Responding to the gathering global climate crisis is the paramount political challenge of our time. Whether we are indeed the uniquely ”œpolitical” ani- mals Aristotle described, who use the gifts of reason and speech to live in association with others, will be put to the ultimate test by this crisis. If humankind succeeds at turn- ing back this terrible threat, the achievement will be a tri- umph of our capacity to act collectively and to allocate costs and benefits " that is, politically. If we fail, we face at least the prospect of physical dislocation on the scale we tradi- tionally associate with nuclear war, and perhaps the all-out extinction of humankind. Our failure as ”œpolitical animals” could be total and final.
Meeting the climate crisis is therefore the supreme challenge for our political actors, institutions and sys- tems. We face a political problem, for which the solu- tions must be political, and must be delivered by political agencies. Now, even among people who accept the scale and urgency of the crisis, there are those who argue otherwise. Some believe the challenge too great for our political capacities to manage. Some see hope mainly in the response of individuals acting alone. Some pray for a revolution in human morals and attitudes to deliver us from the evil we have wrought, saying no measures we take will make a difference until this seachange has come about.
The first answer to this set of objections is, of course, that we shouldn’t choose, and all positive responses of whatever kind must be encouraged. Existing political mecha- nisms and players may indeed be unable to deliver the whole solution to the climate crisis. Something resembling a moral revolution may well be necessary to put our planet on a long-term sustainable track. Individual behavioural modifications must certainly take place en masse for the crisis to be surmounted. Just as no one technology can bring greenhouse gas emissions to heel in time, no one mode of human endeav- our can do the same. Political action? Individual responses? Ethical shifts? It’s all good, right?
But if every type of human activity is assigned respon- sibility for dealing with the climate crisis, no single point of accountability exists. If everyone is responsible, no one is. Government can say that business should respond, business can lay the task on consumers, and consumers can argue that governments aren’t doing their bit. The buck has to stop somewhere, and that’s with politics and government. There isn’t time for a moral revolution before the ice cap melts. There isn’t time to create a world government to head off the flooding of the heaviest population centres on the globe’s seaboards. Existing political actors, institutions and systems must take the lead and commit to breaking the back of this massive challenge.
Accepting that politics as it cur- rently exists must carry the main weight of responding to the crisis means according the lead role to the national state. For it is the national state that remains the common denominator in the ordering of human affairs throughout the world. National states, working individually and in concert, must be the primary arenas in which the political effort to manage the crisis is made. This means in turn that the content of national politics around the world must make room for the climate crisis.
What does a national politics of responding to the climate crisis look like in Canada? How is it similar to the politics of today? How different? Where do the different orders of gov- ernment fit in? Where do the parties? Are governments equipped to make the choices they must? Are citizens? Will media help?
This article explores these ques- tions in a spirit of open inquiry aimed at urgently putting solutions into effect. But let no one doubt one conclusion that will emerge: the Liberal Party of Canada has a unique opportunity to lead the political response to the climate crisis in Canada; doing so is the next great chapter in the Liberal story.
Before continuing, an inconvenient truth must be dealt with: the Liberal Party has thus far essentially failed to embrace the climate crisis in its fullness and urgency. I include myself among those Liberal activists previously indifferent to the impor- tance of this file. Ratification of the 1998 Kyoto treaty came only via Jean Chrétien’s final burst of ”œlegacy” policy-making in 2002. Despite gath- ering warnings that Canada was falling behind on its Kyoto commitment track, both the Chrétien and Martin governments chose not to take the steps that were needed to catch up. Indeed, the Liberals’ political embrace of Kyoto became complete only with the deployment of the issue as part of the high-contrast differentiation strat- egy that turned around the 2004 elec- tion campaign.
It must be noted in fairness that an administrative and policy appara- tus aimed in the direction of Kyoto compliance was being put in place, most signally in the 2005 budget. But all the while, the gap between Liberal rhetoric and reality " a 23 percent increase in the emissions that Kyoto mandat- ed to rise only 6 percent meas- ured against 1990 levels " was growing increasingly notori- ous. By the 2006 election, this gap could be wielded to great effect by the party’s opponents as one of several illustrations of a broader Liberal dishonesty. For Liberals to claim the cli- mate crisis as an issue on which they can be trusted to deliver, they must make a clean and candid admission of past failures.
