Cross Country Checkup

As wildfires burn, Environment Minister McKenna blasts provincial Tories for scrapping carbon tax

As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney pushes forward with a plan to scrap the province's carbon tax, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says he shouldn't ignore climate science — especially in the face of wildfires raging across the western province.

'You have to mitigate climate change and you have to be ambitious about that,' she says

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna told Cross Country Checkup that her government's carbon tax is part of a larger climate plan to reduce emissions. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney pushes forward with a plan to scrap the province's carbon tax, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says he shouldn't ignore climate science — especially in the face of wildfires raging across the western province.

"Alberta needs to be part of the climate plan as much as any other province, especially as we transition to a cleaner future," McKenna told Cross Country Checkup  guest host Reshmi Nair in an interview Sunday night.

Alberta is facing several out-of-control wildfires, a scenario that researchers say will become more common as warmer climate conditions lead to earlier and more intense wildfire seasons.

In a Wednesday throne speech introducing his first piece of legislation to repeal the carbon tax, Kenney said his government is "taking action to the commitment we made to Albertans to repeal this tax grab which is all economic pain and no environmental gain." 

Kenney's bill follows a similar move by Ontario's Conservative government to end a federal carbon tax in favour of a provincial climate strategy.

Citing transit investments, a renewable natural gas market and a carbon trust, Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips told Checkup, "We don't need a carbon tax to hit that [federal carbon emissions reduction] objective."

Here is part of Catherine McKenna's response to opposition to the carbon tax from a growing cohort of provincial governments. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What do you make of what [Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips] is presenting as Ontario's alternative to your government's carbon tax?

I'd first like to start from the science because I think it's really important … So we just released Canada's changing climate report to look at the state of science on climate change.

It showed that Canada's warming twice the global average, three times or more in the north. But when it talked about extreme heat it said we're going to see many more extremely hot days and that's going to result in more frequent and more intense wildfires. And that's just the reality.

I mean the report then says we really have a choice: that we can be ambitious about climate action as a country and a world. Or we [can] not, and then we're really going to pay the price in terms of the impacts on our environment, on humans, on our economy.

But look, it's hard to know what to say when you have, you know, Conservative premiers and politicians who see the impacts of climate change — they talk to people who are feeling the impacts of climate change. But at the same time, won't use the best tools that we have.

So how ambitious would you say —

Just one point, in terms of Jason Kenney, he called climate change the flavour of the month. The flavour of the month.

If you talk to business people, they're concerned about the cost that they're having to pay for wildfires or floods, and there's a huge economic opportunity of clean growth.

So we want to take action to protect ourselves to reduce our emissions but also to find the clean solutions that are creating good jobs right now in our country.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, left, and United Conservative Leader Jason Kenney embrace on stage at an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary in 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

How ambitious would you say your price on pollution is then? How far would you go if you could go as far as you would like?

We negotiated a climate plan with Canadians, with provinces and territories and Indigenous people, over a year. We committed that the price would go up to $50 [per tonne of green house gas emissions] ... By law, all the money has to go back [to Canadians].

But what's the impact on the climate?

Well, the impact is: it's a huge part of our plan ... but it's only one part of our plan. And I think it's important that you look at the other pieces, whether it's historic investments in public transportation or phasing out coal or investing in renewables or energy efficiency ... You have to tackle climate change basically sector-by-sector and then you have to help people adapt.

And certainly that's what you're hearing from folks on your show where they're saying, 'Well, OK, we're feeling the impacts and now, you know, we need to adapt to the impacts of climate change.'

And you see the Ford government — I mean, they're cutting their budget to fight forest fires. The same thing to address floods ... They're also cutting their budget to plant trees.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on his plan for a national energy corridor 1:24

And they said that they're conducting the first assessment that the province has ever conducted to understand climate change and how to come up with a long-term solution.

But I want to ask you when it comes to this carbon tax and tackling the conditions that we're experiencing, especially in the summer in Canada — hot, dry, windier conditions which help wildfires spread into communities — how do we prevent that from happening and is it with this carbon tax?

You've had [a] scientist on who says, you know, there's a number of factors that cause the start of the fires. But we know that it is an exacerbating factor: climate change ... There are going to be more frequent and more intense forest fires.

You saw the worst fires ever on record in 2018 in B.C. and so you need to reduce emissions. That has to be part of it.

You have to mitigate climate change and you have to be ambitious about that. And that's why putting a price on pollution is something that works.

Brian Mulroney, who was a Progressive Conservative 30 years ago, used a price on pollution to tackle acid rain — which I remember growing up thinking that that was one of the biggest challenges we face: our rivers and lakes were dying and we managed to take action to tackle it.

But you have to have an across the board approach. And my focus is really on bringing folks together. But unfortunately — and it really is unfortunate — you have conservative politicians who don't seem to be listening to the science.

We need to make decisions based on science, on facts, on the best policy that works.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Samantha Lui and Richard Goddard.


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