A week after the climate crisis emerged as the big winner in Canada’s federal election, politicians and opinion writers are beginning to probe the prospects for climate action in a period of minority government—and the extent to which the Liberals’ choices over the next several months will determine Justin Trudeau’s legacy as prime minister.
“Climate change has never before played as central a role in a Canadian federal election as it did this year, and Mr. Trudeau ran hard on his record as the only leader offering both credible action on climate change and continued support for Canada’s oil and gas sector,” author Chris Turner writes in the Globe and Mail. That campaign plank reflected the PM’s first-term attempt at a “grand climate bargain—better market access for oil and gas in a sort of trade for consensus on a workable path to a low-carbon economy—and Canadians have given him a shot at seeing that bargain through.”
That “grand bargain might look, at first glance, heavily compromised and in peril from all sides,” Turner adds, with Ontario and Alberta pursuing their crusade against carbon pricing and the two parties that hold the swing votes in Parliament, the New Democrats and the Greens, both largely opposed to pipelines. But while it isn’t hard to imagine the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion or some other climate issue toppling the government, “there’s a chance—a much stronger chance, I’d wager—that Mr. Trudeau’s grand bargain has already made it through its heaviest sledding,” he says. “The Liberals embarked on the lethally dangerous political act of running on a plan with the word ‘tax’ at its centre and survived,” while “Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives bet hard against climate-change action—and lost.”
“The Conservatives, campaigning as pimps for Canada’s Petroleum Producers, were held to 34% of the popular vote,” adds former National Observer executive editor Chris Hatch. “In the world of realpolitik, the final result was probably the best available outcome—the Liberals will govern by keeping the support of parties that want even more ambition.”
The net result of last week’s vote, Turner agrees, is that “two-thirds of the seats in Parliament are now occupied by members whose parties want a price on carbon and even more strident action on climate change”. And Trudeau “has promised exactly that—a vague pledge of five-year binding emissions targets, moving toward a net-zero economy by mid-century.”
While the resulting political terrain is both promising and perilous for climate voters, “the opportunity exists for the climate action equivalent of the Pearson minority that embedded universal health care forever in the Canadian political bedrock,” Turner concludes. “And that would be an impressive legacy indeed.”
But the legacy won’t be assured by one general election vote, Hatch warns. “We can allow ourselves a moment of relief that Canada has, at long last, an actual set of climate policy mechanisms in place that have been battle-tested and prevailed,” he writes. “We can now focus politically on turning those policy knobs up to the levels required. We are not going back to years of unbridled extraction populism and climate pollution.”
But “we cannot allow ourselves to rest for long. And we cannot allow ourselves the indulgence of avoiding the hard analysis necessary to keep driving forward,” particularly when the “broad public agreement on climate” can be fractured by factionalism among the major parties in Parliament or continuing, deliberate opposition from the fossil lobby.
“The oil barons are not likely to take this well,” Hatch warns. “‘Thousands upon thousands’ are in apoplectic rage. Many more of our fellow Canadians are desperately worried about their livelihoods, their mortgages, their families. Our goal cannot be a pitched battle with the dead-enders like Kenney and Ford,” particularly with the fossil lobby fuelling its “cauldron of nihilism” even hotter.
Experience in other countries shows that” we need to raise the chorus demanding deeper, faster action and simultaneously convince sensible, normal people that the policies needed are completely reasonable,” he concludes. “This may require some humility on the part of climate activists. Understand that when we lead into the conversation with your brother-in-law by calling for the abolishment of ‘capitalism’, he quite understandably hears ‘we are going to abolish the right to private property and entrepreneurship’. We might have more success highlighting the grave injuries giant fossil corporations are causing to the sacred rights to life and property.”
In the same vein, “we can help your aunt picture life in countries around the world where people are getting to work just fine and carbon-spewing cars are exiting the picture. She is much less likely to be moved by lectures on the finer points of carbon pricing.”
Ultimately, “as we drive the ball forward, let’s make every effort to do so with open hearts, empathy for those who have different worldviews to the typical climate activist, and insisting on real, tangible support for our neighbours who are being asked to make painful, life-transforming sacrifices,” Hatch urges.
Over the last few days of post-election news, an Abacus Data poll showed 64% of Canadians supporting or willing to accept Liberal-New Democratic cooperation in the next parliament, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May urged NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to make cancellation of the Trans Mountain pipeline a condition for supporting the Liberal minority. Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s campaign against the federal carbon tax could come back to haunt him if he can’t deliver on his promise to boost the provincial economy, while University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas urged Albertans not to let Kenney push a “polarized partisan narrative in our name”.
Business Green said the election result paved the way for a push toward a net zero emissions target, while CTV News had the European Union and Germany welcoming the Liberals’ win as a victory for climate policy.