Along with admitting past failures, Liberals must accept personal and political responsibility for bringing about the solution. We have reached the point where the climate crisis can no longer be treated as an item to be fitted uncomfortably into some broader Liberal program. Adding the climate crisis to a conven- tional Liberal shopping list isn’t enough. Stretching the concept into an overall narrative about sustainabili- ty is too amorphous. The specific, onrushing climate crisis must become the number one priority of the Liberal Party, and a Liberal government.
Appearing at the Canada 2020 Conference in Mont-Tremblant last June, former US vice-president Al Gore gave his famous global warming PowerPoint show. Almost as a throw- away line, he noted that if progressive- minded Canadian political activists in opposition didn’t respond to his appeal for action, what chance was there that this issue would ever get into the political mainstream? This challenge of Gore’s can be extended to include the reasonable proposition that a policy issue becomes a main- stream political concern precisely when non-movement, brokerage-ori- ented, frequently governing parties start to take a serious interest in it. Put another way, it is the role of the Liberals " especially in opposition " to induct progressive issues into the political mainstream. In so doing, the Liberals make the issue their own.
Preston Manning once described his work as follows: ”œI use the old west- ern analogy that the scout was the guy who rode ahead of the ”˜main compa- ny’ and tried to see the dangers that were up ahead or the opportunities that were up ahead. And in a sense I’ve felt that’s been my role politically.” If we extend the analogy to view the fed- eral Liberals and Conservatives as the ”œmain companies,” something impor- tant is underway. The Conservative Party of Canada, at the urging of Manning and others, has made its bid this fall to revive the Mulroney gov- ernment’s use of environmental issues as a political plus. And among the Liberals, two of the front-running can- didates, Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion, have put environmen- tal issues and themes at the very centre of their campaigns. Clearly, the scouts’ reports are being listened to.
This scout’s report has three main propositions: one, the climate crisis is real, massive and moving very quickly; two, the next era of political domi- nance in Canada will belong to the party that delivers positive solutions to the crisis with the minimum disrup- tion of our way of life and within the signature Canadian reality of region; and, three, while no party currently owns the issue, the philosophy and traditions of the Liberal Party make the Grits the most suitable candidate for the role of ”œmain company” imple- menter of solutions.
This article cannot usefully con- tribute to anyone’s sense of how real, big or fast-moving the crisis is. For that, read almost any serious book on the subject, or watch Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. There is still enor- mous work to be done in awakening both elites and the general public to the gravity of this situation. Time and (literally) tide will probably have to do their work before the critical mass is reached where serious action takes hold.
When that moment comes, how- ever, climate crisis will emerge as Canada’s first great ”œnational gov- erning issue” of the 21st century. This significant type of public policy matter I define in the following way: a specif- ic, socially transformative challenge, faced not only in Canada but in many like countries, the resolution of which requires multiple governing mandates and is delivered by a large, purpose- built and often enduring power struc- ture located inside and outside government.
A national governing issue is distinct from a relatively ephemeral elec- tion issue, such as a scandal, a cyclical issue such as the state of the economy, or an issue of governing style. A national governing issue is also dis- tinct from the perennial Canadian concern of region, which I have else- where argued is the defining character- istic of our country’s national politics.
Indeed, the hallmark of an era of single-party dominance is the suc- cessful management of a national governing issue within Canada’s region-dominated political framework. Creating a coalition of those who benefit from how the challenge is being met, along with a power structure to manage it, and doing both while covering the right regional bases, may perhaps even be one of the keys to cementing a period of single-party dominance.
Canada’s eras of federal domi- nance by one party usually correspond to one or more such issues being at work. Indeed, they are integral to such periods. Conservatives argue tren- chantly that the dominant party uses such issues not only to appeal to vot- ers, but to build up a powerful clientele of those professionally engaged in the issue’s resolution. Others less chary of the role of governments and parties might note that the issue ”œuses” the party and the state to get to the required outcome.
