Flames of blame: how climate change could upset the race to lead the Conservative Party

Australia's Liberal Party - the country's conservative party - is famous for opposing climate action. But now it's mired in a finger-pointing fight over climate change and bushfires. A former PM is leading the charge. Could a similar debate shake up the race to lead Canada's Conservative Party? Could weather events make that happen?

The knives are out among Australia’s conservatives as years of climate complacency go up in smoke

NSW Rural Fire Service crews fight the Gospers Mountain Fire at Bilpin, Australia, Dec. 21, 2019. The decade that just ended was by far the hottest ever measured on Earth, capped off by the second-warmest year on record, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP Images via Associated Press)

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's tone was measured. But his words were as blistering as an Australian bushfire as he denounced his successor as leader of Australia's main right-centre political party, confusingly named the Liberals.

He "could not explain" why Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to meet with experts or take the bushfire threat seriously, despite warnings from scientists. "It's just not consistent with the way in which a prime minister would or should act in a national crisis like this."

"How many more coral reefs have to be bleached? How many more million hectares of forest have to be burned? How many more lives and homes have to be lost before the climate change deniers acknowledge they are wrong?" asked Turnbull.

Then he twisted the knife in his colleague —who has already been publicly shamed for taking a family vacation as Australia burned.

"Rather than doing what a leader should do," Turnbull said, Morrison "downplayed it and at times discounted the influence of climate change, which is just nonsense from a scientific point of view. So that's misleading people."

House on fire

"When your house is burning around you, that'll change your point of view in a hurry," said Marilyn Gladu, the only Canadian Conservative leadership candidate with a background in science (she's a chemical engineer). "We need to get a sense of urgency without waiting for the house to burn down."

Gladu said the leadership race should be an opportunity for the party to re-think its approach to the climate file.

"I think it needs to be a topic because it's clear that the policy that we brought on climate change didn't resonate with Canadians in the election," she said. "And so, if we're going to win the next election, we've got to come to Canadians with a credible offering."

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu arrives for a Conservative caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. She says the Conservatives' climate policy "didn't resonate" with Canadians in the last election. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Gladu said the Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer presented policies that left Canadians wondering "how is that going to reduce the footprint? And how much is it going to reduce it by?

"People want to see a chart that says, 'Here are the Paris targets, and here are the different contributors that we will eliminate in order to achieve that target.' That's really what we need to do in order to have a credible plan."

Scheer failed to explain during the campaign how a government led by him would meet Canada's Paris targets — and wasn't even able to say what Canada's Paris target is when asked for the number directly at a campaign stop in Quebec that was dedicated to climate policy.

That allowed the Liberals to pose as the champions of climate action, although their own plan also falls short of the Paris target — which itself falls short of what scientists say is needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Ready for change?

The Conservatives have seen consensus positions in the party on some issues change rapidly. 

When leadership candidate Richard Décarie called homosexuality a "choice" on Wednesday, it quickly became clear that opinion was no longer an accepted part of the CPC consensus.

From a stance opposing gay marriage — a position once shared by all federal parties — they have moved to acceptance. After the election loss, it was that issue that finally led to the undoing of Andrew Scheer as leader after two party stalwarts called him out for his unwillingness to attend Pride parades, in an op-ed article they wrote for the Globe and Mail. 

Jamie Ellerton, who's served the party in various roles including as "wagonmaster" of the 2019 Scheer campaign, was one of the authors of that Globe article. He said that the party might find a change of course on climate more difficult than its shift on LGBTQ rights.

"The party at its core continues to be opposed to any new tax, and I think the carbon tax is going to continue to be very unpopular," he said. "What you saw in Ontario was that this was an issue that Patrick Brown wanted to run on, and the party quickly one-eightied [turned around] in the leadership race that replaced him."

Carbon levy 'dead in the water'

Patrick Brown's experience backing a revenue-neutral carbon tax was similar to that of federal Conservative MP Michael Chong, who placed fifth in the 2017 leadership race.

