With Ottawa confirming last week that it will impose its backstop price on carbon after the Jason Kenney government moved to eliminate Alberta’s carbon levy, fossil-friendly pundits are working to frame climate and carbon as a winning issue for Conservatives in this fall’s federal election.
In recent weeks, the opinion research has told a different story, with an Ipsos survey in April pointing to a surge in climate concern, Abacus Data estimating that nine million Canadians see the climate crisis as their top or top-two ballot box issue, and 64% of Canadians telling Nanos Research and the Globe and Mail that provinces shouldn’t opt out of the carbon tax or propagandize against it. But surveys over the same span showed mounting climate concern in Australia, where a climate-denying, rabidly pro-coal Liberal National Coalition government still eked out a surprise victory in an election last weekend.
After Kenney won last month’s provincial vote in Alberta, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to confirm whether Ottawa would apply its backstop price on carbon once the province cancelled its own carbon tax, saying only that no province is exempt from the federal minimum. “What we are going to ensure is that nowhere across the country will it be free to pollute,” he said at the time. “We’d much rather work with the provinces on that. But if some provinces don’t want to act to fight climate change, the federal government will, because it’s too important for Canadians.”
Then confirmed that “by May 30, there will no longer be an Alberta carbon tax,” claiming his Carbon Tax Repeal Act would put C$1.4 billion per year back in taxpayers’ pockets. Once that’s official, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said the federal government will take action. “We have said there will be a price on pollution across the country,” she told media. “Alberta needs to be part of any climate plan.”
Spokesperson Sabrina Kim added that, “once a decision is taken to implement the federal system, we will move as quickly as possible in order to minimize a gap in coverage.”
Alberta does intend to impose a carbon levy on large industrial emitters. But Stewart Elgie, a professor of law and economics at the University of Ottawa, said that plan wouldn’t protect Alberta from the federal tax, since it leaves out consumers and some sectors of the province’s economy.
“The goal of the federal carbon price is to fill gaps—where a province has not put a price on carbon, then the federal backstop will come in,” he explained. “If you only apply a carbon price to industry, then industry has to do all the work to meet Alberta’s targets.”
The Globe and Mail says Kenney is also still deciding whether to join a court action against the federal carbon tax, after the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruled in Ottawa’s favour earlier this month. The decision “left conservative premiers slack-jawed in surprise,” Ecojustice lawyer Amir Attaran writes for National Observer, “yet their constitutional challenge failed. And though they bray at redoubled volume about an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, odds are low that they will succeed there either.”
The premiers took heart in the judges’ 3-2 split decision, comparing it to Game One of a hockey playoff to suggest many more rounds of litigation to come. But “the 3-2 split is not what it seems,” Attaran explains. “On certain key issues the five judges of the court were actually in full agreement. Further, the most significant issue on which the minority of two parted company is, on closer examination in my opinion, obviously wrongly decided. When that is taken into account, a Supreme Court appeal would be as futile as they come.”
After a deeper dive into the legal details, Attaran concludes that “as an environmental lawyer who helped an Indigenous group in this case (the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation), I would be delighted if the bullheaded premiers charged toward the Supreme Court. Nothing would be more pleasing than a slam-dunk legal precedent at the highest level. But I also think the premiers are extraordinarily foolish to take that step.”
But the mix of public opinion data and legal judgement is doing nothing to derail fossil-friendly columnists’ attempts to turn the pan-Canadian carbon plan into a campaign liability for Trudeau and a win for Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservatives. In the last week, retired fossil executive Gwyn Morgan and Toronto Sun columnist Lorne Gunter have both been out with opinion pieces that translate some of the more familiar narratives against climate action into election messaging.
We’re just under five months away from knowing whether it’ll work.
“An uncompromising defense of big oil at the expense of climate activism may seem counterintuitive,” but “it is easily rationalized with the logic that oil is fundamentally an ‘economic issue’,” conservative columnist J.J. McCullough writes in the Washington Post. “Secular, suburban, middle-class swing voters love parties that campaign on economic issues, declares Conservative Party conventional wisdom—what they hate are parties that wade into ‘moral’ matters such as abortion, immigration, and LGBT rights.”
But for Scheer’s party, “the problem is that many Canadians, particularly younger ones, may not accept this framing,” McCullough opines. “To them, a robust defence of Albertan oil is not a demonstration of a party’s trustworthiness as a guardian of jobs and the free market, but rather a deep moral failing scarcely different from racism or homophobia,” at a time when younger voters see climate change as the defining ethical issue that marriage choice became in the last decade. “If Scheer is elected prime minister, reasonable minds will conclude that Canadians don’t take climate change as seriously as they claim, and that Scheer framing the debate as primarily economic was persuasive,” McCullough concludes. “Beyond 2019, however, it could prove a difficult legacy for a rising generation of voters to forget.