The first example in our history is the correlation between the construc- tion of the transcontinental railway, the National Policy that underpinned it and the 30 years of Conservative Party prevalence from Confederation to 1896. At times it was literally impossible to sort out where the party left off and the railway enterprise or the government support for it picked up, so intermingled were the affairs of the government of Canada, the Liberal-Conservative Party, Montreal financiers, Upper Canadian manufac- turers and western land promoters. These interests formed a kind of Bloc Ferroviaire, resting atop a constitu- tional structure in the British North America Act that was in many ways designed to allow this political jugger- naut to come into being.
The obvious Liberal corollary is the social welfare state lying at the heart of the period of stable Grit rule that stretches from 1935 to 1957. The imperative for action was global: the crisis of capitalism unleashed in the Great Depression. The solution was sweeping and of enduring nobility, going well beyond the economic slump’s causes into a wholesale clean- up of many ills associated with indus- trial capitalism’s first 150 years. During its first quarter-century, the political system arising from that solution did not so much include Quebec as accom- modate it. Indeed, erecting the system on a national scale required, inter alia, a massive rejigging of Confederation’s financial (and, some would say, constitutional) arrangements. In time, with the return of the Pearson/Trudeau Liberals following the Diefenbaker interregnum, post-Quiet Revolution Quebec would be brought enthusiasti- cally into the arrangement as a full, even leading partner in this political colossus. And a colossal vote-getter it was, delivering to Liberals the largest majorities in their storied history.
State-delivered social welfare was not the only national governing issue that fuelled the Liberal mid-century machine. C.D. Howe’s Crown-owned industrial complex kept the economic development fires burning. And a new national governing issue arose in the Canadian version of the global human rights revolution, which would give rise here to multicultural- ism, build feminist imperatives into existing and new social policies and create what Conservatives term the ”œcourt party” of progressive lawyers, social advocates, judges and law pro- fessors. As with the Rowell-Sirois reforms that enabled the national social welfare state, constitutional changes accompanied this national governing issue as well.
Globalization, the preponderant public policy issue of the past quarter- century, has not fallen into the catego- ry of ”œnational governing issue.” At first, Prime Minister Mulroney attempted to establish a period of PC Party dominance on the basis of glob- alization, brilliantly designing the political thrust of his Canada-US free trade proposal to pass smoothly through Canada’s regional machinery. His attempt at Meech Lake to constitu- tionally re-engineer the regional machinery itself, however, destroyed the Conservative coalition after only nine years in power. Thereafter, Chrétien’s Liberals kept a wary dis- tance from globalization, although some (Stephen Clarkson in particular) have argued that this public posture masked an offstage embrace. Even Paul Martin " in his business life an enthu- siastic practitioner of global enterprise " took great care in politics to treat globalization as as much of a challenge as an opportunity.
There are reasons why globalization has not followed the same course as the railroad, the welfare state or the human rights revolution. Globalization does not work in concert with the power of states and political parties; it erodes it. Its enthusiasts look outward from public policy toward the private sector. They have little interest in erect- ing a power structure to deliver pro- gramming to constituent groups. Indeed, globalization’s fiercest epigones frequently disdain electoral politics itself as yet another impediment to the workings of the free market. It would be odd indeed to see globalization form the text of a Canadian party’s dominance. Not so the unfolding climate cri- sis. Indeed, it is almost tailor-made for ”œnational governing issue” status.
The climate crisis " if and only if it is rescued from the too-large and nebu- lous issue set of ”œthe environment” " is a specific challenge. It is transfor- mative: easily surpassing the scale of the erection of the social welfare state in any one country. In fact, when taken globally with all its implica- tions vis-à-vis international develop- ment, the climate crisis dwarfs any public policy challenge ever faced. It will take literally decades to resolve this issue favourably; nothing farther from an election campaign gimmick can be imagined.
The management of this tremen- dous challenge will require aggregat- ed capacities " centres of physical power with political power behind them " that will rank with the largest ever constructed by mankind. In every country, and on a global scale, very large-scale projects will be required for such immense tasks as developing and implementing carbon sequestration technology, migrating to non-fossil-fuel energy production, enabling non-fossil-fuel energy con- sumption and building enhanced mass transit systems.
