The Commons: Looking on the bright side of global warming

Peter Kent finds himself inconvenienced by unoptimized facts

The Scene. For sure, Peter Kent’s task is an unenviable one. He who must stand and take responsibility for the Harper government’s oft-lamented environmental policy—he who must be regularly derided by the opposition’s critics—is owed all of our empathy and perhaps even some of our charity.

But if anyone is to hold the title of Environment Minister, it might as well be Mr. Kent. He may lack the swirling bombast and fierce dismissiveness of John Baird, but after so many years in front of a television camera, he is an unflinching pitchman. And having, as a journalist, spent so many years listening to the spin of political and professional communicators, he is now an awesome weaver of words and assertions.

There he was a few weeks ago, for instance, responding to a question from the NDP’s Megan Leslie about reported job cuts at Environment Canada. “There has been a great deal of misreporting and uninformed comment on this issue,” he lamented. “There is a great difference between 776 permanent employees who might be affected, 300 positions which will be declared surplus, and the much-smaller actual number of employees who may eventually be separated from the department.”

No one is being fired, you see, merely separated from their place of work. Presumably by security guards who allow only employees to enter the building.

Or take, for another example, his response to Ms. Leslie’s complaint that the government was set to reduce its monitoring of the ozone. “I must say that while Nature is a worthy journal, the story to which she refers is completely without facts or science,” he declared. “We are not cutting any ozone-monitoring services or closing the World Ozone and Ultraviolet Radiation Data Centre, which Canada has hosted for years. However, we are optimizing and streamlining the way we monitor and measure ozone, making the best use of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Nothing is being cut, you see, only optimized and streamlined. Once total separation is complete, Environment Canada will be agile and quick and sleek. Like a polar-ice-cap-restoring panther.

“Today’s report merely echoes what our government has long recognized,” he said last week after the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy projected the cost to Canada of climate change to be in the billions, “and that is the importance of adaptation to climate change.”

“Mr. Speaker,” responded Ms. Leslie, “I guess it is time to learn to swim.”

Mr. Kent’s efforts are—how would he put it?—separated from optimization by the presence of Ms. Leslie, his primary counterpart on the opposition side. She is blessed of a certain ability to remain pleasant seeming even as she is sarcastically mocking everything about you. Unless she starts talking about a carbon tax, the government will have a difficult time portraying her as a monster hellbent on the destruction of the country.

The Environment Minister is also inconvenienced by the unoptimized facts. Whatever his government is doing with its ozone monitoring, for instance, it would likely seem less interesting if scientists hadn’t just discovered a sizeable hole in the Earth’s protective layer. And whatever the merits of the government’s plan, there would be less cause for the likes of Ms. Leslie to complain if the environment commissioner wasn’t saying things like “Since I began as commissioner three years ago, a recurring theme in my reports has been the significant gaps in the information needed to understand and respond to the changing state of our environment.”

It is probably helpful here to turn to the report released today by the commissioner. But since that is quite long, it is probably easier to turn to the news release explaining that report. The third and fourth paragraphs of that release read as follows:

The Commissioner’s Perspective notes that due to a lack of adequate management information, the government does not know what results have been achieved with the billions of dollars allocated to implement its climate change plans.

The report also notes that the federal government has not tracked the cumulative environmental effects of multiple development projects over time. As a consequence, decisions about oil sands projects have been based on incomplete, poor, or non-existent environmental information.

It is these bits to which the NDP, in their unending pessimism, clung. It is these bits which Mr. Kent, skipped past to get to the part about how the government has a plan.

“I am disappointed, though not surprised, by the opposition’s failure to recognize the commissioner’s positive words on our government’s accomplishments and our commitment with regard to oil sands monitoring,” Mr. Kent sighed. “For example, the commissioner says: ‘In my view, the federal government has taken an important step forward by both acknowledging the deficiencies of the current system and setting out a detailed plan to fix them.’ ”

Ms. Leslie was unpersuaded. “Why,” she asked, “have they given up on the environment?”

Mr. Kent was willing to meet this standard. “Mr. Speaker,” he assured, “our government has definitely not given up on the environment.”

The Stats. Suicide, nine questions. The economy, six questions. The environment, five questions. Afghanistan, military procurement and the G8 Legacy Fund, four questions each. The RCMP and bilingualism, two questions each. Syria, foreign aid and taxation, one question each.

Peter MacKay, nine answers. Stephen Harper and John Baird, six answers each. Peter Kent, five answers. Leona Aglukkaq and Ted Menzies, four answers each. Vic Toews, two answers. Steven Blaney and Bev Oda, one answer each.

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