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Megan Leslie is Deputy leader of the New Democratic Party, the NDP’s Environment Critic, Member of Parliament for Halifax, and — full disclosure — a good personal friend.  She is a careful, incisive, and articulate thinker and policy strategist on many issues including what I consider one of the most important facing Canadians in the 2015 election, namely addressing climate change. If, collectively, we don’t effectively grapple with this, and do so very rapidly, the planet is going to alter in such dramatic fashion that all our efforts to address other pressing needs will simply be swamped. We need to do this or our goose is cooked.

Climate Change

COP 21I’ve written at length about the impacts of climate change. Interested readers are invited to peruse Head in the sand, tar in every orifice: Climate change policy in Canada, Thermometer rising: Ice, methane and climate change, Pestilence, famine and climate change: Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Acid bath: Evil twin of climate change for a fuller sense of the problems we face as a result of the burning of fossil fuels and the consequent emission of greenhouse gases. The problems are manifold, the situation stark, the timeline unrelenting, and the consequences of failure, grim.

The clock is ticking. On November 30, 41 days after the Canadian election, the 21st Conference of the Parties — COP-21, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change will convene. Many environmentalists view this as the last chance to put into place a framework convention that might realistically be able to keep global temperature increases to within two degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Canadians get it

And, in overwhelming numbers, Canadians get it. A study by the Environics Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation last year found that 63 per cent of Canadians now believe that the scientific evidence for anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming is conclusive, including 70 per cent of those who are university-educated.

[Note: Amongst scientists, this has long ceased to be a matter of contention. The science is unequivocal. For example, between November 2012 and December 2013, 2,258 peer-reviewed scientific studies (which included contributions by 9,136 scientists) on climate change were published in the scientific literature. Only one rejected human-caused global warming.]

Climate Change Science

Tellingly, 82 per cent of Green Party supporters, 79 per cent of NDP supporters, and 70 per cent of Liberal supporters agree with the scientific consensus, but only 42 per cent of Conservative supporters do; a result that clearly illustrates the divide that separates Canadian progressives from regressives.

A large majority (84 per cent) of Canadians are concerned by climate change, namely that it will impact future generations, result in the disappearance of wildlife, in more frequent and severe droughts, more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, hotter summer temperatures, and loss of jobs. Eighty-eight per cent want significant new actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; 56 per cent support carbon pricing; and 49 per cent would be willing to pay an additional $100 a year in higher taxes and prices to achieve these goals.

Conservatives don’t

Yet despite this, the Canadian government under the Harper Conservatives have become the slackers to end all slackers on the issue of addressing climate change. Canada became the only country to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol Framework Convention on Climate Change, it has replaced legitimate greenhouse gas emissions targets (based on 1990 levels) with utterly bogus ones (based on 2005) levels. Moreover, it is on track to not to achieve these threadbare levels of greenhouse gas reductions. And virtually all the greenhouse gas reductions that have taken place in Canada have been as a result of provincial policies and programs.

Fossil of the dayUnder the leadership of Stephen Harper Canada has become a political obstacle to achieving meaningful progress on addressing climate change. After winning the satirical “Colossal Fossil” award, given by the Climate Action Network to the country doing the most damage to climate talks in a given year, five years in a row, Canada was awarded a “Lifetime Unacheivement” fossil award at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference in November of 2013 as well as a remarkable, first-ever “Fossil of Disbelief ” award. Canada’s record and performance on this issue of critical importance to the continued stability of human civilization has become the subject of derision by the entire global environment community — a truly shameful state of affairs. The Harper Conservatives have not only missed the boat on climate change, they have been actively trying to sink it.

Will Canada finally tackle climate change?

That’s the issue I wanted to discuss with Megan Leslie. What would the NDP do? What are her views on this critical issue? So we sat down in storage room at the back of her bustling re-election campaign office to talk climate change.

It’s a lengthy interview that illuminates not only the NDP’s policy approach to climate change, but also the values that underpin her convictions, and that motivate and inspire this very remarkable Canadian Parliamentarian.

Christopher G. Majka: As an MP I’m sure you are very aware of how many social, political, economic, and environmental issues are always on the political table. Nevertheless there is one that I think stands head and shoulders above all the rest, namely addressing climate change, something that not only threatens our well-being but the environmental integrity of the entire planet, and with it the continued welfare of humanity.

