Why good cli­mate pol­icy is so hard to love

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - CHRIS TURNER

This week, the world was is­sued an­other dire warn­ing about what will hap­pen if global warm­ing goes un­ad­dressed. So why is good cli­mate pol­icy so hard to love? The an­swer, like cli­mate change it­self, is ex­cru­ci­at­ingly com­plex

Au­thor whose books in­clude The Ge­og­ra­phy of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, The Leap: How to Sur­vive and Thrive in the Sus­tain­able Econ­omy, and The Patch: The Peo­ple, Pipe­lines, and Pol­i­tics of the Oil Sands, which won this year’s Na­tional Busi­ness Book Award

Back in Au­gust, en­vi­ron­ment and en­ergy min­is­ters from across the G7 met in Hal­i­fax to dis­cuss cleaner oceans and greener en­ergy. As per the norm in such cir­cles, the pro­ceed­ings were stiff, tech­ni­cal and wonky as all hell, and so the meet­ings barely cracked the week’s news cy­cles. There was some cov­er­age of the Cana­dian govern­ment’s in­ten­tions to join in in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to re­duce plas­tic waste and phase out sin­gle-use plas­tic in its own op­er­a­tions. The big­ger sto­ries, though, were En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Cather­ine McKenna’s re­sponse to David Suzuki’s de­mand that she re­sign and Nat­u­ral Re­sources Min­is­ter Amar­jeet Sohi’s an­nounce­ment about the govern­ment’s next steps to get the Trans Moun­tain Pipe­line built. “Sohi made the an­nounce­ment in Hal­i­fax, where he is host­ing G7 en­ergy min­is­ters,” a Cana­dian Press story noted in pass­ing.

The year’s po­lit­i­cal news has been com­pletely dom­i­nated by furor over Trans Moun­tain, of course, and the dis­missal of the pipe­line’s ap­proval by the Fed­eral Court of Ap­peal was greeted by Indige­nous ac­tivists and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists as a ring­ing vic­tory. The po­lit­i­cal con­flict over the pipe­line has churned up such a po­lit­i­cal morass that it’s hard to find much in the way of near-term gain for cli­mate change ac­tion in the midst of it all. The more likely out­come is that the frag­ile con­sen­sus re­spon­si­ble for Canada’s mod­est ef­forts to date will be sucked down into that mire for years to come. And so the G7 meet­ing was a re­minder that de­spite all the calamity, Canada does still have good cli­mate pol­icy in place. Much of it is gath­ered un­der the ban­ner of the Pan-Cana­dian Frame­work on Clean Growth and Cli­mate Change, the co-or­di­nated fed­eral-pro­vin­cial plan stitched to­gether in the spring of 2016 and in con­stant dan­ger of be­ing torn to shreds ever since. Wonky con­fer­ences, such as the one in Hal­i­fax, which tend to tran­spire with lit­tle no­tice and no cel­e­bra­tion, are a big part of the daily grind­ing work of good cli­mate pol­icy.

It was per­haps to be ex­pected, then, that the Frame­work saw men­tion in pre­cious few of the breath­less news sto­ries cov­er­ing this week’s re­lease of the lat­est re­port from the United Na­tions In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC). The Frame­work’s in­cre­men­tal ini­tia­tives surely seem all out of pro­por­tion to the IPCC’s stark warn­ing that hu­man civ­i­liza­tion has un­til 2040 at the lat­est to slash green­house gas emis­sions world­wide if we in­tend to avoid ma­jor cli­mate catas­tro­phe. What did a lit­tle good cli­mate pol­icy mat­ter in the face of that?

What I mean by good cli­mate pol­icy, to be clear, is cli­mate pol­icy that has ac­tu­ally been passed, has be­come the law of the land and has then been sent off to do its quiet work of re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions. That work tends to be far less no­tice­able than the scream­ing head­lines above news of im­mi­nent dis­as­ter or even the fi­nal sum on a house­hold en­ergy bill. Bri­tish Columbia’s car­bon tax, for ex­am­ple, is good cli­mate pol­icy. Since the tax was in­tro­duced in 2008, gaso­line use is down by more than 10 per cent per capita in B.C. and emis­sions have shrunk by 5 per cent, even as the prov­ince’s econ­omy has grown steadily. But it re­mains so in­con­spic­u­ous that even 10 years af­ter it was en­acted, the ma­jor­ity of Bri­tish Columbians still can’t say for sure whether there’s a price on car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions in their prov­ince. That’s of­ten the way with good cli­mate pol­icy – when it’s work­ing well, you hardly know it’s there.

