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Wilkinson Says COVID Won’t Hijack Canada’s Green Agenda as Climate Community Demands Commitments, O’Regan Touts Nuclear

On the eve of this afternoon’s Speech from the Throne, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is declaring that the pandemic won’t hijack Canada’s green agenda, adding that “if left unaddressed, climate change will have more of an impact on Canadians than COVID-19,” CTV News reports.

“At the end of the day, if we do not address the climate issue, the impacts that we feel from that will be significantly greater than what we’re feeling from COVID-19,” Wilkinson told CTV Question Period host Evan Solomon—even if the priority for today’s speech is to deal with the pandemic.

“Insiders have told The Canadian Press that the Throne Speech will have three main priorities: measures to protect Canadians’ health and prevent another lockdown; economic supports through the pandemic; and eventual rebuilding measures,” CTV writes. It’s a far cry from last month, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cast the Throne Speech as a chance to “build a more resilient Canada, a Canada that is healthier and safer, greener and more competitive.”

As recently as September 2, the PM was “focusing on green economic recovery efforts as the country continues to grapple with fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic,” Global News reported at the time.

Less than three weeks later, Wilkinson had to assure CBC as well as CTV that the “ambitious” climate plan the Trudeau Liberals promised during the federal election campaign last fall is still taking shape. “I have been working on that since the day that I was sworn in as environment minister. And some of that work has accelerated during this period,” he said. “We do intend to bring forward that climate plan. It has not been shelved in any way. And we will be doing it well before the next [United Nations climate conference]”, originally scheduled for this fall, now rescheduled to November 2021.

Wilkinson confirmed earlier reports that Ottawa is being careful that it’s “not perceived in some way of taking advantage of the situation,” adding that “Canadians have to be assured that their governments are very much focused on the here and now in the context of the pandemic.” But at the same time, “Canadians also expect their governments to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, right? They expect us to also be able to think about the future.”

Climate analysts say the Throne Speech must make that intention crystal clear. “A strong second wave of the pandemic might delay the implementation of measures, but there is no reason it should delay announcements of legislative intent or the funding for a green recovery that puts people back to work solving the health and climate crises,” Greenpeace Canada Senior Energy Strategist Keith Stewart told CBC.

The national broadcaster cites a building energy retrofit program as an immediate green employment measure that might make its way into the Throne Speech, the government’s promise to plant two billion trees that has been delayed until a federal budget can be tabled, and a long-awaited climate accountability act as a legislative item Wilkinson plans to advance this fall or in the new year.

“The timing around addressing climate change is urgent,” he told CBC. “We’re almost at the end of 2020,” and “we have a long way to go to meet—and we promised to exceed—our 2030 targets. So that’s nine years. People think nine years is a long time. In the context of some of the changes that need to be made, that’s not a very long time.”

The dizzying shifts in the expected composition of the Throne Speech have set off a weeks-long wave of organizing and advocacy across the Canadian climate community. Most recently, CBC points to an emergency petition launched by Leadnow, calling on Ottawa to “reinstate” a $100-billion commitment to a green recovery.

The Atmospheric Fund CEO Julia Langer urged Ottawa to deliver the Throne Speech that a child of the next generation would want to look back on, noting that Governor General Julie Payette’s remarks later today “will set the course for our country at an unprecedented time of economic and climate instability.” She reminded her readers that throne speeches “are about setting direction and vision, not detailed policies and programs,” but warned that “opportunities like this won’t happen again—we are at the starting line of what is likely the biggest government stimulus package of our lifetime.”

With the window closing on 2030 and 2050 carbon reduction targets, Langer added, “now is not the time to please everyone with vague, middle-of-the-road commitments—most Canadians want climate action. Industry and markets across the globe have acknowledged climate change as a qualified risk.” And  “if the Throne Speech puts equity and carbon reduction firmly at the core of its policy and investment strategy, the federal government can use its leadership and collaboration with local governments, business, and civil society to create healthier, more affordable homes, more access to employment for women and racialized communities hardest-hit by the pandemic, and reduced carbon in urban regions like the GTHA.”

On rabble.ca, Karri Munn-Venn and Brad Wassink of Citizens for Public Justice called for a Throne Speech recovery plan that is just, green, and intersectional. And in the Globe and Mail yesterday, Canadian Journalism Foundation board member Bob Ezrin—better known as a music producer, keyboardist, and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee who’s worked with Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel, Andrea Bocelli, and Phish—argued that humanity should be more afraid of the climate crisis than we seem to be so far.

“We still have a chance to fight back against the advancing climate emergency and potentially even reverse the worst effects of it through changing our social practices,” Ezrin wrote. But “that won’t happen until we come to terms with the immediacy and significance of the threat of carrying on as we have been. Instead, too often, we’re content to write or read a few articles, give or hear a few speeches, and shake our heads about how terrible it all is while putting on a serious face—before we carry on doing what we’ve always done, which is to say, continue to march toward extinction.”

The Speech from the Throne has also, suddenly, become a flashpoint for a renewed campaign against nuclear power production in Canada, after Seamus O’Regan declared over the weekend that he sees no path to net-zero carbon emissions without nuclear.

“We have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear,” O’Regan told CBC’s The House. “The fact of the matter is that it produces zero emissions,” and “there are models that we’re looking at that would reduce the amount of nuclear waste. There are other models that would recycle nuclear waste.”

The interview prompted a wave of reaction, with Greenpeace, the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, and the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) all weighing in.

Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) “are touted by Minister O’Regan as essential to addressing climate change,” a group of organizations led by CCNR said in a release yesterday. “Yet the SMR roadmap published by Natural Resources Canada says SMRs would be used for oil sands and oil and gas extraction, in addition to mining and heavy industry. The roadmap also calls on federal and provincial governments to share the cost of the first SMRs and their radioactive waste with industry.”

Yet “no plan that gets us to net zero in a reasonable time frame includes new nuclear reactors,” said Sierra Club Vice-President and Conservation Chair Ole Hendrickson. “Nuclear is far too slow and expensive to deal with the climate emergency,” and “just like fossil fuel energy, nuclear produces wastes that pose unacceptable health hazards and economic costs. Radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants have been piling up for over 70 years,” and Canada still has no long-term strategy to deal with them.

“Hypothetical new nuclear power technologies have been promising to be the next big thing for the last 40 years, but in spite of massive public subsidies, that prospect has never panned out,” wrote Greenpeace Canada Program Director Shawn-Patrick Stensil. “Meanwhile, the cost of wind, solar, and energy storage technologies have been dropping so fast they are making nuclear irrelevant.”