The big battle over climate change is just starting

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. Photo: Wayne Polk/Flickr

On Wednesday, May 15, the federal NDP will use an opposition day in the House of Commons to focus like a laser on climate change. Jagmeet Singh's party will make some sweeping and bold policy proposals.

That is only one sign that the war of words over global warming is getting hotter. In that war, the who-cares-about-climate-change side seems to have gotten the jump on the pro-environment side.

The Doug Ford government of Ontario will soon be airing blatantly one-sided ads with a simple and simplistic message: carbon taxes make everything more expensive.

The ads devote a few seconds to say there are better ways than taxation to deal with climate change. But their list of those better ways is bizarre: hold the biggest polluters accountable, reduce trash, and keep Ontario's lakes clean. The first way is part of the current federal government's carbon emission reduction plan, while the latter two would no doubt be salutary, if they were to happen. The ads do not explain, however, what, if anything, they have to do with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

During Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne's time, the Ontario auditor general criticized government ads that looked and sounded too politically partisan. She advocated that her office should have the power to vet all government advertising for accuracy and context.

The Ford Conservatives, then in opposition, promised to heed that advice. Doug Ford did not wait even a full year before he brazenly broke that promise.

While Ford and his allies, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, take an axe to efforts to combat climate change -- in the courts, in their legislatures and in their propaganda -- sympathetic right-of-centre pundits are working overtime to provide something resembling an ideology for their movement.

In the pages of the National Post, former oil sands executive Gwyn Morgan engages in a sophisticated form of climate-change denial. He argues that the disastrous floods we have been experiencing in parts of Canada are the result of a long and cold winter, with record high snowfalls. "Isn't climate change supposed to be about global warming?" he asks rhetorically.

The answer is yes -- with a big qualification. Climate change is, indeed, producing far higher temperatures, overall, than in the past. But what does this warming trend do? It melts glaciers, raises sea levels and adds moisture to the air. All of these effects drive erratic, fluctuating and often violent weather events.

Here, in the Ottawa area, we had six unprecedented tornadoes last summer, and a wild, crazy and unpredictable winter that included both massive snowfalls and many above-zero thaws, often with significant volumes of rain. The refreezing of all that rain and partially melted snow produced a particularly hard-packed and, as it turns out, dangerous snow mass.

Morgan is not really interested in science, in any case. His main point is that nothing little old Canada might do about global warming would be worth the bother, since many Asian countries are still burning coal and, globally, greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow far beyond the rate the Paris Agreement recommends.

The headline to Morgan's piece advertises a principled Conservative policy on climate change. It turns out that policy is to do nothing all. Forget about green energy and electric cars and all that useless and costly nonsense. If we must spend any money on the climate crisis, Morgan asserts, it should only be on mitigating its effects, not fighting its causes.

National Post columnists Lorne Gunter and Terence Corcoran make similar arguments. When they briefly turn their attention to science it is to claim, without supporting evidence, there is no consensus that the current flooding crisis can be attributed to climate change. They quote unnamed experts who, we are told, have described these floods as normal, cyclical occurrences.  

Gunter and Corcoran pointedly fail to mention any of the significant scientific work on climate change out there. The multiple and detailed reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the recent United Nations scientific study that forecast the extinction of a million species represent a massive, worldwide scientific consensus. The National Post's anti-environmental ideologues seem to have missed them.  

Canada's business community is sitting on its hands when it comes to climate change

There are elements in the business community which do worry about the climate crisis and the future of the planet. But they are a minority.

The enlightened capitalists who put out the Corporate Knights publication recently featured a piece by the deposed Ontario environment commissioner Dianne Saxe, entitled: "It's time to call climate change what it is -- an emergency -- and act accordingly."

Saxe lauds the many municipalities around the world, including in Canada, that have declared climate emergencies. To put meat on the bones of those declarations, she suggests tangible actions, such as making communities "walkable," improving active (by bicycle and foot) and public transit, and enhancing and restoring urban forests.

The former environment commissioner gives highest marks to the city of Vancouver. By 2030, she reports, 90 per cent of the people in Vancouver will live within an easy walk of their daily needs, and by 2025 all new heating and replacement heat and hot water systems in that city will be emissions-free.

More typical of the business view of climate change is the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. For that major business lobby group, global warming seems to be entirely off the radar.

The chamber's president Perrin Beatty has just issued an open letter to the leaders of all federal political parties, on behalf of his thousands of members, calling for business-friendly policies.

The chamber wants a fair tax system that is efficient and modern, access to new markets around the world, a more digitally connected Canada, improved skills education and training, and an affordable pharmacare plan that will not disrupt existing employer plans.

Despite the oft-demonstrated severe economic costs of the erratic and violent weather events associated with climate change, the chamber's letter does not include any demands or suggestions connected to global warming -- or to the environment more generally. To all appearances, this major business group does not subscribe to the official Liberal party view that the environment and the economy go hand in hand.

Three federal parties hit back, and hit each other

In the federal Parliament, the Trudeau government is fighting back on social media and on the pre-campaign trail.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna vigorously took issue with the Ford government ads, as she had with its requirement that all gas stations carry stickers whingeing about the cost of the carbon tax. McKenna pointed out that the Ontario Conservatives mischievously fail to acknowledge that the Liberal carbon plan includes both taxes and rebates, and that the rebates, for most taxpayers, more than compensate for the taxes.

Green leader Elizabeth May is flying high right now on the winds of her party's recent successes in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election and the Prince Edward Island provincial election. The media is giving her a spotlight and she is taking advantage of it to tell Canadians the Trudeau government has been a big disappointment on the greenhouse gas emissions file -- its ambitious rhetoric notwithstanding.

May picks up an argument the NDP has consistently made going back to Thomas Mulcair's time -- that the Liberals' emissions target is the same as the Harper government's, and we are not even on track to meet that one.

Trudeau, May says, is too concerned about short term political considerations. That's why, she told one interviewer, he bought a pipeline to ship oil sands bitumen to offshore markets that don't even exist.

The federal NDP has decided to pick up its game on the climate change issue in the wake of the Nanaimo-Ladysmith loss. Its opposition-day motion demands that the government declare an environment and climate emergency, and proposes tougher emissions targets, in line with the IPCC recommendation that we should limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees by 2030.

The NDP also asks that, as part of a climate change strategy, the government prioritize reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and invest in a transition that leaves no worker or community behind.

When it comes to particulars, the NDP wants the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project cancelled and it proposes the elimination of all fossil fuel subsidies, direct and indirect. Among the latter, are the longstanding, generous federal tax breaks for oil and gas exploration.

The war for public opinion is now fully engaged -- and that opinion seems to be deeply divided, often against itself.

Recent opinion polls report both widespread worry about carbon-tax-related increases in fuel prices, combined with some skepticism about the effectiveness of taxing pollution to reduce emissions, and support for vigorous measures to fight climate change.

Canadians are somehow able to be on all sides of the issue at once.

One reassuring recent poll did show that a majority of Canadians do not approve of provincial governments using tax dollars to battle federal climate change policies. Perhaps Premier Ford and his allies are about to learn the truth of Abraham Lincoln's dictum, which starts "You can fool some of the people some of the time…"

You probably know the rest.

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

Photo: Wayne Polk/Flickr

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