Politics·Analysis

Trudeau's crisis calendar is overflowing - could climate change get pushed to the margins?

Everything seems to be happening at once for the Trudeau government: coronavirus, the Teck mine, rail blockades. But the climate emergency remains the biggest threat facing the nation and the planet - and the government's attention is being spread thin.

The government's ability to manage multiple emergencies is being sorely tested

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened 11 meetings of the government's "incident response group" in just the first eight weeks of the year. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Rising in the House of Commons one night this past week, Elizabeth May sought to focus the conversation on the great crisis of the moment.

"This is a very important debate and, even at this late hour, I do want to discuss the emergency," the Green Party MP said.

Officially, the topic of the emergency debate was the withdrawal of the proposal to build the Teck Frontier oilsands mine in Alberta. But that wasn't what May wanted to talk about.

"Of course, I do not speak of this non-emergency that is the focus of tonight's debate," she said. "I speak of the real emergency."

She wasn't talking about the Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs or the blockades snarling Canada's railways. She also wasn't talking about the coronavirus. And when she spoke, it was too early for her to be worried about crashing global stock markets or the potential for armed conflict between Russia and Turkey.

Canada's crisis season

Instead, she reminded the House that, eight months earlier, it had declared a "climate emergency." And she read from a recent letter addressed to Justin Trudeau from a group of Nobel prize winners.

"The response to the climate crisis will define and destroy legacies in the coming years," they wrote.

Whatever her struggles as a party leader, May has served as the tireless voice of climate anxiety, forever tapping her fellow federal politicians on the shoulder.

But, in a season of crises, the climate crisis remains the largest and heaviest challenge — the enduring emergency that won't be solved in a matter of days, weeks, months or even years.

It might also be where, above all else, Trudeau most needs to make and show progress now.

The climate crisis was supposed to be what this government and this Parliament would be about. It was the issue that seemed, finally, to rise to the forefront of public concern in the latter half of 2019. And it was the biggest issue around which the Liberal minority government might find common cause with Bloc Québécois, NDP and Green MPs.

Since then, significant events have intervened.

A pedestrian wears a protective mask as she walks in the winter weather downtown in Toronto on Wednesday, February 26, 2020. The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19 is expected to turn into a global pandemic. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

First, there was the escalation of hostilities between the United States and Iran and the shooting down of PS752 by Iranian forces. Then came the coronavirus outbreak in China, a rush to evacuate Canadian citizens and the need to deal with the disease's inevitable arrival in Canada. And then the dispute over the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia led to rail blockades in Ontario and Quebec.

In the first eight weeks of the year, Trudeau has convened 11 meetings of the government's "incident response group" — the internal body that coordinates government action on urgent matters.

Of the three unforeseen crises of 2020, the blockades have seen the Trudeau government struggle the most to offer a response. The Conservatives have ridiculed him repeatedly as "weak." In a poll by the Angus Reid Institute this week, 70 per cent of respondents said Trudeau was doing a "bad job" dealing with the dispute, compared to just 21 per cent who said he was doing a "good job."

The average citizen tends to object to anything that resembles discord or conflict, and likely just wants the government to resolve the situation in short order. By choosing neither to order an immediate police crackdown nor to capitulate to the protesters' demands, Trudeau also has failed to satisfy those who feel most strongly about the dispute.

Protesters in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs who oppose the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline project block rail lines in Toronto on Feb. 25, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Trudeau can only hope that the talks currently underway in British Columbia produce a durable resolution — and that Canadians are more charitable when they look back a year or two from now at his handling of both this crisis and the larger issue of Indigenous-Crown reconciliation.

But as these events have unfolded for Canada, the larger forces of the climate crisis have continued to push and pull on a global scale.

BlackRock, the American investment firm that manages more than $7 trillion in assets, announced in January that it would be emphasizing climate change in its future decisions. Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of Canada, took up his new post as the UN's special envoy for climate action and finance in February, with a focus on better incorporating climate risk into financial decision-making. Last week, economists at JP Morgan, the largest bank in the United States, sent a report to clients that warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.

For years, climate change seemed to suffer politically from a lack of any real sense of urgency. But now the pressure is coming not only from environmental activists, scientists and progressive politicians, but from markets and corporations.

In this file photo from Jan. 22, 2020, supporters and opponents of an oilsands mine proposed by Teck Resources rally outside the Calgary company's offices. (Julie Prejet/Radio-Canada)

In explaining the decision to walk away from the Frontier oilsands project this week, Teck Resources chief executive Don Lindsay said that "global capital markets are changing rapidly and investors and customers are increasingly looking for jurisdictions to have a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change, in order to produce the cleanest possible products."

That is both an invitation for politicians to get on with the discussion about climate policy in Canada and cover for them to act — not that they should need it at this point.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has suggested the spring budget could be focused on climate change and that could mean following through on a number of campaign commitments: new loans for home retrofits, rebates for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles, new funding for clean energy, a plan to plant two billion trees over the next 10 years.

But the Liberals also have promised significant new pieces of a broader climate agenda: new legislation that would hold the federal government accountable for meeting a series of emissions targets, a "Just Transition Act" to help displaced energy workers, new flood maps and a low-cost flood insurance program.

Trudeau's Liberals are committed to not only exceeding the current target for emissions reductions by 2030, but also to building a plan for getting the country to net-zero emissions by 2050.

That's a lot to do in what could end up being a two or three-year term. And the government has not demonstrated much momentum since last fall's election.

The climate crisis also is likely to play a significant part in how Trudeau is judged at the next federal election.

The crises of the first two months of 2020 are significant, both practically and politically. And leaders are always judged on how they handle the unexpected.

But governments also need to show progress, provide direction and lay out a credible vision. Whenever the next election comes, climate change will be a significant factor in how Canadians judge Trudeau's performance — what he has done and how he has set up Canada for the future. Canadians might wish he'd done something to more quickly resolve the Wet'suwet'en protests, but his re-election is still more likely to depend on how he has dealt with climate change and its related concerns.

Any number of unforeseen events will intervene between now and then. Crises come and go. But the climate crisis is not going away.

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