Chong described his proposal for a carbon tax, offset by a large cut to income taxes, as a "credible, market-based, conservative solution to reduce emissions." Some small-c conservative economists agree with him. But to the party's rank-and-file, any proposal that included the word "tax" likely remains anathema, said Ellerton, who shares that view.

"Carbon taxes themselves are probably dead in the water, but electability is going to be a huge part of the conversation as to who the next party leader will be," he said. "And it's clear that Canadians are looking for some kind of action and policy from their government."

Ellerton said the signs of a changing climate are becoming more visible to people, citing the frequent overspilling of the Don River in his own hometown of Toronto.

"This is an issue that Canadians are increasingly concerned about," he said. "This is an issue that came up a lot for Conservatives at the door, that didn't pass muster to earn the confidence and a mandate from Canadians."

Oilpatch politics

One dilemma the party faces is that the last two elections have seen a marked westernization of its caucus and its base. It now draws a disproportionate number of votes from Alberta and Saskatchewan, a region of the country that is an outlier in terms of attitudes to climate change — and where more livelihoods depend on the oil and gas industry than in other parts of Canada.

During the federal election campaign, some reporters travelling with Andrew Scheer noticed a difference in tone when he spoke about energy and climate in the Prairie provinces, compared to other parts of Canada.

Andrew Scheer rolls out the Conservative environment platform in Chelsea, Que., on Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In his public appearances in Ontario or Quebec he sometimes spoke about climate change as at least a problem to be managed. Over the course of two days visiting Edmonton and Regina, Scheer denounced the carbon tax and environmental activists, while never uttering the words "environment", "climate" or "emissions" except in response to media questions.

In the 2020 leadership contest, however, so far the party's main candidates are from Ontario and points East, and the rules are designed to avoid giving weight to the Western vote. 

At the start of the 2019 campaign, the Conservatives were still unsure of the threat they faced from Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada. In 2020, that question has been answered, and a new leader who feels less threatened from the right might feel safer moving towards the centre on climate policy.

But such a move might lead to tensions in Alberta, where the provincial government has invested millions in a "war room"-style Canadian Energy Centre — panned as a "Twitter troll farm" by the NDP opposition. (CBC News contacted the CEC for this story but the organization did not choose to comment.)

'We know permafrost is melting'

"Does the party want to win in 2019?" Michael Chong asked in 2017. "I think it does. If Conservatives don't have a credible policy on emissions, a credible policy on climate change, we cannot win the 2019 election."

No current CPC leadership candidate is proposing the party flip on carbon taxes, but like all politicians — like their counterparts in Australia — they remain at the mercy of events. The Conservative Party leadership vote on June 27 comes at the height of wildfire season.

Activists rally for climate action at Sydney Town Hall on January 10, 2020 in response to the ongoing bushfire crisis in Australia. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Gladu said it's getting increasingly difficult to deny the evidence of climate change, although she acknowledges that some in the party might still like to try.

"There are still those who may not appreciate the climate change situation that we have in the world," she said. "But we should be seeing a change in opinion because we're seeing an increase of floods, of wildfires, a lot of extreme weather events. We know the permafrost is melting, we know the ocean's pH is rising.

"Certainly, as we see these undeniable facts come forward, people's views will evolve."

Meanwhile, there's movement at the provincial level — where some Conservatives who had boldly united to fight carbon taxes before the election muted their opposition afterwards.

"People voted for it, so we in New Brunswick have to find a way to make it work," said Premier Blaine Higgs as he somewhat sheepishly announced his resignation from "The Resistance."

In Australia, while the federal government resists even setting a target for after 2030, all six states have already committed to net zero emissions by 2050.

Fires and floods have a way of focusing minds —even changing them. In 2018, Malcolm Turnbull announced that his government would not, despite promises, put an emissions target into legislation.

Who would have thought then that, 18 months later, the former PM would be calling for a "Green New Deal"?

"The wicked self-destructive idiocy of climate denialism must stop …. Above all, we have to urgently stop burning coal and other fossil fuels."


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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