As the ill effects of the climate change we have already perpetrated come on stream, it is reasonable to expect global infrastructure require- ments to handle significant water level increases in coastal areas. Some have also suggested the establishment of wildlife migration corridors along which species can travel as the changing climate forces them away from despoiled traditional habitats. Each one of these projects is immense. Taken together, they amount to some- thing unprecedented. It is not unrea- sonable to speculate that the engineering capacity that will be required to meet the challenge could rival that amassed into the American military-industrial complex to prosecute the Cold War. Global warming is big stuff and so will be the structures we erect to manage it. Parties will gravitate toward such bodies, and vice versa.
The political opportuni- ty to become Canada’s party of the climate crisis, and to be thereby the vehicle by which this nation makes its con- tribution to meeting this supreme challenge, is available to each of the federal parties. Public opinion research indicates that no party has any partic- ular ownership of the issue when it comes to taking the debate beyond emoting about the need for action and into action itself. According to years of research, many voters perceive that the NDP is the best electoral vehicle for expressing environmental concern and inculcating awareness within the political system. A similar edge is being sought in Quebec by the sovereignist movement. The Conservatives are making their bid this fall.
The Liberal Party is by dint of its traditions and values the party best positioned to take up the great chal- lenge of the climate crisis. Its experi- ence with erecting the structures by which national governing issues are managed " Canada’s social welfare apparatus and its human rights infra- structure " bespeaks a comfort level with large-scale, publicly mandated systems to meet great national chal- lenges. That comfort level is in turn based on the core liberal values in Canada: connectedness and inclusion in social endeavour, as distinct from the primacy conservatives place on the individual. While there is a lively debate to be had on this score it is at least arguable that building the collec- tive structures that can manage the cli- mate crisis down to a stable state is something that comes more naturally to Liberals.
This is not to suggest that Liberals will apply by rote the public policy template of the New Deal or the Great Society to meeting the cli- mate crisis. In fact, the Liberal track record on other issues of importance suggests that it is the party’s ideolog- ical flexibility and pragmatic tradi- tions that make it the better vehicle to deal with this complex crisis than the more rigorous Conservatives. If one believes that market-based cap- and-trade approaches should be used, as well as large-scale public works, industrial/energy strategies and regu- latory solutions originating in gov- ernment, the Liberals’ flexibility appears most potentially beneficial.
Here in Canada, critical political decisions will have to be made regarding not only the ownership model of providing solutions, but also the constitutional framework in which this will take place. The intellectual field of Canadian enviro-federalism is still being sown, but will soon no doubt flower. The issues of substance are significant. How do jurisdictions parcel out control over use of economic instruments (taxes, really) to curb harmful consumer behaviours? (In a country where control over lottery revenues became a constitutional bargaining chip, a lengthy dispute on this score seems likely.) Put another way, what shape would our economic union take if the fossil-fuel-producing and fossil-fuel-consuming regions of Canada were to adopt widely varying carbon tax regimes? Would Ottawa need to step in? Could it? What does this do to equalization? Will it create a fiscal imbalance reminiscent of the one which threatened the federal govern- ment in the late 1970s? Among the technicians of our federation " those who studied social policy in the 1960s, constitutional law in the 1970s and 1980s, and health care in the 1990s " the next generation is already boning up on Milankovitch cycles and ice-cap melt rates, while their associates at Defence and Foreign Affairs are figur- ing out defence and foreign policy needs arising from the opening of an ice-free Northwest Passage.
As with the public-versus-private question, it is the Liberals’ flexibility that recommends them when it comes to managing the jurisdictional politics of the climate crisis.
Liberals have generally been very flexible and pragmatic in making arrangements for the management of national governing issues, as evidenced by everything from Laurier’s ”œsunny ways” of 1896 to Trudeau’s give-back of control over extra-billing in health care to provinces of 1976, Chrétien’s Social Union Framework Accord of 1997 and Martin’s health accord of 2004. By con- trast, the Conservatives since Macdonald have almost always posi- tioned themselves on the pro-provin- cial side of any Liberal position, no matter how nuanced. A Conservative Party that believes in a smaller government in the economy and a smaller Ottawa in the federation has only one place to go in dealing with the climate crisis: to the market and the provinces. Canadians deserve a wider range of options.
