Climate change: What if we just say everything is a carbon tax?

The state of the debate

Leona Aglukkaq (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Two months ago, Michael Chong said something profound. Or at least he quoted Brian Mulroney saying something profound.

“Mr. Speaker, last week, the IPCC, the UN group that since 1990 has been gathering evidence on our warming planet, issued its most sobering assessment yet,” the Conservative MP explained. He proceeded then to rhyme off the measures the government had already taken and then to tell the House that, “I encourage the government to roll out the rest of its climate change plan and to introduce regulations for the oil and gas sector and for other large final emitters.”

This might’ve been enough to qualify Mr. Chong’s statement to the House as interesting, but he then concluded with the lofty words of our 18th prime minister.

“Now, it is true that many are still skeptical of the science of climate change, but it is also true that governments can convince the public,” Mr. Chong continued. “As former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said this week: ‘Leadership is the process, not only of foreseeing the need for change but making the case for change. Leadership does not consist of imposing unpopular ideas on the public but of making unpopular ideas acceptable to the nation.’ ”

Leadership is a lovely idea. So is doing something somehow about climate change.

Skip ahead to Last Thursday, when Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said something profound. Or hilarious. Or perhaps both.

Megan Leslie, the NDP’s critic, was pestering the minister about a report that meteorologists at Environment Canada had been told to avoid mentioning climate change when discussing the latest weather highlights. Ms. Aglukkaq was unimpressed.

“Mr. Speaker, that is absolutely ridiculous,” she responded. “Unlike the other side, I have chosen not to play politics with this when it comes to protecting the environment. I regularly meet with Canadians across the country to speak to them about the priorities of our government, which are important to them as well. On the other hand, the opposition will continue to play politics with this issue.”

It is perhaps rather late to be lamenting that the House of Commons might be used to play politics—some might even suggest that the arena was specifically designed for that sport—but in an alternate universe, the debate around environmental policy in this country is somehow more serious than whatever it is now. For sure, the same might be said of any number of files—and from that are launched a thousand easy op-eds about how it’s time to have an “adult discussion” about this, that and the other thing—but is there any area subject to a greater gap between the apparent serious of the matter and and the distinct lack of anything like a remotely serious debate about said matter?

Is this not one of the great issues of our time? Is it not a matter of the future of the very planet we presently inhabit?

We might at least start with the basics. Do we consider climate change to be a serious matter? If so, how serious? If quite serious, should we do something about it? And if so, how?

Today was a suitable day to consider those questions.

In the United States, the President introduced new rules designed to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of coal-generated electricity. In Canada, the Prime Minister attempted to claim his government was way ahead of its American counterpart.

Noting the President’s announcement, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair wondered this afternoon whether the Conservatives might finally get around to imposing regulations on the oil-and-gas sector—that which were first said to be expected to be ready by the end of 2012, and then by the middle of 2013 and which are now said to be on hold unless and until the U.S. government is willing to partner with the Harper government on something.

In response, the Prime Minister suggested a different comparison.

“To correct the leader of the NDP … we actually announced the regulation of this sector two years ago,” Mr. Harper explained. “Not only have we already been acting, but under the regulations this government has already brought forward, we will have 150% larger reduction than those in the United States.”

No doubt, the Prime Minister’s writers were excited when they realized this line.

It would seem to have the benefit of being basically true, even if it is apparently besides the point. While Canada’s regulations do take a harder stance on our domestic coal industry, it seems our dependence on coal is about a third of theirs—13% of our electricity is generated by coal compared to 37% in the United States.

A more useful comparison thus might be of the U.S. coal industry to the Canadian oil industry—their largest source of emissions versus ours. On that count, the United States now has a proposed set of regulations. And the Harper government has, for now, two missed deadlines and perhaps a hope that this won’t matter in 2015.

That emissions have been reduced already doesn’t have much of anything to do with what the Harper government has so far done. That emissions in the future will be much less than they might have been depends on comparing the current course with the worst case scenario. That the Harper government is apparently still committed to achieving its Copenhagen targets for GHG emissions is of questionable utility until the Harper government presents a plan that gets the country anywhere close to doing so. And if it is the government’s contention now that it simply can’t act on the oil and gas sector until the United States is ready to do likewise, it might at least explain why that is a necessary prerequisite.