Good cli­mate pol­icy pleases no crowds. There are no rau­cous ral­lies or vic­tory marches in its name. Good cli­mate pol­icy sim­ply doesn’t cause too much fuss, sat­is­fy­ing the ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans who claim to want some­thing done about cli­mate change – some­thing real, mea­sur­able, ef­fec­tive – but not so much that it re­ally stings. Good cli­mate pol­icy is like fire in­sur­ance or storm drainage – no one wants to think about it, but they want it there to do the job when it’s needed. But cli­mate pol­icy is needed now at a scale and scope far be­yond any given fire or flood – ul­ti­mately, we need it to in­ter­vene in ev­ery trans­ac­tion in­volv­ing fos­sil fu­els ev­ery­where on Earth – and so it is get­ting harder for good cli­mate pol­icy to stay qui­etly out of sight. And be­cause no one likes the look of good cli­mate pol­icy in the light of day – be­cause it seems piti­fully weak on its face and em­bar­rass­ing in its con­ces­sions and awk­ward com­pro­mises – it is hard to main­tain and de­fend. Mer­ci­lessly hard.

Why is good cli­mate pol­icy so hard to love? The an­swer, like cli­mate change it­self, is mul­ti­va­lent and ex­cru­ci­at­ingly com­plex, and it has a lot to do with the scale and time frame of the prob­lem and its so­lu­tions. No one’s cli­mate poli­cies can move fast enough to yield tan­gi­ble every­day ben­e­fits be­fore the next elec­tion. There will be no im­me­di­ate re­ward for do­ing the job well, and rarely does an in­stant cri­sis emerge from do­ing it badly. And in any case, good cli­mate pol­icy sat­is­fies no one com­pletely and makes every­one at least a lit­tle un­com­fort­able. In the fore­short­ened terms of a bel­lowed Ques­tion Pe­riod ex­change, the car­bon price – any car­bon price – is al­ways so high that it will ruin the econ­omy and so low that it will do noth­ing. Good cli­mate pol­icy is never an easy po­lit­i­cal win, and even the hard wins seem like losses from many an­gles. It’s a sink­hole for po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal, a kryp­tonite mine against the su­per­heroic po­lit­i­cal will re­quired to ad­dress cli­mate change’s cat­a­strophic scope.

Still, good cli­mate pol­icy is the best we can man­age right now – in Canada or any­where else – and we’re in grave dan­ger of squan­der­ing what we have in ex­change for noth­ing at all. So it’s worth try­ing to un­der­stand how it fails to win much adu­la­tion.

Canada has had some good cli­mate pol­icy over the years, although not too much, and it has even more now, though nowhere near enough. But what Canada mostly has, 30 years af­ter Brian Mul­roney’s Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive govern­ment con­vened the world’s first ma­jor cli­mate con­fer­ence in Toronto and three years af­ter Justin Trudeau’s Lib­er­als came to power hell­bent on launch­ing the coun­try’s first com­pre­hen­sive cli­mate-pol­icy pack­age, is an ac­ri­mo­nious stale­mate. Car­bon pric­ing has drawn the ire of con­ser­va­tives across Canada while trad­ing off an oil sands pipe­line ap­proval for Con­ser­va­tives’ buy-in on Mr. Trudeau’s cli­mate pack­age has en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist left­ists march­ing in the streets. Never mind that the ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans – 76 per cent, ac­cord­ing to an Oc­to­ber, 2016, sur­vey by Aba­cus Data – claim to re­side some­where in be­tween, open to the idea of a new pipe­line project along­side more ag­gres­sive ac­tion on cli­mate change. They say they want good cli­mate pol­icy, in other words, but they aren’t howl­ing for it. And so they are barely heard. This is how good cli­mate pol­icy fails.