The aforementioned factors bias the Liberals toward making the best offering on climate change, but stop short of ordaining it. Political choice matters, and there is a political choice to be made in each party.
At a fundamental level it seems unlikely that the Conservative Party will choose this issue for its own. The Harper party has already chosen as its animating principle the defence of the West from its enemies. This is a noble cause, honourably undertaken, and the Harper government appears determined to pursue it even if it means risking its entire Quebec-based strategy for retaining power. This fall’s environmental policy moves simply cannot compete with the war in Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, rebuilding the military and solidarity with Canada’s traditional anglosphere allies. The Conservatives have decided what they’re about.
New Democrats and Bloquistes are in a similar situation. The Bloc is about sovereignty, period. Ever since Jacques Parizeau peddled separation as a means to his undefined project de société in the 1994 provincial election campaign, sovereignists have been seeking to reposition their product away from its ontological origins toward something more relevant to workaday voters and their concerns. The 1995 referendum campaign urged ”œVotez Oui,” and with an earth sym- bol rolling cheerfully across the TV screen, breathlessly pledged ”œet ça devient possible.” André Boisclair’s recent effort to yoke the sovereignty project to environmental ends is only the latest in this line of efforts. One imagines this démarche will be no more successful than the others. Quebec voters appear quite aware that the sovereignty movement is about sovereignty, point final, not sovereign- ty as a means of going green. The choice has been made.
For its part, the NDP appears to be of the view that it has already selected itself as the party of the envi- ronment. But this prior investment is exactly why the NDP cannot be the party that forges the climate crisis into a national governing issue. The party has already committed to the environ- ment as its issue, and this commit- ment entails certain choices. Converting from coal-fired to nuclear electricity generation is the most strik- ing case in point. Many environmental fundamentalists are dead set against nuclear energy, mainly owing to oper- ating safety and spent-fuel storage concerns. Others, including some very prominent early leaders in the movement, believe that the climate crisis is so severe that nuclear energy’s flaws are vastly outweighed by the role it can play in bringing down reliance on coal. So it is with carbon-sequestration and ”œclean coal” technologies as well. Many simply do not trust these kinds of solutions and instead wish to see even greater changes in lifestyles than are currently called for, moral/ethical revolutions, the end of globalization and so forth.
Treating the environment as divis- ible is a non-starter for an NDP that cannot be too picky about its progres- sive allies. New Democrats facing the twilight of the industrial trade union- ism that informed the New Party of 1960 can ill afford to jettison any of the green-tinged friends they have acquired since ”œecology” became a progressive issue in the early 1970s. The votes of environmental activists had a lot to do with Jack Layton’s assumption of leadership in 2003. Moreover, with the Green Party appar- ently growing in strength, the NDP cannot afford to trifle with a single environmentally motivated vote, espe- cially in the ridings where these votes are concentrated and the competition with the hated Liberals is fiercest. For these reasons, the NDP will go on being the party of a broad commit- ment to the environment, and pass on the chance to be the implementer of solutions to the climate crisis. Once again, the Moses-like New Democrats have made their choice: to lead to the very borders of the Promised Land, and leave entering it to the leadership of others.
As the Liberals make their choice, perhaps a spoonful of political oppor- tunity will help the medi- cine go down. The climate crisis issue offers a potent opportunity for Liberals to stimulate the Green Party challenge on the NDP’s left. In Quebec, the issue could serve to position Liberals once again as a truly pro- gressive party in tune with Quebecers’ values, not the hated agent of President Bush, ”œsavage capitalism” and globalization carica- tured in sovereignist rap songs. Federal Liberals in embracing the climate crisis could find them- selves thus cutting into the two threats on their left flank which have bedev- illed them since 2000. A rallying of even 5 percent of the electorate could put Liberals once again where a good leader with a good campaign could deliver a majority " even in the face of a united right, and a strong NDP and BQ. And with such a majority, the serious work of implementing solu- tions within Canada’s unique circumstances could begin.