And, of course, it is a particularly difficult issue because its timing is dictated not by election cycles but by the environmental and ecological processes of the planet itself, which are relentless, and seemingly the more so with each successive study that illustrates that climate change is proceeding more quickly than we previously thought. And it is difficult because no nation can solve this by itself. We, as humanity, are all in this together and responding to climate change requires a level of coordination and dedication that perhaps has few precedents in history. Bearing that in mind, what is the NDP’s approach is to tackling this “mother of all problems?”

Megan Leslie - Climate ChangeMegan A. Leslie: I appreciate the fact that you used the word “mother.” Because when you were asking the question I was thinking about how we need to apply different lenses to our policies. For instance, I believe that we need to apply a feminist lens to all of our policy choices. That’s why one of our (NDP’s) major economic planks is childcare. If you apply a feminist lens to the economy you come up with policy solutions like childcare that stimulate the economy and get women back to work, but also are an incredible support for families.

We also need to use the green lens when we are thinking about anything that has to do with the economy, foreign affairs, and job creation. We should apply that green lens to all of our policy — and I’m really proud that that is what the NDP has done.

So, first and foremost we need to have a target. What the NDP has done is to set ambitious targets; targets that are in keeping with what is being done in the European Union and what the UN says is acceptable. So, a 34 per cent (carbon dioxide) reduction targets (below 1990 levels by 2025) are good targets. That is the first step, because you need to know where you are going. I can’t stress that enough. To just hope, and wish, and cross our fingers isn’t going to work.

So, I’ll take a moment to distinguish our position from that of the Liberals. We don’t actually know what their targets are; they haven’t set targets. We have targets and we’ve put them in legislation, the Climate Change Accountability Act, first introduced (in Parliament) by Jack Layton.

Megan LeslieThat means that if Tom Mulcair is elected Prime Minister he has a mandate on climate change. We elected him with a mandate to go to the international climate change talks in Paris in November (the United Nations Conference of the Parties, a.k.a., COP-21) to say, “Canada’s back, here are our targets, they are ambitious, and we can do this.”

I look at what Stephen Harper has done at those international climate talks and he has gone to disrupt them. Tom Mulcair will be able to lead them, help set an agenda, and have Canada be a leader.

So, targets are great, but how are you going to achieve them? That’s the million-dollar question. One of the problems in thinking about the solutions to climate change is that there are so many answers. But in that problem lie incredible opportunities. So if we stop thinking that there is a (single) silver bullet we can seize the many opportunities to create jobs, stimulate the economy, and fight climate change.

First you do need to have a price on carbon. The NDP’s preferred mechanism is Cap and Trade, this is the third election that we’ve run on it. I think that the key thing about Cape and Trade is that it sets a cap. It doesn’t set a price, like a carbon tax does, but it sets a cap. We acknowledge that there are other mechanisms, and some of the provinces have already started taking a lead on climate action using other mechanisms. British Columbia’s carbon tax has been a success; Québec is starting a Cap and Trade program; Alberta has a … mechanism — I don’t know quite what to call it, but it’s almost like a carbon tax.

So, (what the NDP proposes) is to set the targets nationally. If a province meets or exceeds them, then they don’t need to participate in the federal Cap and Trade scheme. So this is an opportunity to talk to the provinces and say “If you want to conduct cap and trade locally, or a carbon tax, or fee and dividend, then go for it. But you have to meet or exceed the federal targets.” If they don’t, then the federal government applies the federal Cap and Trade program.

That’s not a silver bullet. A price on carbon is essential but we will also need aggressive energy efficiency. We’ll start with what used to be called the Eco-energy Home Retrofit program, before that it was called Energuide for Houses. The brilliant thing about that program is that it wins on three fronts. First, it reduces our emissions. Next, it creates jobs in every community. Every community has an auditor, people who know how to do the renovations. It’s not like a gas-field of jobs in one location — a Fort McMurray, for example — it’s across Canada in every community.

Halifax Sea Level Rise

CGM: Which can be politically desirable as well.

MLM: Yes, but it can be politically harder too because you can’t point to one geographical location. So this idea has been challenging in the past.

And then the third part of the equation is that it helps us save money: we actually save on our energy bills. So I see it as a win on three fronts. Jack Layton was a huge proponent of this approach. Tom Mulcair gets it. We’ve introduced motions in the House on this; they’ve been defeated by the Conservatives.