Con­sider On­tario’s coal phase-out – a cli­mate pol­icy so good it verged on great. It did ex­actly as promised, en­tirely elim­i­nat­ing coal-burn­ing power plants from the prov­ince’s elec­tric­ity grid in barely a decade. The phase-out re­duced smog, pre­vented thou­sands of pre­ma­ture deaths and cre­ated what the On­tario Power Author­ity justly touts as “the sin­gle largest green­house gas re­duc­tion mea­sure in North Amer­ica.” It is too of­ten re­mem­bered now, though, as a pre­lude to the nasty bat­tle over the prov­ince’s Green En­ergy Act, whose clumsy im­ple­men­ta­tion turned neigh­bour against neigh­bour in wind­farm de­vel­op­ment bat­tles across ru­ral On­tario, sowed mis­in­for­ma­tion about the causes of sky­rock­et­ing en­ergy bills and helped feed the throw-the-bums-out anger that led to the car­bon-price-killing reign of Premier Doug Ford.

And then there’s the Pan-Cana­dian Frame­work on Clean Growth and Cli­mate Change, Canada’s first real na­tional cli­mate plan, which is the essence of good cli­mate pol­icy. One way to tell it’s such good cli­mate pol­icy is be­cause un­less you’re a pol­icy wonk, you might have never heard its full name un­til I men­tioned it ear­lier. This, de­spite the Frame­work be­ing eas­ily the most am­bi­tious cli­mate-pol­icy pack­age the coun­try has ever seen, is co-or­di­nat­ing cli­mate change ac­tion be­tween the fed­eral govern­ment and ev­ery prov­ince and ter­ri­tory other than Saskatchewan. The Frame­work ex­pands On­tario’s coal phase-out na­tion­wide by 2030 and com­mits all but the Saskatchewa­nian among us to dozens more changes in how we make and use en­ergy, all to ac­cel­er­ate our pur­suit of the green­house gas re­duc­tions we com­mit­ted to at the Paris cli­mate sum­mit in 2015. (Fully one-third of those re­duc­tions can be achieved if govern­ments na­tion­wide im­ple­ment only the ef­fi­ciency mea­sures pre­scribed by the Frame­work). It’s ac­com­pa­nied by a na­tional car­bon price, which might also be deemed good cli­mate pol­icy if you weren’t so much more fa­mil­iar with it – in a scream­ing-head­lines and Ford-Na­tion-ral­lies kind of way – than you likely are with ev­ery other de­tail of the Frame­work.

We’ve all heard plenty about the car­bon tax, of course. Or, rather, the job-killing car­bon tax. Or Mr. Trudeau’s reck­less car­bon tax. Or else the in­suf­fi­cient car­bon tax, the win­dow-dress­ing car­bon tax, the car­bon tax negated by oil sands ex­pan­sion. Such no­to­ri­ety turns out to be deadly for good cli­mate pol­icy, be­cause a new tax on an en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem many peo­ple only vaguely un­der­stand, levied in or­der to solve that prob­lem at some in­de­ter­mi­nate point in the fu­ture, but only af­ter the vast ma­jor­ity of the world’s emis­sions not cur­rently sub­ject to a car­bon price are drawn into the fold, turns out not to be a for­mula for a po­lit­i­cal slam dunk. Even a re­port re­leased just a few weeks ago – pro­duced by a think tank headed by a for­mer Con­ser­va­tive pol­icy ad­viser, no less – show­ing how most Cana­dian house­holds will re­ceive more money back in re­bates than they will pay in car­bon taxes has done noth­ing to change the tenor of the de­bate. This was un­der­scored last week when Mr. Ford joined United Con­ser­va­tive Party Leader Ja­son Ken­ney in Cal­gary to rally against car­bon taxes – mere days be­fore econ­o­mist William Nord­haus of Yale Uni­ver­sity was named a co-re­cip­i­ent of this year’s No­bel Prize for eco­nom­ics rec­og­niz­ing his work estab­lish­ing that im­ple­ment­ing a car­bon price was the most ef­fec­tive way to fight cli­mate change. In front of a bois­ter­ous crowd of more than 1,000, Mr. Ford called Mr. Nord­haus’s No­bel-win­ning idea “the worst tax ever.” The rally was a re­minder that even as the IPCC was in­form­ing the world that nowhere near enough was be­ing done about cli­mate change, Canada al­ready had suf­fi­cient cli­mate pol­icy in place to in­spire an­gry ral­lies against it.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary machi­na­tions the fed­eral govern­ment has un­der­taken of late to be­gin work on a pipe­line to trans­port Al­berta’s bi­tu­men from Ed­mon­ton to the Pa­cific coast rep­re­sents just the most prom­i­nent rea­son why its good cli­mate poli­cies are find­ing so few cham­pi­ons. There are myr­iad other rea­sons, from the squab­bling over ju­ris­dic­tion en­demic to the Cana­dian fed­er­a­tion to the boun­teous po­lit­i­cal hay to be made these days on both the right and left flanks of Mr. Trudeau’s Lib­er­als. Put an­other way, the frag­ile coali­tion needed to keep the Frame­work in place has, since it was formed, subbed in Mr. Ford and B.C. Premier John Hor­gan as the cus­to­di­ans of two of its three big­gest part­ners. You try keep­ing smiles on every­one’s faces at the grip-and-grin af­ter that.

