The climate debate is tearing Canada apart, and that’s a failure of leadership

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a statement in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, regarding infrastructure disruptions caused by blockades across the country.


Underneath all the arrests, the protests, the confrontations, the blockades and the threats of Alberta separatism that have engulfed our political space in the past month, underneath the tensions that threaten our national unity, there is a point of consensus.

From the blockades to the oilsands, Canadians are clamouring for a clear and planned transition to a low-carbon economy.

Where things turn ugly is around the question of what “transition” actually means.

For Conservatives, it generally means allowing oil and gas production to meet market demand, while encouraging companies to find more effective ways to reduce emissions. It means provinces take matters into their own hands, and the federal government cheers them on.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney insists that there’s a place for his province’s oil and gas in a greener world. He’s pushing the industry to position itself as the world’s cleanest producer, whose products can help other countries reduce their emissions intensity.

But that’s aspirational. There’s not much of a legal framework that would force those companies to go greener — and little apparent appetite on the part of federal Conservative leadership hopefuls to create one.

For environmentalists, meanwhile, transition is all about Canada turning its back on fossil fuels and fully embracing clean technology. It means a government that invests in smart grids and electric vehicles, and encourages the growth of clean technology and renewables, with all the jobs and prosperity that entails.

But whether those jobs and prosperity would be able to fill the hole left by the end of oil and gas production is quite another question. Ardent environmentalists would argue that it has to be done regardless, and it’s up to government to make sure it’s done with humanity and fairness.

For their part, Indigenous activists and their sympathizers are snarling rail traffic to draw attention to their call for an environmentally compatible economy that fully incorporates the interests of their communities.

And the Liberals? Well, it’s not clear what all their talk of transition ever meant.

During the election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about increasing oil production while embracing clean technology and infrastructure that reduces emissions — all while putting a rising price on carbon for consumers and industry alike.

He committed to a “just transition” that would ease the pain for workers whose livelihoods are tied up in fossil fuels. And he said Canada would be far more ambitious in its climate targets, legislating a path to be carbon neutral by 2050 and reaching key milestones along the way.

But before the government could fill in the blanks of that election promise, Trudeau came face to face with a caucus of MPs who were elected on their climate-change credentials and could see no way to reconcile themselves to a huge new oilsands operation, no matter how clean those barrels of oil might eventually be.

Now, an Alberta court has ruled that the Liberal government’s imposition of a carbon tax on provinces is unconstitutional, forcing a protracted legal battle and difficult negotiations with Alberta in the meantime.

We are a country wrestling with how to reconcile a changing world with our very identity. Canada is a precarious federation, haunted by a history of colonial injustice, mindful of the bounty our natural resources have delivered for centuries, and with international and moral obligations to do our part in fighting climate change.

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Now financial markets are demanding faster solutions and Indigenous leaders are urgently seeking meaningful reconciliation.

In response, governments of all stripes have been dragging their feet. We’ve seen climate policy after climate policy spring up and then die over the years, sacrificed to political expediency. We’ve seen little movement on reconciliation, with emotional apologies and lofty promises leading only to marginal change and eroded trust.

Trudeau and Andrew Scheer spoke about this on the phone for 10 minutes on Monday. Did they put their personal and partisan animosity aside to work on this existential challenge? No. By all accounts, their conversation was pure acrimony, deaf to the national desire for a path forward.

It was, in other words, more of the same — and not a transition, by any definition.





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