2011 Canadian election: The other debate

What a difference two-and-a-half years can make. Environmental issues were front and centre in the 2008 election, when the Liberal proposal of a carbon tax made climate change a key election issue. In contrast, last week’s televised leader debate was most notable for its key omissions: Green Party leader Elizabeth May was excluded this time round, while environmental issues barely rated a passing comment, let alone being raised as a topic of debate.

National CBC radio’s The Current attempted to rectify both of those gaping holes with a special broadcast on climate change. First, Elizabeth May was featured in a solo interview by Current host Annamaria Tremonti. Then a panel consisting of Conservative environment minister Peter Kent,  along with environment critics Gerard Kennedy of the Liberals and Linda Duncan of the NDP, took on a series of pointed questions about climate change policy.

Unsurpisingly, Kent repeated his false claims that Canada was on track to meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emission targets and claimed Conservative policies were having a noticeable effect. Even more outrageously, Kent claimed that a carbon tax would be an “irresponsible measure that would kill Canadian jobs” and intimated that European countries were backing away from programs to meet emission targets because of their effect on the economy, while glibly misrepresenting the Kyoto accord. And not only did he rule out cap-and-trade, but he refused to answer a point blank question about regulation of the oil and gas industry, preferring instead to extol the new oil sands water monitoring program announced just before the election.

Neither Kennedy and Duncan provided much detail on their parties’ respective cap-and-trade proposals, but both managed effective rebuttals to Kent, who sounded more than ever like the minister of the oil sands, not the environment.

I’ll present and comment on key excerpts from the CBC broadcast, which ran in the second and third segments of The Current on April 13, 2011 (part 1 was a discussion of the leaders’ debate, held the night before):

Elizabeth May lays it out

Here’s the introduction, which focused on the afore mentioned omission of the environment from this year’s political debate:

Anna Maria Tremonti: For years, some of Canada’s most contentious debates have been over environmental issues … climate change, clear-cutting, the oil sands, the seal hunt. But last night, with the exception of a quick mention of emissions, environmental issues were conspicuously absent from the English-language leaders’ debate.

This morning, we’re asking where the federal parties stand on the environmental issues affecting this country and this planet. We began with Green Party leader Elizabeth May who was also missing from last night’s debate. She was in Victoria.

The wide-ranging twenty-minute interview touched on a number of subjects, but May was most passionate on the subject of climate change.

[We are the only] party at the table that says the  climate crisis is urgent, the failure to act is unacceptable, [as is] the fact that Canada has the lowest target for greenhouse gases reductions of any country  in the industrial world. [N]o credible third party observer has seen that we actually have a plan to reach those unacceptably low targets. [Part 2, 9:15]

A little later, May continued her excoriation of Conservative do-nothing policy:

Here’s Canada with an economic stimulus package that actually dropped support for wind energy … We had a homeowner package that helped people improve the beauty of kitchens and back decks  and nothing for energy efficiency.

As May pointed out, this is indicative of a “silo mentality” that separates  economic and environment policies. No other country’s economic stimulus program gave such short shrift to environmental concerns, and Canada clearly missed an opportunity to boost “green” jobs.

May wound up by decrying the lack of leadership of the Conservatives and indeed all the other parties.

How can they ignore the science on the climate crisis. The issue is beyond urgent. We have a very rapidly closing window to reduce greenhouse gases and start the shift to a post-carbon economy. …

It requires courage, and it requires action that is real. …

That [window] is measured now, not in decades but in very short years, and my question to the other leaders is how do you aspire  to the name leader when you’re afraid to address the single largest challenge we face.

It’s arguably somewhat unfair to lump the NDP and Liberals together with the inactivist Conservative government; after all both of those opposition parties have pledged to implement cap-and-trade as soon as possible, building on existing provincial and state initiatives. On the other hand, May’s frustration is understandable, as the Liberals in particular have backed off climate change as a defining policy issue.

Environmental panel, question 1: Leadership on climate change

Next up was the environmental panel:

  • Peter Kent , environment minister in the Conservative government of Stephen Harper
  • Gerard Kennedy, Liberal environment critic
  • Linda Duncan, New Democratic Party (NDP) environment critic

The very first question was that posed by Green leader Elizabeth May in her parting shot, put to each in turn.