If good cli­mate pol­icy is so likely to lead to such a po­lit­i­cal mess, what of the other op­tions? These can be cat­e­go­rized broadly as great cli­mate pol­icy and no cli­mate pol­icy. Let’s start with the lat­ter, which is the cur­rent po­si­tion of most Cana­dian con­ser­va­tive par­ties. To be fair, con­ser­va­tive politi­cians have fi­nally been per­suaded to pay some grudg­ing bare min­i­mum of lip ser­vice to the sci­en­tific re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion. “Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­body ac­cepts that there is such a thing as a man-made con­tri­bu­tion to cli­mate change and we have to be pru­dent in re­duc­ing green­house gases” – this is Mr. Ken­ney’s rous­ing ral­ly­ing cry on the topic.

In prac­ti­cal terms, how­ever, the Cana­dian right has not pre­sented any com­pre­hen­sive cli­mate pol­icy pack­age since the fed­eral Con­ser­va­tives tabled and then aban­doned their “Turn­ing the Cor­ner” plan in 2007. The ra­tio­nal­iza­tions for this have ranged from a self-serv­ing sort of re­al­ism (think of Stephen Harper ex­plain­ing that “no coun­try is go­ing to take ac­tions that are go­ing to de­lib­er­ately de­stroy jobs and growth”) to blithe hand-wav­ing at the coal-spew­ing power plants of China and dis­mis­sive ref­er­ence to the sta­tis­ti­cal ta­bles at­test­ing to the fact that Canada re­mains a small coun­try, pop­u­la­tion-wise, when you com­pare it with the whole world. We can’t fix the whole prob­lem all by our­selves, so goes the line of rea­son­ing, and many oth­ers aren’t even try­ing. So why should we?

Un­der An­drew Scheer, more than a decade af­ter Mr. Harper’s govern­ment failed to turn any cor­ners, the new fed­eral Con­ser­va­tive cli­mate pol­icy plan re­mains top se­cret. It re­mains hard to imag­ine any other pol­icy is­sue of such con­se­quence on which a vi­able po­lit­i­cal party can sim­ply take no sub­stan­tive po­si­tion at all. So treach­er­ous is the swamp of cli­mate pol­i­tics that a shrug from the shore can seem like the least dam­ag­ing po­si­tion.

The stronger ar­gu­ment against good cli­mate pol­icy comes from ad­vo­cates of great cli­mate pol­icy. Great cli­mate pol­icy posits that good cli­mate pol­icy and all its meek, com­pro­mised, in­cre­men­tal changes are them­selves a big part of the prob­lem. If only a coura­geous govern­ment was will­ing to take much greater strides, or even an enor­mous leap – the kind per­haps charted in a mul­ti­point man­i­festo – well, then we would see the kind of rapid trans­for­ma­tion needed not only to fore­stall cli­mate change, but to build a bet­ter so­ci­ety in ev­ery re­spect. We would not only keep all the oil in the ground and slash emis­sions, we would lib­er­ate Cana­di­ans through re­new­able power and de­cen­tral­ized grids. There would be a so­lar panel on ev­ery roof, an elec­tric car in ev­ery garage, a bike lane or LRT track on ev­ery street. This was the kind of re­sponse that this week’s alarm-ring­ing IPCC re­port was call­ing for, ide­ally im­ple­mented as of yes­ter­day.