Something else we’ve announced – I think it was last week; the election is a bit of a blur being the longest one since the completion of the railway – are green bonds.

CGM: Tell me more.

Green BondsMLM: People may be familiar with War Bonds from their history books. This is a different take on (that approach). Green bonds are an opportunity to invest specifically in renewable, energy projects. We’re proposing $400 million in these.

As Environment Critic I meet with representatives of the fossil fuel industry, the wind industry, and the solar industry. When the renewables industry meets with me they talk about how they are innovating, the progress they are making in Canada, new technologies and techniques and they say — point blank — that the only reason the renewable energy industry survives is because policies of different provinces to encourage renewable energy development. (If they relied on the federal government) the renewable energy industry would be dead.  They tell me that they need federal government policy to encourage bringing renewable energy online. Thus, green bonds. It’s an old idea that’s been tweaked and resurrected for the modern era. There’s an incredible opportunity there.

CGM: Why not declare a “war on climate change?”

MAL: Yes, a war on climate change! (laughter)

So then you start applying the green lens in other places as well, for example when you think about transit. Transit is about getting people to where they need to be. But it is also about wasted fuel with people who are stuck in congestion with, what’s the phrase for one person per car — single occupancy vehicle?

CGM: Yes. Getting zero miles to the gallon while idling ….

MAL: I hadn’t driven on the 401 in Ontario for a while but I did so this fall and it is miles, and miles, and miles of cars where there is one person per car. So, applying the green lens to transit (indicates) transportation is not just about moving people around faster, it is also about climate change.

Environmental destruction wrought by the Harper Conservatives

CGM: There has been a whole catalogue of heinous environmental acts done by the Harper Conservatives over the years that erode various environmental protection measures such as gutting the navigable waters act and the environmental assessment act, weakening species at risk legislation. Would the NDP roll back that litany of environmental abuse?

Water MemeMAL: We have made a public commitment to reestablishing what used to be called the Navigable Waters Protection Act — it’s now called the Navigation Protection Act. Navigation is incredibly important for Canada. It’s how Europeans came and began to understand the country, by navigating its waterways. But there used to be this fundamental understanding that if you are going to protect navigation, you have to protect water. That Act was an incredible piece of environmental legislation. Now (under the changes made by the Harper Conservatives) we no longer protect water, we only protect navigation, and only a certain very small number of lakes and rivers. 

[Information Sidebar: Prior to the repeal of the Navigable Waters Protection Act there were some 2.5 million protected lakes and rivers in Canada. Under the changes introduced by the Harper Conservatives this number has been reduced to 162.]

Bringing back some of the other pieces of legislation (struck down by the Harper Conservatives) is more complicated, for example, the Fisheries Act. We used to protect fish habitat. Now we only protect a small list of fish, which completely fails to understand that these fish eat other animals, and they need a place to spawn, and a habitat in which to live.

[Information Sidebar: Currently, of 62 species of fish determined by Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as in danger of extinction, only 12 are protected in Canada under the Species at Risk Act.]

FishIt would be a snap of the fingers to rewrite that legislation, and we can do it. The problem is — and I’ve had many scientists tell me this — Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have been so gutted and their staff capacity has been so reduced, that there’s no one left to enforce regulations. There’s no capacity remaining to ensure that such legislation is working. So, a snap of the fingers to fix the legislation, but we also have to rebuild our scientific capacity in those two departments.

The NDP is committed to writing a new Environmental Assessment Act. It’s not as simple as bringing back the old one. In 2011 I was actually working with a group of experts to examine how we could improve the Act because we didn’t think it was working very well. And then the hammer came down from the Conservatives, they repealed the entire Act, and replaced it with a shell of an environmental assessment process. So, I actually don’t want the old process back — even though I’ve been fighting with the Conservatives about it — because it was inadequate. So, we have committed to bringing in a new Environmental Assessment Act. One of the key things — viewing this through a green lens — is that environmental assessments will need to take into consideration greenhouse gases.

This Changes Everything

This Changes EverythingCGM: In her very popular, highly compelling, and exactingly researched book, This Changes Everything — which has now been followed by a feature documentary film — Naomi Klein makes the case that properly addressing climate change really does change everything. And that’s because the fossil fuel economy, and the petro-chemical industry it supports, the long history of geo-political meddling that has resulted from the pursuit of oil, the social and economic inequality that this has helped to broker, the economic and political distortions caused by the enormous leverage of the fossil-fuel industries, and the massive hidden and not-so-hidden subsidies that they receive are all intimately connected.