Kent: Our government is certainly not avoiding the science on climate change  … We proposed to spend, and we will propose again,  for 2011-2012 more for environment

Kent went on to tout the Conservatives’ EcoEnergy program, a home energy retrofit program that was a pale imitation of the previous Liberal program, and was resurrected only under pressure from opposition parties. Then, after a brief mention of regulatory actions promoting energy efficiency, Kent bizarrely expounded on the new water monitoring program in the Athabasca River watershed that is  Kent mentioned  Energy regulatory actions with a focus on energy efficiency.

And the day before the election, which was simply not covered by the media in Canada and I agree with Elizabeth and I lament the fact that the media is not covering environmental issues, I revealed the water quality monitoring program for the Athabasca river basin where of course for millennia the Athabasca river has run through the oil sands but there are serious questions raised by the scientific community about the impact that the oil sands projects have had … This was not covered, but embraced by scientists universally  across the country. [Part 2, 19:00]

At least, Kent has now backed off his previous absurd claim that there is “no scientific evidence” of contamination from the oil sands development (a claim roundly refuted by peer-reviewed science by ecologist David Schindler and his team at the University of Alberta) . But he still is broadly hinting at Ezra Levant’s “ethical oil” canard that the contamination is likely mainly natural.

To be fair, the monitoring plan was praised as a positive, albeit very small, step in the right direction. But the belated move came only after the highly embarrassing studies from Schindler’s team demonstrating gaping holes in the current joint industry-provincial monitoring program and a subsequent report that excoriated government inaction. Kent’s whining about lack of coverage is also contradicted by the actual evidence, as seen in stories by the Toronto Sun, the Globe and Mail and the CBC.  It remains to be seen how and when the plan will be implemented, while planned massive developments will proceed, no doubt outpacing the monitoring system’s moderately expanded site sampling.

And Kent’s digression simply avoided all mention of the huge greenhouse gas emissions of the oil sands, which already account for five percent of Canada’s total GHG emissions, and are set to nearly triple over the next decade.

The opposition critics stuck to the actual question. The NDP’s Duncan called May’s tarring of all the other parties with the same brush “regrettable” and  pointed out that the NDP had proposed “interim targets based on science”.

Gerard Kennedy pointed out that under the Liberal plan 20% of new resources would be devoted to climate change. He decried the Conservatives’ “lack of leadership” and pointed to the party’s cap-and-trade plan for heavy emitters to be implemented in the “very near future” after a Liberal victory. The Liberals would also make the home energy conservation program permanent ongoing, not the mere one year extension grudgingly granted by the Conservatives after their announced cancellation of the program had been widely denounced. In short the Liberals, were “not letting go” of teh climate change issue and Kennedy deemed it a “high priority”:

The ability to make these decisions and change the way we live, change the way the economy works has got to be there. Every other country is way ahead of where Canada is at.

Panel discussion continued in Part 3 with pre-recorded questions from three invited experts.

Environmental panel, question 2: Andrew Weaver asks about carbon pricing

University of Victoria climate modeller (and IPCC lead author) Andrew Weaver was next up, prefacing his question with a reminder of the Copenhagen commitment to limit GHG emissions to limit likely temperature increase to 2C.

There’s clearly a disconnect between science and policy. My question to the panel is to what extent will you introduce what all economists believe is the only means to deal with this problem which is pricing on carbon emissions.

Both Kennedy and Duncan reiterated their parties’ respective pledges to introduce a cap-and-trade system as soon as possible.

Then Tremonti made a valiant attempt to get Kent to answer Weaver’s actual question.

How do you respond to what Andrew Weaver says: our emissions reduction targets are not good enough, that pricing on carbon emissions is necessary.

Kent started out inauspiciously, by misrepresenting Weaver’s views and the Kyoto accord in one fell swoop:

I agree with Dr Weaver that Copenhagen is the most effective way to engage all emitters on global climate change. Kyoto after all was signed by only 37 of the world’s least emitting nations.