It’s a wholly ad­mirable vi­sion. I’ve spent a great deal of the past 10 years sketch­ing in its con­tours (and, full dis­clo­sure, I was a writer on the Gen­er­a­tion En­ergy re­port on this theme re­leased by Nat­u­ral Re­sources Canada ear­lier this year). Who wouldn’t want to strive for it? But on the ques­tion of how to reach it, great cli­mate pol­icy en­coun­ters one for­mi­da­ble hur­dle: It doesn’t ex­ist. Or rather, it doesn’t yet ex­ist. It has never been en­acted, nor is it built into the plat­form of any po­lit­i­cal party with a le­git­i­mate near-term shot at form­ing a govern­ment in any ma­jor in­dus­trial coun­try. This is in part be­cause great cli­mate pol­icy tends to treat pol­i­tics as an af­ter­thought – which, when you think about it, is an odd way to ad­vo­cate for a pol­icy pack­age.

What of the many spe­cial cases I’m skip­ping past – the true lead­ers, some of which I’ve re­ported on my­self in ad­mir­ing de­tail? Con­sider Ger­many, the first ma­jor in­dus­trial econ­omy to com­mit in a sub­stan­tial way to elim­i­nat­ing fos­sil fu­els from its elec­tric­ity grid – and then set back that project by a gen­er­a­tion when An­gela Merkel’s govern­ment shut down the coun­try’s nu­clear plants in­stead of its coal-fired ones in or­der to save its own po­lit­i­cal hide. What about Nor­way? Aren’t they buy­ing elec­tric cars faster than they can be rolled off pro­duc­tion lines? Most def­i­nitely – be­cause

those EVs are ex­empt from a do­mes­tic lux­ury tax that dou­bles the price of ve­hi­cles that burn gaso­line. Try sell­ing that to the auto work­ers of Oshawa and Wind­sor (not to men­tion the com­muters of Sur­rey and Laval). And haven’t you heard that the great state of Cal­i­for­nia just com­mit­ted to 100 per cent clean power by 2045? Cer­tainly it did – with an in­terim goal of 60 per cent by 2030. It’s an im­pres­sive, pace-set­ting model for much of the United States. But if you’re won­der­ing about the cor­re­spond­ing Cana­dian fig­ure, 81 per cent of our elec­tric­ity na­tion­wide comes from emis­sions-free sources to­day. Ad­mit­tedly, this is down to abun­dant hy­dro­elec­tric­ity more than good cli­mate pol­icy. Still, the point stands: there’s not much in the way of great cli­mate pol­icy even in the van­guard.

In place of the mo­lasses-slow mud­dle of every­day pol­i­tics, great cli­mate pol­icy calls on the trans­for­ma­tive power of science and ur­gency. As the IPCC re­minded us again this week, cli­mate science has made it­self abun­dantly clear about the size and speed at which green­house gas emis­sions must be cut in or­der to avert cli­mate dis­as­ter. Cli­mate poli­cies, then, must de­liver those cuts ASAP. This, as great cli­mate pol­icy ad­vo­cates re­peat­edly note, is what the

science tells us must be done. But as long as elected politi­cians and not sci­en­tists re­main in charge of writ­ing the ac­tual leg­is­la­tion, and as long as those same politi­cians con­tinue to need the sup­port of vot­ers in or­der to keep do­ing that work, the science telling us what to do will likely con­tinue to prove as in­ef­fec­tive at mak­ing great cli­mate pol­icy a re­al­ity as it has to date.

