Trudeau team looks to put new face on Canada's climate policy

The man who negotiated Canada's signature on the world's first climate agreement nearly 20 years ago says the new Trudeau government needs to quickly prove to the world it takes the climate issue seriously and will do things differently than the former government.

Approach to UN climate conference in Paris will include the province - but maybe not targets

Justin Trudeau, left, answers a question on emissions targets from protester Sam Quigley, centre, and Julianna Deholke, right, at a campaign event in August. Now, observers say, Trudeau and his advisers have the task of convincing the world Canada is serious about tackling climate change. (CBC)

The man who negotiated Canada's signature on the world's first climate agreement nearly 20 years ago says the new Trudeau government needs to quickly prove to the world it takes the climate issue seriously and will do things differently than the former government.

"Our government has been seen as kind of eccentric," said Paul Heinbecker, who led the Canadian delegation to the Kyoto climate change negotiations in 1997. "But the world realizes it was a bit of aberration for Canada."

Heinbecker was a career diplomat working for the governments of both Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney before becoming the permanent representative of Canada to the UN.

But Heinbecker says there aren't huge expectations that prime minister-designate Trudeau will show up at the UN climate change conference in Paris Nov. 30 with new targets and a new plan all ready to go. More than 190 countries will gather to finalize a new global climate treaty to control rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Heinbecker thinks if Trudeau just shows up with a different team and a different tone, it may be enough for now.

"People realize he was just elected, therefore they're going to cut him some slack — but not eternal slack," he said in an interview with CBC News.

Environment advisers

Heinbecker said among Trudeau's transition team and close advisers there are people who know a lot about the environment that could help to quickly set the new government's agenda for the crucial climate talks and beyond.

One example is Peter Harder, who has been helping to oversee the transition from Conservative to Liberal government. Harder is an experienced public servant and the former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs who was part of the team that negotiated Kyoto.

"His value is that he knows what needs to be done and what signals need to be sent," said Heinbecker.

"The people who are working with Trudeau have more experience with this than most people understand," said Louise Comeau, executive director of the environmental climate coalition Climate Action Network Canada.

"These folks care about the issue, understand the complexity of trying to respond to it and the international negotiating," she said in an interview with CBC News. "I haven't felt this hopeful in a long time."

Other close advisers with environmental experience include Mike McNair, who worked with former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, helping to write his "Green Shift" policy, and Gerald Butts, who is Trudeau's close friend and principal adviser.

Butts is the former CEO of the World Wildlife Fund-Canada and former principal secretary to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. Under McGuinty, he helped craft the province's green energy plan and move away from coal-fired electricity. He's expected to lead the Trudeau approach to climate change and environment generally.

'Do a few big things well'

A long-time environmental observer who used to work with Butts and who spoke on background, says his approach is to "do a few big things well." He predicted that will be the way the Trudeau government tackles the complex issue of climate change both internationally and at home.

He says Butts's entire lens is "national unity" and avoiding conflict with the provinces, which is why Trudeau did not talk about national targets for Canada's greenhouse gas emissions during the election.

Justin Trudeau's principal adviser, Gerald Butts, left, has worked on environmental issues in the past. Butts's approach is to 'do a few big things well,' says one observer. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Instead, he has promised to bring the premiers to the climate talks and to get together with them within 90 days of the Paris conference to discuss a new national approach.

The observer says Butts is trying to avoid the mistakes of previous Liberal governments.

"There are no targets yet because Jean Chrétien agreed to targets and a commitment in Kyoto, but there was no agreement with the provinces," he said.

That led to discord and lack of action on climate change.

"We fell into endless discussions before. It was top down and no buy-in from the provinces," Comeau said.

It appears for now that discord is on the backburner. On Thursday, Canada's premiers held a conference call and agreed that everyone not facing an election campaign will attend the climate change summit in Paris with Trudeau.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Comeau said.

But she points out the Canadian delegation will have to offer substance and show a real effort on Canada's part to reassure its international partners.

Under the Harper government, it was the only country to withdraw from the Kyoto Accord, and the sting is felt among the international community.

"We have made promise after promise and failed to meet them and so the question for the PM when he goes to Paris is: how is that going to change and why should we believe you now?" she said.

"The level of feeling around the world of abandonment, of betrayal — this is going to take some real work to fix."