What do you do when you are a Canadian Environment Minister who respects the science of climate change and believes we need polices to deal with global warming, but your Prime Minister and many of your colleagues take the opposite view?
When you’re Peter Kent, you do a lot of twisting and turning.
That was on display late Monday afternoon when Kent appeared before the House Environment Committee, and spoke with journalists afterward.
The headlines based on Kent’s comments to reporters tell very divergent stories.
CBC’s lead quoted Kent as saying climate change poses a “real and present danger,” (something he did not say to the Committee).
It seems that Kent, like New York Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama, believes recent “extreme weather events” have focused the mind, and provided impetus to move decisively to stop global warming.
ipolitics had a different take. It quoted Kent reaffirming that the Harper Government will not consider a cap-and-trade system, even if the United States were to adopt one.
Nor, of course, would Harper and his colleagues consider any other form of carbon pricing.
This government has not spent years attacking first Stéphane Dion and now Tom Mulcair for their supposed “tax on everything” to change course now – just because of a too-close-for-comfort storm named Sandy.
The Rabbi at the pig roast?
In June of this year, Mike De Souza of Postmedia reported on a revealing series of exchanges between Kent and a number of his colleagues who have serious doubts about the validity of climate science, including the Prime Minister.
One Conservative MP even suggested that global warming was caused by volcanoes, not human activity.
Kent vigorously defended the science in each and every case.
He is in a good position to do so. As a journalist, Kent was aware of global warming long before most Canadians had ever heard the words. He did a pioneering CBC television program on the subject in the early 1980s.
In this government, the Environment Minister must sometimes feel like a rabbi at a pork barbecue.
Giving climate change a low profile
In his remarks to the Committee on Monday, Kent talked mostly about everything else his Department does, apart from the global warming file.
He talked about endangered species, the Great Lakes Nutrient Initiative, National Parks, and the Lake Winnipeg basin program.
They’re all, in principle, worthy initiatives, though some are not as successful as might seem at first blush.
When Liberal Environment Critic Kirsty Duncan questioned the Minister on the Species at Risk Act she pointed out the law requires that there be recovery plans for each species at risk, and then she asked how many of those plans have been delayed.
The Minister could not answer and turned to his Deputy.
Deputy Minister Rob Hamilton admitted that a great many have been delayed, some by as much as five years.
Liberal MP Duncan suggested that number was 188, but neither the Minister nor his Deputy would provide a number.
Kent did allude, however briefly, to the Government’s efforts on climate change.
He described the steady-as-it-goes, sector-by-sector “regulatory approach.”
Kent enumerated a number of those regulatory measures, most of them not yet in force. They cover such sources of pollution as vehicle emissions and electric generation, and include stringent standards, not yet in force, for new coal-fired plants (but not existing ones).
It didn’t take the Minister long to exhaust that rather short list.
He then boasted that Canada is now “about 50 per cent” of the way toward meeting the 2020 target.
It is a modest target (far short of the Kyoto Accord target): to reduce emissions to 17% below their 2005 levels.
Again, under questioning by Liberal Kirsty Duncan, Kent could not name a single federal action that has led to the recent reduction in greenhouse gases.
In fact, as the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy has pointed out, credit for the lion’s share of current greenhouse gas reductions must go to those provinces (not all) that have taken their own, effective measures to reduce emissions.
How cost-effective is the government’s non-Kyoto approach?
The NDP’s Anne Minh-Thu Quach wanted to know if the government’s sector-by-sector regulatory approach was, in fact, more cost-effective than the measures prescribed by the Kyoto accord — from which this government has famously withdrawn.
Minh-Thu Quach reminded Kent that he had earlier told Parliament that it would have cost the Canadian economy $14 billion to implement Kyoto, but that he had never explained how he got to that number.
Could the Minister do that now, she asked.
Kent’s answer was the very model of tergiversation:
“The $14 billion that I referenced, and that we referenced at the time of the announcement of Canada’s legal withdrawal from the Kyoto accord, was the budgetary number,” he said.
Well, Kent explained: “It’s a number that’s based on carbon pricing and international markets.”
And then he gave up explaining, and reverted to the rhetoric of resentment and victimization:
“The precise number,” Kent said petulantly, “is far less important than our government’s decision not to send billions of hard-earned Canadian tax dollars abroad to buy hot air credits from depressed eastern European economies … The Government of Canada regarded the Kyoto Protocol as ineffective and unfair, particularly in the context of Canada’s circumstances.”
The NDP Deputy Environment Critic realized then that she wasn’t going to get much more in the way of hard facts on Kyoto out of the Minister. The Conservatives would rather scare people with big economic catastrophe numbers — based, it seems, on virtually nothing — than discuss the actual facts.
Having elicited what she could on Kyoto, Minh-Thu Quach moved to the government’s current regulation-based policy.
If Kyoto would have cost the economy $14 billion, what is the cost of the Government’s regulatory approach, the NDP MP asked.
Again, the Minister danced and dodged.
He said the costs are borne on the basis of “polluter pay.”
He said Canada has acted in a “non-prescriptive manner” unlike some other countries.
He talked about “tail pipe” measures and other such things.
And then Kent finally shrugged: “…the actual cost of achieving our mega tonnage reduction sector by sector is far less important than the fact that we are 50 per cent towards achieving our 2020 targets…”
Well, it is important for us to know the cost, the NDP Deputy Environment Critic insisted.
If the government argues that it must withdraw from Kyoto because it would be too costly, but cannot place a cost on its chosen course of action — well, that’s a problem, for us, Minh-Thu Quach argued.
But the NDP member’s time was up at that point.
Still, it seems her question got under Kent’s skin.
About 20 minutes later, as the meeting was wrapping up, Kent asked the Chair if he could say one more thing, and returned to Minh–Thu Quach to repeat his assertion that the numbers she wanted were not really relevant.
The Minister promised, all the same, that the Department would work on getting those figures to her as soon as possible.
In praise of the rod and the gun
As for the Government side Committee members: not one of them had a single question about climate change.
They talked about more small-bore and local environmental issues, especially those that relate directly to their own ridings.
Manitoba MP Robert Sopuck didn’t even want to get the Minister to elaborate an anything he had said in his opening statement.
Instead, Sopuck evoked the “unsung heroes of conservation,” the farmers, hunters, anglers and trappers. He wanted the Minister to expound on the virtues of the Government’s recently formed Hunting and Angling Advisory Panel.
Kent gladly and comfortably obliged.
Serious discussion of climate change and other real environmental issues could wait for a while.
Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Donate to support his efforts today. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.