In the face of such in­tran­si­gence, great cli­mate pol­icy’s boost­ers in­voke the mys­tic power of ur­gency. There is no time to wait, they say, for the usual machi­na­tions of in­ef­fec­tual govern­ment and grind­ing bu­reau­cracy. This is an emer­gency. Nor­mal rules don’t ap­ply. Over the years – decades, now – the nec­es­sary re­sponse to cli­mate change has been com­pared to the Apollo project that put man on the moon, the New Deal that helped end the Great De­pres­sion, and, most of­ten, to the com­mand-and-con­trol ex­pe­di­en­cies of the Sec­ond World War. Soon there will come a cat­alytic mo­ment – most likely one of the grow­ing num­ber of ex­treme-weather dis­as­ters that have al­ready be­come a hall­mark of life in the age of cli­mate change and an ob­ses­sion among the many ad­vo­cates of great cli­mate pol­icy I fol­low on so­cial me­dia – and the blink­ers will be lifted from all hereto­fore un­con­vinced eyes, the wis­dom and ne­ces­sity of rapid, rad­i­cal ac­tion made man­i­fest and un­stop­pable.

In the af­ter­math of such a mo­ment of mass clar­ity, the rev­o­lu­tion will emerge ev­ery­where. It will be guided by a rapid whole­sale rein­ven­tion of the en­tire ap­pa­ra­tus of mod­ern pol­i­tics, which will re­spond to the cat­alytic catas­tro­phe not with chaos or au­thor­i­tar­ian self-preser­va­tion, but only with flaw­lessly or­ches­trated col­lec­tive ac­tion. This tip­ping point has been proph­e­sied in green cir­cles for nearly as long as cli­mate change has been a phe­nom­e­non on the global po­lit­i­cal radar, and it does not ap­pear to be much closer at hand to­day. (The au­thor­i­tar­ian self-preser­va­tion thing, how­ever, ap­pears to be hav­ing its mo­ment.) In the mean­time, how­ever, among the mass of peo­ple not yet mo­bi­lized to fight cli­mate change on the beaches and in the fields and in the streets, that sense of para­mount ur­gency stub­bornly re­fuses to ar­rive. Some­thing that re­mains “ur­gent” for 20 years, af­ter all, is fun­da­men­tally not ur­gent to most peo­ple’s way of think­ing. A wild­fire on the edge of town is ur­gent. A round of lay­offs by the big lo­cal em­ployer is ur­gent. A cri­sis that changes es­sen­tially noth­ing about your daily life for years on end is not ur­gent. It has proven far eas­ier to in­spire a sense of ur­gency around the use of plas­tic straws.

There is now even a kind of nos­tal­gia for the fleet­ing ur­gency of times past. Nathaniel Rich’s epic run­down of the progress and sud­den halt of cli­mate pol­icy in the halls of Amer­i­can govern­ment in the 1980s, which sprawled across an en­tire re­cent is­sue of The New York Times maga- zine, is a case in point. Mr. Rich re­ports in vivid and con­vinc­ing de­tail on the sense of ur­gency that briefly per­vaded en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy cir­cles in those years, driven by the first stri­dent alarm calls from a range of cli­mate sci­en­tists and en­light­ened pub­lic of­fi­cials.

Mr. Rich’s piece is crack­er­jack his­tor­i­cal re­port­ing. But his ap­par­ent con­clu­sion, echoed in the white-text head­line that is the only splash of light on a black cover – “Thirty years ago, we could have saved the planet” – does not fol­low at all from the ev­i­dence he lays out. That royal “we” elides a broad range of demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions and eco­nomic forces that fun­da­men­tally

did not want rapid change then, and still aren’t sure about it now. And this is not just limited to the hand­ful of fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies who have will­fully ob­fus­cated the cli­mate change de­bate. Long-es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal sys­tems – and po­lit­i­cal par­ties – don’t read­ily em­brace rapid change. They aren’t built for it, don’t un­der­stand it and can’t man­age it very well. Main­stream banks and pen­sion funds don’t tend to­ward rapid change. In­dus­try ad­vo­cacy groups, cham­bers of com­merce, neigh­bour­hood as­so­ci­a­tions – none of these are de­signed to drive rapid change. Put an­other way, try con­vinc­ing the com­mu­nity as­so­ci­a­tion in an es­tab­lished low-rise neigh­bour­hood any­where in North Amer­ica that they should read­ily em­brace a 10storey condo de­vel­op­ment be­cause it will bring wel­come and nec­es­sary den­sity, en­abling greater walk­a­bil­ity, af­ford­able tran­sit and even mak­ing car-free liv­ing a pos­si­bil­ity – all cru­cial ur­ban pieces of any se­ri­ous long-term re­sponse to the cli­mate cri­sis. Gauge the re­ac­tion, and then tell us again how the pub­lic in gen­eral was ready for a whole­sale shift of suf­fi­cient scale to com­bat cli­mate change in 1989 (or 1997 or 2009), but for the me­dia machi­na­tions and back­room shenani­gans of the oil com­pa­nies.