In fact, Kyoto accord was signed and ratified by 191 countries; the figure of 37 refers to the Annex I countries that committed to interim reductions in GHG emissions. In general, these countries included the highest emitting countries as measured by per capita emissions (including Canada which continues to be second only to Autsralia, as seen in this Conference Board summary of Canada’s atrocious record). Even if one measures by total emissions, as Kent seems to prefer, the Annex 1 countries still include many of the top emitters, including Canada at number 8. So this is yet another self-serving falsehood from Kent.

Not only that, but the Copenhagen accord is an attempt, albeit watered-down, to extend Kyoto with a new follow-on agreement, not replace it. The accord specifically calls on the Kyoto Annex I signatories to “further strengthen the emissions reductions initiated by the Kyoto Protocol”.

Kent then moved on to attack the most straightforward carbon pricing mechanism, namely a carbon tax.

I was surprised that Elizabeth May didn’t talk about one of the central planks in her platform which is a carbon tax which of course in the last election Micahel Ignatieff foisted upon his then leader Stephane Dion and which Canadians resoundingly rejected and the rejected it with good sense bicause it is an irresonsponsible measure that would kill Canadian jobs.

Tremonti tried to reign Kent in.

Tremonti: OK can we go back to Andrew Weaver’s question though. He says you are not looking at the science.

Kent: Well we think we are. We have over 1700 scientists in Environment Canada.

We have the super computer in Montreal which has been doing the leading computer modeling for the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change and we believe that while it is important to set targets … in alignment with the United States because first and foremost at the moment is the continued economic recovery. And I also noticed and I disagree with Elizabeth May on this is that the Europeans who set high targets and who had all sorts of programs are walking away from them.

Tremonti: Peter Kent I need to stop you. I need you to stick to the questions …

Alas, Kent’s evasions and prevarications were to continue.

Environmental panel, question 3: Andrew Leach asks about implementation

Andrew Leech of the University of Alberta asked each of the three panelists to give specifics on how they would implement mechanisms to achieve short-term targets, including this very detailed question for Peter Kent.

Leach: To Mr Kent the question would be what regulatory actions are the Conservatives going to take to complement their proposed   sector-by-sector  regulations, specifically targeting the oil and gas sector How will those regulations be implemented and when?

How will you get to the 2020 target to which you’ve committed?

Kent: It’s a great question, and I wish the Canadian media was discussing these issues.

Tremonti: Well, we are right now.

Kent: Absolutely and our government I can say is firmly on track to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by the 17% target below the 2005 base levels  by 2020   In fact, the regulations that we’ve implemented so far  have put about a quarter of the way of to achieving those targets. We started with the transportation sector, which is by far the largest greenhouse gas emitting sector we brought in new emission  standards on cars and light trucks last year. I brought in heavy truck regs this year.

We brought in renewable fuel  regulations for gasoline, ethanol and gasoline,  and I just announced biodiesel  minimum content before the election.

Once again, Kent misrpresented the true situation. As I showed in excruciating detail in my previous post on Kent, the 2009 downward blip was entirely due to the economic downturn, not Conservative policies. Current projections call for steadily rising emissions for each of 2010, 2011, and 2012, almost reaching the original baseline level. In fact, Environment Canada’s own 2010 Kyoto report estimates the effect of regulations “implemented so far” by the end of 2008 at a whopping 2 megatonnes of emission reductions, rising to 10 megatonnes by 2012, still well under 2 percent of Canada’s total emissions.

We’re now about to … and this unnecessary opportunistic election has delayed my announcement of the next sector which is the coal-fired electricity generating sector and we have regs which we are ready to roll out.  I’ve been in discussions with emitters   across the country from the east coast to central Canada and Alberta and we will work our way to other large emitters and other sectors.

Once again, Kent has maintained a perfect record of avoiding the question, with not a single reference to the oil and gas industry in his verbiage.

Gerard Kennedy touched on the heart of the problem when he stated:

We would put forth regulations in all sectors – no exceptions.    Unfortunately Mr Kent and Mr  Harper are captive … There’s a forward-looking part of the oil and gas sector and a backwards-looking part.

That backwards looking has direct links into Mr. Harpers’s office. Mr . Kent is just a spokesperson here because these regulations have been promised five times with five deadlines by this government and never delivered. This is just a delaying action. So we would put in place those regulations we would be fair to all regions. And we would not concede our sovereignty to the U.S.  Congress the way Mr Kent wants to. We can do that, we can link up both internationally and with the U.S.  at the appropriate time.

