Despite the political turmoil, Canada-US relations are solid on many levels. Bilateral action on climate change will require more of the quiet, pragmatic cooperation.

Climate change advocates in Canada and the United States have experienced several wins over the past few years on the multilateral, trilateral and bilateral fronts.  The United States and Canada both joined the historic Paris Agreement, which created global principles and norms to combat climate change.  On the trilateral front, Secretary Ernest Moniz, Minister Jim Carr and Secretary Pedro Joaquin Coldwell met in Winnipeg early this year to sign the Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Climate Change and Energy Collaboration.  Climate change also figured prominently at the North American Leaders Summit in June 2016, where the three North American leaders announced a North America-wide initiative to synchronize national policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  In the bilateral realm, Prime Minister Trudeau’s new foreign policy tone toward the United States and his successful state visit with President Obama this past spring resulted in a commitment by both countries to a series of bilateral efforts, including a reduction in methane emissions and joint actions in the Arctic.  President Obama, in fact, declared, “[T]the United States and Canada are fully united in combating climate change.”

These victories, although significant, face an uncertain future.  Climate change and energy policy do not figure prominently on the platforms of either US presidential candidate.  Hillary Clinton has hedged on the issue.  On the one hand, she seems committed to continue the climate-friendly policies of the Obama administration, while on the other hand assuring trade unions that she would defend natural gas extraction.  Donald Trump, meanwhile, has said he would kill the Clean Power Plan (currently under full-court review).

Uncertainty is driven also by the complex political dynamics currently playing out in the United States.  The country is in the throes of an historic election – historic not only because of Clinton as the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, but also because the polarized and populist sentiments exposed daily in the media are highlighting a deep chasm in America.  This rift is playing out not only on the presidential front but also in congressional and State elections.  Former politicians and statesmen lament the fact that there is no longer a willingness in Congress to reach across the aisle.  Moderates in both parties are few and far between; positions are hardening; and ideological extremism seems at the moment to be ruling the day.  These sentiments reflect a deep domestic crisis in the United States – a crisis that will drive the agenda of the next president.  Regardless of who is elected, he or she will pursue American interests defined in terms of these domestic pressures.

This may be rather disconcerting for Canadians.  Domestic decisions in the United States in the environmental realm have always had a tremendous impact on Canada’s relationship with its neighbour to the south, given the two countries’ proximity and their shared air, water and land.  Canadians also may be concerned about the progress on the climate change file, because it has been achieved almost exclusively through executive action.  Even the Paris Accord was accomplished through executive agreement, without seeking Senate ratification to make it binding.  There are no guarantees that future administrations will adhere to its provisions – or the provisions of any bilateral or trilateral accord struck by President Obama.

Given this state of affairs, no one can legitimately gaze into a crystal ball and accurately predict how the election will impact bilateral climate change initiatives.  Yet with the election one week away, we can ask:  How can the Trudeau government – solidly committed to tackle climate change and environmental protection – move ahead on these issues when the next president of the United States and/or Congress may be less committed and more focused on domestic pressures and issues?  How can the Canadian government and climate interests leverage the realities of the Canada-US relationship and influence US policy on climate change to align with their own climate interests?

The prime minister is in a position to lead and strongly recommit to strengthening the relationship and bilateral climate initiatives with the new president.

The Prime Minister currently enjoys a tremendous platform for engaging with the United States – the strongest platform a Canadian leader has enjoyed in years.  Any bilateral climate strategy must build upon this strength.  He is in a position to lead and strongly recommit to strengthening the relationship and bilateral climate initiatives with the new president.  In addition, he is in a position to acknowledge and leverage the mature nature of the Canada-US relationship.  Public, private, NGO and academic interests on both sides of the border – and at all levels of government – have strong working relationships with each other and access to public officials.  This strength is often overlooked.  Scholars, analysts, pundits and public servants have engaged in a lot of hand-wringing in the search for a “larger vision” or a “grand bargain” to elevate the status of the Canada-US relationship.  This is misguided. The guideposts are well established; the roadmap is already in our hands.

Indeed, there is growing recognition of this reality.  In June 2016, more than 60 groups representing almost every facet of the Canada-US relationship met in Columbus, Ohio, to endorse the contours of the Canada-US relationship.  As noted in the Columbus Declaration, ours relationship is defined, in part, by 1) a shared environmental interdependence that makes it unwise to be indifferent to each other when it comes to environmental policy; 2) the rule of law, which relies on diplomacy to arrive at consent and consensus; and 3) the principle of partnership that has guided the leaders of the United States and Canada since the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to work together as sovereign equals, despite the asymmetries of population, wealth and other disparities.  It is exactly because of the mature nature of our ties and our deep connections to each other that the relationship stays, for the most part, out of the headlines (software lumber one possible exception, of course).  The Trudeau government should emphasize and reinforce these facets of the relationship when dealing with climate change issues in the next US administration.  No grand bargain or larger vision is necessary.

Canada should seek to partner with climate and energy interests in the United States who share its interests and policy goals.

At the same time, there is recognition that stakeholders have always played a strong role in crafting the Canada-US agenda from the bottom-up.  Stakeholders in Columbus acknowledged the importance of our political leaders and systems, and contended that the best policy and practical solutions stem from their engagement.  To further bilateral climate policy, then, Canada should seek to partner with climate and energy interests in the United States who share its interests and policy goals, given that it is likely that the new administration and Congress will be focused intensely on domestic pressures when it comes to climate policy.  There is currently broad recognition that Canada-US stakeholders have driven, and will continue to drive, the agenda for the relationship in the coming years. These stakeholders recognize the decentralized nature of the relationship and the importance of aligning interests to achieve common goals.  By aligning with US interests where it makes sense, Canadians are ensuring that their interests are met, and the next Administration and Congress will satisfy elements of their domestic constituency as well.

Because we enjoy such a mature relationship, much of the on-the-ground action will take place behind the scenes. It will be roll-up-your-sleeves kinds of action in the trenches.  A lot of it will not be sexy (or combative) enough to make the front page.  This is where climate actors in both countries need to focus.  We must be pragmatic.

For years, many stakeholders looked to Europe, holding out hope that North America would also become some sort of continental community “from above.”  The weaknesses of such a setup, which include the aloofness of bureaucrats dictating from above – are now in plain sight.  Canada and the United States do not need any sort of structural dictate for collaboration, consent and consensus-building agendas. North American stakeholder engagement “from the bottom up” has emerged as a sound approach.

And so, while the Trudeau government plays to its strengths, climate change activists and other environmental interests need to engage their counterparts more deliberately and more often on bilateral strategies.  Those of us who are engaged in the Canada-US relationship – whether in cross-border business transactions, government diplomacy or public diplomacy – must accept the reality that this approach is how we get things done.  Indeed, where would you prefer the relationship be at noon on January 20, 2017 after the president is inaugurated?  In the headlines, which are dominated by war, combat, disease and poverty, or in a position of strength behind the scenes, forging strategic collaborations to strengthen bilateral climate policy?

Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo

This article is part of The US Presidential Election special feature.


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