Ur­gency, then, is an ex­pres­sion of sol­i­dar­ity more than a co­her­ent plan. Con­sider the cli­mate pol­icy ef­forts to date from a po­lit­i­cal party that of­ten in­vokes the ur­gency of what the science tells us – the NDP. Start­ing around 2008 with fed­eral leader Jack Lay­ton, who had been talk­ing a great game about cli­mate change be­fore he took the helm of the party and then threw car­bon pric­ing and ev­ery­thing else in Stephane Dion’s Green Shift pol­icy pack­age un­der a cam­paign bus to lay the ground­work for fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the 2011 elec­tion, the NDP re­sponse to cli­mate change has mainly been a kind of stri­dent in­co­her­ence. Even as Mr. Hor­gan thun­dered against the men­ace of the Trans Moun­tain Pipe­line this spring, for ex­am­ple, he was also urg­ing the fed­eral govern­ment to take ac­tion to re­duce gaso­line prices. (His calls were echoed by On­tario NDP Leader An­drea Hor­wath on the cam­paign trail). The B.C. NDP might be stead­fast in their op­po­si­tion to pipe­lines, but this does not spill over into any kind of pol­icy-ori­ented hos­til­ity to­ward the con­sump­tion of their con­tents. Mr. Hor­gan’s govern­ment even can­celled tolls on the bridges crowded be­yond ca­pac­ity by sub­ur­ban Van­cou­ver mo­torists as an ad­di­tional show of sup­port for the con­tin­ued reign of the in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion en­gine.

Wouldn’t ur­gency – real ur­gency – ne­ces­si­tate work­ing with what­ever govern­ment cur­rently holds the reins of power, at least in­so­far as that govern­ment is will­ing to act? Wouldn’t a slow start be bet­ter than stand­ing still? Wouldn’t a bind­ing price on car­bon pol­lu­tion, the end of coal-fired power and a deep­en­ing com­mit­ment to re­new­able power and en­ergy ef­fi­ciency and mass tran­sit from ev­ery govern­ment in the land – wouldn’t all of this right now be worth quite a lot in the way of odd bed­fel­lows and un­com­fort­able com­pro­mises?

This, in any case, was the strate­gic think­ing be­hind the Pan-Cana­dian Frame­work, which pre­sented Cana­di­ans with car­bon pric­ing and the rest, all waltz­ing awk­wardly with a pipe­line ap­proval. There was Al­berta Premier Rachel Not­ley at her cli­mate plan’s launch, photo-op­ping in a sin­gle frame with the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tors of en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, the chiefs of First Na­tions and the chief ex­ec­u­tives of oil com­pa­nies, all of them united un­com­fort­ably in sup­port of the whole good cli­mate pol­icy pack­age. And what a freak­ish once-ina-gen­er­a­tion mo­ment it was: Canada’s largest oil-pro­duc­ing prov­ince, with­out which any united ac­tion would be mean­ing­less, stood in sol­i­dar­ity for the first time, pos­si­bly ever, with both the Prime Min­is­ter and ev­ery premier not named Brad Wall on the long-term di­rec­tion of oil and gas de­vel­op­ment. This was, if you will, the forg­ing of the Trudeau-Not­ley con­sen­sus – a brief in­ter­lude of rel­a­tive agree­ment dur­ing which just enough mo­men­tum might be gen­er­ated be­hind good cli­mate pol­icy to make it a fixed fea­ture on the Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Just maybe enough gears could be sent spin­ning slowly in the same di­rec­tion to get the ma­chine mov­ing to­ward the much more vig­or­ous work that would even­tu­ally be nec­es­sary to tackle the cli­mate cri­sis more thor­oughly. The trade-off was far from cheap – a pipe­line de­liv­er­ing 600,000 ad­di­tional bar­rels of Al­berta bi­tu­men to the Port of Van­cou­ver – but it was, for the ar­chi­tects of the con­sen­sus, the only way to put the whole messy ap­pa­ra­tus in mo­tion.

