We’re told this federal election is going to turn on “leadership” — something Prime Minister Stephen Harper is said to be endowed with.

Apart from a deeper hole in the Afghan quagmire, I haven’t been aware of any place Harper has “led” us to over the past two and a half years, so I found this concept of leadership puzzling. Then I saw the Conservative TV ads and realized that leadership is about wearing a warm sweater and playing cards with your kids.

Now I don’t mean to be a stickler for substance, but isn’t leadership supposed to be about leading people, about guiding them to a better place than they’d be able to get to on their own?

Guiding the people to that better place isn’t easy since there are plenty of powerful interests anxious to hijack the caravan, and detour it to their own advantage. Fending off those interests, and protecting the public’s, could be called leadership.

If there’s one issue that’s emerged as pivotal in the past two and a half years — and promises to become more so — it’s global warming. So a politician claiming “leadership” as his strong suit is presumably as adept at tackling the climate threat as he is at playing Fish.

Indeed, climate change is the issue of our time. Ignoring it isn’t an option. Given what’s at stake and the array of powerful interests resisting change, it’s fair to say that how politicians tackle climate change is a good measure of real leadership.

Exactly what “leadership” attributes does Harper bring to the climate battle?

Well, let’s see, he’s steely-eyed, aloof, tolerates no dissent and pronounces English words very nicely.

On the down side, he’s barely budged from his past as a climate-change denier, he’s blocked progress toward solutions at key international meetings, and he’s introduced Canadian regulations that only require reductions in the “intensity” of greenhouse gas emissions — not actual emission reductions.

Meanwhile, his chief rival, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, has proposed a far-reaching plan to introduce a tax on carbon, and compensate with income tax reductions, particularly at the lower end.

Most serious observers say that some method of putting a price on carbon — either through a carbon tax or “cap-and-trade” system — will be necessary. The respected environmental group, Sierra Club of Canada, gives the Liberal plan a B+ (the Greens get A-, the NDP a B, the Bloc B-).

Only the Conservatives, scoring F+, stand out as climate change renegades in the Sierra Club’s rankings.

Not content to just do nothing, the Conservatives are trying to scare Canadians about Dion’s “Green Shift.” Said Harper last week: “I think it’s a crazy time for the country to take risks.”

Really? What, then, would be a good time for the country to take risks — after 2050, when scientists on the UN-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say it will be too late, if we haven’t reduced global emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels (a goal we’re nowhere near)?

Also, isn’t doing nothing risky, given the punch we know climate can pack?

Harper’s dismissive approach is reminiscent of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s pit-bullish attack on Barack Obama for, among other things, trying to save the planet.

Among neo-cons like Palin and Harper, any attempt to actually address real problems like climate change — with solutions other than military contracts — is ridiculed.

What’s the difference between Palin and Harper? Lipstick.

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Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...