne delivered by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon. Here's how to follow:

  • CBC's Chief Political Correspondent Rosemary Barton will host a CBC News Live Special beginning at noon ET on CBC News Network and CBC Television. You can also stream it on CBC Gem or the CBC News app.
  • Susan Bonner and Chris Hall will host the CBC Radio One and CBC Listen special beginning at 1 p.m. ET.
  • CBCNews.ca will carry the events live and have regular news updates.

Only in the most extreme circumstances can Parliament be expected or even allowed to put aside all other business and focus exclusively on confronting a single threat — as it did for several months through the pandemic spring and summer of 2020.

But Parliament need not put aside any sense of urgency until the next pandemic. The next great challenge of our time is already here. It has been building for decades and it will not get any easier with time. For all the action that has been taken in recent years against it, there is still much more to do.

The damage and disruption wrought by the floodwaters in British Columbia offer both a reminder of the threat and a purpose for this Parliament.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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