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We need a 'war-time' approach to tackling the climate challenge

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"So far as it is possible, Canada's effort in this war must be a planned and concerted national effort… In order to have the tremendous quantities of supplies available at the right time, and in the right place, it is imperative that the economic life of Canada be reorganized, but not disorganized. The economic forces of the country require to be mobilized, just as the armed forces are mobilized. This task can be performed, in the main, only by the national government. Its adequate performance, however, demands the co-operation of provincial and municipal authorities, as well as of business, labour, the farmers and other primary producers, and of voluntary organizations of all kinds…

Within a few hours of the outbreak of war, the government established the War-Time Prices and Trade Board to prevent hoarding, profiteering, and undue rise in prices of necessities. The duties and powers of the Board are extensive. It confers with manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, with a view to enlisting their co-operation in ensuring reasonable prices, adequate supplies, and equitable distribution of all necessaries of life…

The War Budget, although necessarily burdensome, was founded upon the very just principle of taxation -- ability to pay. Upon those making profits from the war, we have placed a heavy excess profits tax…"

-- From a broadcast by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, October 1939 (one month after Canada declares its entry into the Second World War)

The climate crisis did not receive the attention it should have in the recent federal election. Yet there is no doubt that, like Mackenzie King, the new prime minister finds himself called upon to lead the country through a generational existential challenge.

And as occurred in the Second World War, rising to that challenge will require the concerted efforts of all levels of government, all sectors of society, and a transformation of our economy. While economic measures should include some form of fulsome carbon pricing, the policies needed must go well beyond that.

With the election behind us and a comfortable majority in hand, the new federal government can afford to be less cautionary; it can craft a policy agenda driven by science and the climate imperative. The Trudeau government can expend political capital on guiding Canada into a carbon-free economy. Now, early in its mandate and with the Paris climate meeting topping the agenda, the government ought to be able to make the difficult decisions that the climate crisis demands.

Canada's experience in the First and Second World Wars serves to remind us that our society has managed a dramatic restructuring of the economy before. During both world wars, our economy had to be entirely re-tooled for a new common purpose: scarce resources were deployed for the task at hand, Victory Bonds were sold, profits were restricted to prevent war-time profiteering, new taxes were levied, household consumption shifted and quotas we applied on some goods, core industries were directed to produce the goods and services needed, people grew "Victory Gardens" and dramatically switched their transportation from private automobiles to public transit -- coincidentally, actions that also reduced emissions. And in the process employment grew dramatically.

While the threat today may move in slower motion, is the climate crisis we face really all that different?

Only now, we need a federal government that can lead us not into battle against other nations, but rather, into the fight for our collective future.

While there was much to like in the Liberals' election platform, it was decidedly vague with respect to climate. There was some modest green infrastructure promised. The Liberals opposed Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, but remained open to others. The Liberals did not propose specific GHG reduction goals or a carbon-pricing plan, but rather, said they will work with the provinces to establish national emission-reduction targets and "ensure that the provinces and territories have adequate tools to design their own policies to meet these commitments, including their own carbon pricing policies."

That's not going to cut it.

I offered some initial recommendations for how to structure timely government action here. In the comments to that piece, one fellow added the excellent proposal that the government create a new Parliamentary Carbon Budget Officer (modeled on the Parliamentary Budget Officer), responsible for offering independent assessment of whether the country's plans will see it stay within an allowable and declining carbon budget.

A "climate justice" lens also needs to be incorporated into the new government's climate action plans, to ensure fairness and enhance equality, to make sure the needs of particularly vulnerable populations are met, and to maintain public support for bold action. An international affairs stream should address cross border measures (such as the possible need for carbon tariffs), coordinate climate migration issues, and ensure Canada is meeting international obligations to extend aid to countries hardest hit by climate change.

The Canadian public is ready for bold action. Indeed, the dominant explanation for how and when the Liberals took the lead in the polls during the recent campaign was their decision to run deficits and use new taxes to address inequality and the urgent need for infrastructure investment. The Liberals' fiscal plan effectively captured a national zeitgeist that craved ambitious change, and sooner rather than later.

In developing a comprehensive climate plan, and in recognition that the time for small steps in now past, the new government can take a cue from the 30,000 Canadians who have signed The Leap Manifesto: A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another. As the Leap proposes, the government should set ambitious targets for Canada to get 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable resources within two decades, and to have an entirely fossil-free economy by 2050 (the technology exists to achieve this).

As we come to terms with the reality and scope of the action needed, it becomes clear that the relatively modest infrastructure plans in the Liberals' election platform will not be sufficient. More ambitious steps will be needed to raise new revenues and re-invest the monies collected.

An obvious solution is to introduce a national carbon tax (or fee) that quickly escalates. Once it reaches $200/tonne it would raise approximately $80 billion a year; half this could be directed towards a low- and middle-income tax credit that offsets the cost for lower-income households and ensures progressivity, while the other half could be directed towards a bold green and social infrastructure plan that sees us undertake:

  • a massive program to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency;
  • huge investments in renewable electricity;
  • a dramatic expansion of public transit;
  • high-speed rail between our major cities;
  • just transition programs for workers currently employed in the fossil fuel sector;
  • and social infrastructure investments in housing, residential care, and child care – the caring economy that is already low emissions.

And as occurred in the Second World War, the net impact of such a program would be to substantially boost employment.

But the climate reality will also require that our new government talk honestly about the future of Canada's fossil fuel industries, most notably the tar sands. We need our leaders to acknowledge that we cannot continue expanding these sectors, but rather, they will need to commence a period of wind-down. Well managed, however, this transition need not be as jarring and anxiety-producing as what some communities are already facing given dropping oil prices. Rather, as occurred in the Second World War, it can be a planned adjustment with just transition systems in place (as outlined in this Climate Justice report).

Now is the time for the federal government to develop a bold plan -- something ambitious and convincing with the power to restore Canada's reputation and leadership on the international stage.

For more ideas and policy solutions, see our full list of Climate Justice report here.

Photo: United Steelworkers/flickr

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