May and NDP MPs show anger in debate on climate change

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Elizabeth May

The House of Commons took the deadly threat of climate change seriously for one long evening on Monday. At the request of the NDP, the Green Party and one Liberal MP, Parliament held an emergency debate on global warming, which went on from the supper hour until midnight.

The NDP got the ball rolling early in the day, with a letter to the Speaker signed by Parliamentary Leader Guy Caron. It pointed to some of the damning numbers in last week’s United Nations Panel report on climate change.

"To meet the required emissions levels outlined by the panel,” the NDP’s Caron said, “Canada’s emissions will need to be reduced by almost half – far below our current performance. In fact, according to the panel, the world needs to reduce its (greenhouse gas) emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate change. The panel has made clear that preventing a single extra degree of heat could make a life-or-death difference for millions of people across the globe. It also firmly states that our current course of action is not working."

Liberal MP Nathan Erskine-Smith started off the debate by quoting former U.S. president John F. Kennedy, who famously answered the question, “Why do we go to the moon?” by saying, “We go not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Erskine-Smith then quoted the current U.S. president, who, when asked a few days ago about climate change, said: "I don't think it's a hoax, but I don't know that it's man-made. I will say this. I don't wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars.… I don't wanna be put at a disadvantage."

We have politicians in Canada who also want to do nothing about climate change, the Toronto MP said, looking at the Conservative benches opposite him.

"Ontario Premier Doug Ford said that he has heard from people across Ontario and from out west, and he wants the prime minister's hands out of their pockets,” Erskine-Smith told the House. "This is … wilful blindness toward the evidence."

Conservative MPs took umbrage at the suggestion they do not care about pollution and the environment.

As Quebec City Conservative MP Gérard Deltell put it:

"What we are looking for are positive, constructive, effective measures that have a direct impact.

"I hear the government and the other opposition parties say that we absolutely must tax pollution, but we disagree.… They want to impose the Liberal carbon tax and refer to the UN report by quoting it as though it were the Bible. The UN proposes a tax of $5,500 per tonne of carbon emitted…. That means an additional tax of $12 per litre of gas. I would like all House members who agree with the UN report to stand up and confirm that they want a litre of gas to cost an extra $12 tomorrow morning.”

That line about $12 per litre recurred in virtually all Conservative MPs’ interventions. Not one of the Conservatives who spoke proposed even a single specific measure to combat climate change. The closest they got were vague allusions to funding for innovation.

NDP discussed incentives to change behaviour

Speaking for the NDP, Caron wore his own economist’s hat.

"My economist colleagues are likely familiar with the term ‘Pigovian’ tax, which is a tax that seeks to change people's behaviour,” he said. “The problem right now is that we have no incentive to change our behaviour. Without incentives, people will not change their lifestyle.… Many Canadians know that we should drive electric cars, or at least very fuel-efficient cars.… Even so, more and more SUVs are being sold.… There is a big difference between what people know they should be doing and what they actually do."

British Columbia MP Richard Cannings also spoke for the NDP, expressing anger and frustration at the sophistry he hears all too often from defeatist and cynical politicians who say any action to curtail emissions is futile, so why bother.

"The Conservative side says that we should not have a carbon tax because B.C. has had one for 10 years and it is still having fires. So what is the use?" Cannings said scornfully. “That is not how it works. It shows either a shocking misunderstanding of how climate change works or just a wanton disregard."

He then made one of the most honest and telling points of the evening:

"If the whole world went carbon neutral today, we would be at that one-degree rise,” he explained. We would still have those fires. We would still have floods. All that extreme weather would be with us. What we are trying to do is save us from a far more frightening future!"

Cannings pointed out that with a two-degree increase in global warming, we would see the hottest days of summer increase by 4°C, which would mean heat waves in British Columbia that could easily reach 44°C. For those who are still not entirely attuned to the metric system, Cannings translated that number to 112° Fahrenheit.

The NDP MP had a few tangible suggestions for the Liberal government.

"Instead of investing $4.5 billion in an old pipeline,” he said, “we could copy the U.K. and spend $2 billion on building electric vehicle infrastructure across southern Canada. We could provide meaningful incentives for Canadians to switch to electric vehicles, just as Norway has done. We could invest billions in other clean technology projects across the country."

He also mentioned retrofits to buildings, which produce 40 per cent of our carbon emissions.

Elizabeth May was firm and uncompromising

Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s speech was the fiercest and most passionate of the evening. She started by telling a bit of her own story as a long-time environmental policy expert and activist.

"I have had a ringside seat for the decades during which we could have arrested climate change before our glaciers were melting, before we were losing the Arctic, before our forests were on fire, before we saw draught and climate refugees, and before we had tornadoes in Ottawa,” May told her parliamentary colleagues. “We had a chance in the 1990s and we blew it. We had a chance in the first decade of this century, but every time there has been a warning from scientists, the alarm bell has rung and society has hit the snooze button."

She continued in the same vein, directly addressing her fellow politicians, combining controlled rage with a planetary and historical perspective:

"If we are grownups in this place, then we should face the science clear-eyed.  We have allowed greenhouse gas emissions to increase to such an extent that we have already changed the chemistry of the atmosphere.… We do not know when we will hit a tipping point of irreversible self-acceleration where the ultimate consequences are not about bracing for bad weather, but about bracing for millions of species going extinct. Even if humanity can hang on now, can we imagine hanging on to human civilization in a world with a four-degree, five-degree, six-degree or seven-degree rise in temperature? The answer is no."

May made it clear that there is no point now debating the government’s current halting and inadequate climate plan. The UN report calls for far more robust and resolute action than Canada is currently taking.

"This is not a status-quo debate,” she said. “The UN Panel report has said to us as a country that our target is approximately 50-per-cent too little. We need to do twice as much. I know that is hard, but to save the lives of our children, what would we not do?"

Then, in response to a question from a Liberal MP as to what specific actions she would propose, May did not, as government spokespeople so frequently do, retreat behind generalities. She unapologetically proposed a radical series of specific and sweeping measures.

"This is a heroic effort on a global scale," the Green leader said. "It means decarbonizing our electricity sector, not just getting off coal, but making sure we do not switch to polluting natural gas instead. We have to improve the east-west electricity grid, get rid of internal combustion engines, use electric vehicles, and ensure energy efficiency and retrofits for every building. At the same time, we have to ensure that there is green biodiesel for our tractors and our fishing boats."

May concluded by explaining that "all of those things have already been invented. That is the miracle. They are all possible. We just have to tell our fellow citizens that we are ready. It is a challenge, and we are all going to do it together."

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Green Party Flickr

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