Getting serious about the climate crisis also offers an excellent means of refurbishing the core Liberal mission of combating Quebec’s sepa- ratists. There is no better argument for federalism than meeting this global crisis, for it is the pooling of sovereign- ty among jurisdictions " the very def- inition of federalism " that is the sole means by which this deadly threat to the global atmospheric common can be surmounted. In a world facing the climate crisis, Quebec should consider in which form it can exert its very pos- itive and forward-looking orientation on the issue.
As one of 192 sovereign countries, Quebec’s influence would be limited indeed, although perhaps this would be mitigated in part by pride associat- ed with generating 97 percent of one’s electricity via hydro. Its leverage, how- ever, would be vastly more within the Canadian federation. Within Canada, the views of Quebecers can legitimate- ly and forcefully come to bear on developing Alberta’s oil sands, on the emissions standards of Ontario’s cars and on the carbon sequestration of British Columbia’s coal and Nova Scotia’s natural gas production. Post- Quiet Revolution Quebec served as the engine of our human rights revolution, and the second great wave of building our social welfare system. The province’s enthusiasm for the free trade agreement was critical to the country’s embrace of globalization in the 1980s. Quebec can play this role again on the climate crisis. If Quebec wants the world to catch up to its enlightened energy practices and envi- ronmental attitudes, it owes the world continued participation in the Canadian federation.
This is a compelling, durable argu- ment, which, if delivered by a credible, committed federalist party, could pro- vide a forceful refutation of the latest, green iteration of the sovereignty quest. Moreover, this argument could offer a positive rationale for federalism to the audience that has heard one the least and cares about climate change the most: francophone Quebecers under 30.
These political prizes " even one so glittering as a new point of entry for the federalist voice in Quebec " are not the point, however. And they pale in the face of the awesome politi- cal and public policy challenges associ- ated with securing public support for the kinds of measures that must be taken. The climate crisis is not a ”œgood problem to have.” Some very prelimi- nary " and perhaps optimistic " cal- culations have been made of the economic burden associated with holding atmospheric carbon levels at 550 ppm (a level at which many scien- tists currently agree that planetary climate change may perhaps be stabi- lized). These tend to agree that approx- imately 2-3 percent of GDP would need to be devoted to the effort of meeting the climate crisis. By way of comparison, total 2004 government and private health spending in Canada was estimated at approximately 10 percent of GDP. But an even share would be most unlikely for one of the most heav-energy-using countries in the world, which is also one of the largest energy-producing countries in the world. Moreover, we don’t really know how big this problem is going to be by the time its full dimensions become clear. Bottom line: this is an immense problem " think about investing approximately $30 billion a year on it " that could get a lot bigger.
It is unclear that our insurance and banking systems are up to the challenge. The world’s risk manage- ment apparatus has been built around threats that are more imminent but much smaller in scale than those asso- ciated with the gathering climate crisis reaching a critical stage.
So it is far from clear that our economy can take this in stride. It is equally unclear that the regional make-up of our politics can take this immense challenge in stride as well. It will require enormous political skill to avoid a repeat of the producer-ver- sus-consumer energy wars of the 1970s and early 1980s, with all of their immense damage to the fabric of the federation.
As well, it is far from clear that our governmental systems are up to the challenge of making the kind of com- plex technical evaluations in real time that will have to become routine if the crisis is to be met. The demand for timely decisions regarding technical merit, cost and complex environmen- tal impacts could conflict very serious- ly with the current requirements for strict accountability procedures. Moreover, the tendencies of political reportage toward underdog dramas and allegations of skulduggery could cause vital remediations to grind to a halt. Minor transgressions, or even non-existent ones, in an Ottawa where one is ”œinnocent until investigated” could become excuses that send politi- cians and civil servants running for cover when timely action is required.
Indeed, it is far from clear that our entire political system is up to a chal- lenge on this scale. The climate crisis, a challenge as sweeping and widespread as globalization itself, perversely requires governmental and political finesse not attempted since the New Deal " with much less room for trial- and-error politics and policy-making.
We must not forget how close our economic and political systems came to radical and deleterious transforma- tion in the 1930s. Liberals played the key role in devising and implementing the solution to the crisis in Canada. Sadly, this ”œfinest hour” seems upon us once again. And once again, we can- not fail.