When the Fed­eral Court of Ap­peals quashed the fed­eral govern­ment’s ap­prov- al of the Trans Moun­tain Pipe­line ex­pan­sion, the First Na­tions and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups that had fought to stop the project greeted the de­ci­sion with vic­to­ri­ous cel­e­bra­tion. I cer­tainly don’t be­grudge them their ex­ul­ta­tion – the pipe­line came freighted with threats to coastal ecosys­tems and Indige­nous land rights that they sim­ply deemed too much to pay. But I don’t see much to cel­e­brate on the cli­mate pol­icy front. The frag­ile Trudeau-Not­ley con­sen­sus is in shards. What­ever be­comes of the pipe­line it­self, I’d place the smart money on an­other decade or more lost to its po­lit­i­cal fall­out. The on­go­ing fight will be mean, and it will feed re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics on all sides, and 10 years from now we might well be no closer to shrink­ing Canada’s car­bon foot­print for good than we were dur­ing that rare in­ter­lude of 2016.

It would please me to be wrong. If there is a vi­able po­lit­i­cal path from here back to deeper, faster ac­tion – to more good cli­mate pol­icy and be­yond, all the way to the un­charted ter­ri­tory of the great – I’d love to see it.

The Trudeau-Not­ley con­sen­sus is – was – an ugly deal. It ran roughshod over the land rights of a num­ber of First Na­tions, am­pli­fied the risk of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter in the Sal­ish Sea and pro­vided a sort of buf­fer to fos­sil-fuel in­dus­tries still re­luc­tant to face twi­light head on. But it was the best shot we’ve ever had at turn­ing the cor­ner de­ci­sively on a cri­sis that counts in decades and cen­turies. Maybe – just maybe – it could have built a con­sen­sus sturdy enough to sur­vive a cou­ple more elec­tion cy­cles and be­come, like health care or mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, a per­ma­nent fix­ture. Canada might even have emerged as a sort of model. Now we are in im­mi­nent dan­ger of be­com­ing just one more coun­try with no plan at all, go­ing nowhere fast.



Premier Rachel Not­ley un­veils Al­berta’s cli­mate strat­egy in Ed­mon­ton in Novem­ber, 2015. The new plan in­cluded a car­bon tax and a cap on oil sands emis­sions, among other strate­gies.


A smoke­stack, one of four known as the Four Sis­ters, crum­bles dur­ing a con­trolled de­mo­li­tion in Mis­sis­sauga in June, 2006. The smoke­stacks had been la­belled as heavy pol­luters by the On­tario govern­ment.


Sup­port­ers wave signs at an anti-car­bon tax rally in Cal­gary on Oct. 5, mere days be­fore the No­bel Prize was awarded for an econ­o­mist’s work estab­lish­ing car­bon pric­ing as the most ef­fec­tive way to fight cli­mate change.


William Nord­haus, seen in his of­fice at Yale Uni­ver­sity in March, 2014, is the co-re­cip­i­ent of the 2018 No­bel Prize for eco­nom­ics, along­side Paul Romer.

Soon there will come a cat­alytic mo­ment – most likely one of the grow­ing num­ber of ex­treme-weather dis­as­ters that have al­ready be­come a hall­mark of life in the age of cli­mate change and an ob­ses­sion among the many ad­vo­cates of great cli­mate pol­icy I fol­low on so­cial me­dia – and the blink­ers will be lifted from all hereto­fore un­con­vinced eyes, the wis­dom and ne­ces­sity of rapid, rad­i­cal ac­tion made man­i­fest and un­stop­pable.

In the fore­short­ened terms of a bel­lowed Ques­tion Pe­riod ex­change, the car­bon price – any car­bon price – is al­ways so high that it will ruin the econ­omy and so low that it will do noth­ing. Good cli­mate pol­icy is never an easy po­lit­i­cal win, and even the hard wins seem like losses from many an­gles. It’s a sink­hole for po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal, a kryp­tonite mine against the su­per­heroic po­lit­i­cal will re­quired to ad­dress cli­mate change’s cat­a­strophic scope.

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