Mr. Harper would repeat his version of events again for Mr. Mulcair’s benefit and then Ms. Aglukkaq would ignore a plea from Ms. Leslie to get on with regulating the oil-and-gas sector and later Ms. Aglukkaq would dismiss a question from Liberal MP Geoff Regan.

And so Elizabeth May was left, with the penultimate question of the afternoon, to attempt a summation. “Mr. Speaker, so far in question period we have treated to a climate change shell game,” she ventured. “It has not gotten to the truth of the matter.”

Yes, well, why should climate change be treated any more seriously during QP than any other issue?

It is, of course, unfortunate if anyone would treat this like a game of any kind. At least so far as you believe climate change to be a rather serious matter.

In the midst of all this, the minister of state for finance, under repeated questioning and perhaps running short of talking points, started crying out about a different kind of disaster. “It,” Kevin Sorenson said of the NDP, “wants to propose a $21 billion carbon tax on every small business in this country and on every Canadian.”

This was at least the 824th occasion on which a Conservative MP has referenced a “carbon tax” in the House of Commons since a new Parliament was returned in the spring of 2011. Which is at least passing strange for a party that has no such policy on offer.

We have been over this at some length. Having previously been in favour of putting a price on carbon and establishing a cap-and-trade system, the Harper Conservatives decided, at some point in 2011, that the Liberal and NDP cap-and-trade proposals were the same thing as a carbon tax—a carbon tax having been made out to be a toxic idea as a result of the Conservative party’s 2008 campaign against Liberal leader Stephane Dion, during which the Conservatives were in favour of cap-and-trade.

If this was and is all a bit ridiculous, it is at least no more ridiculous than the Republican party denouncing regulations that are less stringent than what its 2008 presidential candidate proposed. (Or a Democratic president being celebrated for same.)

And yet, a little over a year ago now, Leona Aglukkaq’s predecessor went to Washington and was heard to muse aloud that,”There hasn’t been a great deal of subtlety in talking about carbon pricing.”

Perhaps. But perhaps now is the time to give up on whatever subtlety remains.

Peter Kent was later reported to have negotiated an increase to Alberta’s carbon levy and it was reported just a month ago that the Alberta government was prepared to double its levy, but Jim Prentice, Mr. Kent’s predecessor, now seems reluctant to follow through if elected premier. Meanwhile, here is Eric Newell calling for a “compliance levy” and there is speculation that the new American regulations could encourage cap-and-trade systems in the United States.

“This is not a carbon tax per se,” Mr. Newell says of his levy. And he’s right, in a way, but then neither, per se, is cap-and-trade. But still here we are—one side screaming “carbon tax!” while the other side shouts “do something!” Would that something be enough to reach our Copenhagen target? Is any party here—The New Democrats? The Liberals?—willing to pursue the sort of policy—$100 price per tonne of GHG emissions?—that might be necessary to reach that target?

Might we at least somehow move the discussion forward?

If we are to do anything about climate change it will surely cost something. The regulations the Harper government has preferred? Those cost money. Not doing anything to reduce carbon emissions? That will likely cost money. Probably we could even go ahead and calculate how much carbon emissions currently add to our public health system, but any number of other models might be used to calculate the future costs—to, say, infrastructure and the economy—of dealing with the effects of climate change.

All of it might be considered one kind of carbon tax or another. And in the case of those who would prefer we do nothing about GHG emissions, we could at least know what kind of wager they are making. Everything this side of doing nothing could be measured in degrees.

We could, in short, stop fussing over the phrase “carbon tax” and start sorting out precisely how big or small of a carbon tax we are willing to pay.

If there has been leadership here somehow perhaps it is in that: with each of those 824 references to a carbon tax we have been reminded that if we are to do something about “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today,” it will not be done without some cost. Possibly that won’t be universally popular, but it will at least be something like the truth.

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