And if you tug hard at the yarn so as to seriously scale back carbon emissions of fossil fuels to keep global temperature rises to below two degrees Celsius, the whole fabric starts to come unravel.

Now on the one hand this can be daunting because “changing everything” is a very tall order and faced with this prospect one could simply throw up one’s hands in despair and give up.  But on the other hand it also means that the imperative to address climate change allows us to simultaneously address many other social, economic, and political changes that progressives have been concerned with, not just for decades, but for a century and a half.

Can we use this opportunity of addressing climate change to fundamentally re-tune the engines of the Canadian economy and re-weave the fabric of Canadian society to make a more sustainable economy and just society?

Megan Leslie Climate Change

MAL: The short answer is yes. It is a very tall order. And it is incredibly daunting, but that doesn’t mean that we should throw up our hands and walk away from it. We can start to chip away at it, and in doing so we will end up with a more just society: social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice. Those are key things. That’s why I’m a New Democrat. I belong to a social-democratic party that views things through the lens of those elements of justice.

So, here is a homegrown Nova Scotia example to illustrate this. 

It is cheaper to save a kilowatt of energy than to produce it. It is less expensive to invest in the tools and techniques to conserve than it is to increase production.  Here in Nova Scotia, our Utility and Review Board mandated that if we are going to provide the lowest-cost energy for Nova Scotians then we have to invest in energy efficiency. As a result, through a lot of stakeholder consultation, we ended up with an organization called Efficiency Nova Scotia.

Efficiency Nova ScotiaEfficiency Nova Scotia is doing incredible work. It is a North American leader in energy efficiency. They are innovative. They are over-performing, exceeding their own targets. We are seeing deep greenhouse gas reductions here in Nova Scotia. But, implicit in what they do is social and economic justice. 

Efficiency Nova Scotia targets different groups of ratepayers, for example, commercial and industrial. How do we help these companies improve? They also target residential customers, and they have created a subgroup of low-income residential users. Helping low-income people access energy efficiency measures saves us all money and reduces the greenhouse gases that this province emits. For example, it’s cheaper to go in and insulate someone’s roof — for free! — then it is to build (capacity) to produce more coal-fired energy. And that’s just the economics. We also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At Efficiency Nova Scotia’s they employ a whole bunch of people, I don’t know how many. About fifty per cent of them are women. That is exceptional in an energy field. And they are young people who care about the environment. They have families; they are exactly the demographic that we are trying hard to retain in Nova Scotia. And they love their jobs. They are excited by and feel good about what they are doing. These are good-paying jobs, there is job security, its meaningful work. That’s why this organization over-performs and exceeds its own targets. So, something as simple as the fact that it’s cheaper not to produce more coal-fired energy, turns into this incredible dynamic of social, economic, and environmental justice. 

That’s what we need to imagine when we look at a more sustainable economy and just society. It is one hundred per cent possible.

CGM: I think one of the exciting things in Naomi Klein’s book is that the understanding that the social justice movement has been trying to achieve a large number of measures over the past century and a half. And, that addressing climate changes offers the opportunity to harness many of those goals to the objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and thereby achieving all those goals together.

MAL: Yes!

The Leap Manifesto

The Leap ManifestoCGM: Almost 28,000 Canadians have signed The Leap Manifesto, which bills itself as “A call for a Canada based on caring for the Earth and one another.” The signatories include a who’s who of Canadian progressive individuals and organizations from the environmental, social-justice, indigenous, faith-based, and labour movements.

The fifteen demands of the manifesto address aboriginal justice, renewable energy, fossil-fuel infrastructure, energy democracy, energy poverty, sustainable and affordable mass transit, retraining for workers to participate in a clean energy economy, investments in public infrastructure, the development of localized and ecologically based agriculture, an end to trade deals that undermine Canadian sovereignty with respect to achieving such goals, substantive protections for workers, substantive investments in low-carbon sectors such as caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts, and public-interest media, a discussion on the introduction of a universal basic annual income, an end to “austerity” politics and economics, and political and electoral reform.

I see this as call for a government that genuinely embraces a transformative agenda. That genuinely wants to end neoliberal austerity economics and the race to the bottom. Of a government that wants to accomplish real gains for its citizens. That aggressively pursues new social, political, economic, and environmental agendas that have at their core justice, democracy, equality, and sustainability — and not a government of tepid incrementalism.

Is this a vision that you support? Is this something that you feel is achievable under a social-democratic, New Democratic Party government?

Megan LeslieMAL: I applaud the people who put this together. I know where it comes from because I feel it. I look at where our government is right now, I look at what Stephen Harper has done, and it is the opposite of all the things that are in this manifesto. This comes from not just dissatisfaction but almost a despair of where the Conservatives have brought us as a country.

I support these principles. They are what I think are core values of Canadians. We (the NDP) may disagree a little bit on some details here or there. But I note in the Manifesto that some of them call for a vigorous debate — yeah, that’s Canadian! Let’s have an actual informed debate about (these principles) and not just spin into rhetoric.

We are a social-democratic party and it is those values (of the Manifesto) that inform what we do. Maybe I’ll approach this question from one issue that’s been niggling at me, which is that of austerity politics.

I agree with what the Manifesto is saying in terms of getting rid of austerity politics. The thing that’s niggling at me is that some people have said, “Well that’s what the NDP’s doing.” Well, that’s Liberals who are saying that. I don’t think it’s austerity to say that we are committed to bring in universal child care. I don’t think it’s austerity to say that we are going to realize Tommy Douglas’ vision for the second phase of Medicare and start working towards Pharmacare. I don’t think it’s austerity to say that we are going to have greenhouse gas targets that result in deep cuts in emissions.

Megan LeslieIt is about where you get find money to do this, and there will be cuts. And the cuts will be…the loophole for CEOs who get to take stock options instead of paying taxes on bonuses or salary. They are not paying their fair share and it incentivizes CEOs to preferentially raise the value of their shares versus actually producing something of value — making something that is good for us, for Canada. It’s perverse that we have government policy that rewards CEOs for producing nothing. And then not have to pay taxes on it.

It is about making those choices and as the NDP, our values inform those choices. Corporations need to pay their fair share. And we believe in universal programs that everyone can benefit from and that everyone then defends. This notion that, “Oh well, then even rich people get to access child care.” Yes, even rich people get to access health care, and even rich people get to send their kids to public school. And you know what? Then we all defend it. And we all invest in it. And we all make sure that it is there for all of us. And there is none of this demonization of the poor, of saying, “Oh well, that’s a program for people on welfare.”

This idea of getting to renewables for electrical generation within two decades is going to be really hard, but I think we can get there. There are some technological barriers, but that means we need to invest in innovation to figure out, for instance, “What do we do when the wind isn’t blowing and when the sun has set?” Is it battery storage? Can we get the answers in two decades? I think we can. We need to innovate. We need to fail, and innovate and fail, and finally innovate and succeed.

So I think that The Leap Manifesto is amazing, and I share those values. I don’t think we’re going to get there tomorrow but I think that we can elect a government, an NDP government that shares those values, so that they underpin its political action. And that we can get there. I think it’s achievable.

In the final analysis

Greenhouse Gas targetsFor those interested in acquiring a greater understanding of what the respective political parties are proposing with regard to climate change, an excellent comparative analysis entitled Will Canada Finally Tackle the Climate Challenge? has just been published by Environmental Defence and Équiterre. It lays out each federal party’s main climate change policies including renewable energy development, energy efficiency programs, strategies on public transit, and the electrification of our transportation system.

Figure 1 summarizes the post-2020 Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction commitments of the parties. There are steep reductions in GHGs proposed by both the NDP (34 per cent by 2025) and Green party (26.7 per cent by 2025) in contrast to very much less robust ones by the Conservatives (14.4% by 2030, which translates to a paltry 7% reduction by 2025). The Liberal party has not made any firm post-2020 reduction commitments but promises that, “Canada will do its part to limit global warming to 2ºC.”

A critical issue to consider is that while the starting point for future reductions are currently the 2020 targets (which reflect the position of the Durban Agreement at the 2011 UN Climate Change Conference) — which in Canada’s case has been a very anemic 17 per cent reduction from 2005 levels — even Environment Canada data shows that this target will not be met. Rather than emitting 611 megatonnes (MT) by 2020, projections are that Canada will emit 727 MT — potentially a 1.5 per cent increase on 2005 levels, and a 67 per cent increase from Canada’s Kyoto Protocol commitment of 433 MT by 2012.

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...