The NDP’s Linda Duncan stated that medium-term targets of would be achieved via the removal of “perverse” fossil fuel subsidies, cap-and-trade and green bonds. And she expressed an understandable skepticism about future Conservative regulations on electrical regulation.

That would shift over immediately to major investment in transit, and into intensified retro-fitting and investment into renewables. We have heard from many ministers of the environment that they are ready to roll out the coal-fired regulations and I will believe them when I see them.

Environmental panel, question 4: Catherine Swift of the Federation of Independent Business

Actually, this was not a question so much as an ideological rant against regulation of GHG emissions from the noted small-c conservative (and, not so incidentally, confirmed climate change contrarian).

If you make this a red-tape regulatory nightmare it will actually hurt your achieving objective. … If it ends up destroying businesses and jobs which we’ve seen happen in many jurisdictions in Europe they’ve actually backed off a lot their so-called green policies because it’s ended up killing the economies so badly the tradeoffs weren’t worth it.

As Linda Duncan drily noted, this was an “interesting interpretation”:

I don’t think it was the green initiatives that killed the economy.

But Kent welcomed the opportunity to state that Conservative policies would have absolutely no effect on small business, and noted the inclusion of Swift as a government adviser.

It’s a very good question from Catherine Swift and she is a part of the red-tape cutting commission that the prime minister struck just a few months ago. The regulatory process that we’re talking about doesn’t have red-tape implications for small and medium-sized business. It is focused on the largest emitters sector-by-sector around the greenhouse emitting wheel.

Kent went on to rule out a cap-and-trade system, citing the U.S. failure to move ahead.

Environmental panel, question 5: Tremonti on “proper balance

The final question came from the beleaguered CBC host, and provided an opportunity for some final comments from each of the three.

Tremonti: What is the proper balance between addressing environmental concerns and strengthening the economy?

Kent:  The proper balance is exactly what we saw in detail … The budget introduced two weeks ago does have exactly that balance. And to correct Ms May and Ms Duncan that budget did include the elimination of fossil fuel tax subsidies in support of the G20 commitment … The budget released two weeks ago provided for the greatest expense on the protection of Canada’s environment across the spectrum: plants, animals, vegetation, air,  water …

Kennnedy: … There’s a $529 million cut between just his ministry and Natural Resources.

Our carbon footprint is size 23. We’re clomping around in these big clown shoes when the Europeans and other countries in the same climate and the same distances are size 7 and 8

Duncan: Yes, indeed, there was a small pathetic little move to remove peripheral subsidies in response to the commitment at the G20 but that is in no way moving in the direction of the commitment. They only did that move because the department of Finance said either you better do something or pull out of the commitments.

They also killed twice over the Canadian Climate Research Foundation… .  I’m wondering when this government is finally going to initiate  and kick start and open public dialogue on a clean energy path for the future  rather than the closed door sessions being led by Bruce Carson.

The latter reference is very telling. Bruce Carson, a former advisor to Prime Minsister Stephen Harper, has been in the news because of a string of fraud convictions dating back to the 1980s and 1990s as well as  allegations of improper lobbying. But Carson was also most recently the handpicked head of the School of Environment and Energy, a partnership of three Alberta universities, although he had no discernable qualifications for the post. He reportedly shifted the research institute’s mandate to include improved  image management for the oil sands industry. The government showered the shadowy school with millions in grants at a time when basic climate science research was being cut back.

And Carson’s  was just one of several dubious advisory appointments from the Harper government that strongly hinted at an anti-science agenda, including ex-Fraser Intitute executive diretcor Mark Mullins at the  Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and Robert Sopuck of the Frontier Centre at the National Rountable on Energy and the Environment. (“Modern environmentalist” and climate contrarian Sopuck was recently elected in a Manitoba byelection and has been touted as a future environment minister).

I’ll look at these appointments in more detail another time, but it should also be noted that all this is just a symptom of a much larger problem. As Gerard Kennedy of the Liberals pointed out, the Conservative government is clearly in the thrall of the most retrograde elements of the oil industry – the same players that have funded climate science disinformation via think tanks and astroturf groups such as the Fraser Institute and the Friends of Science.

Notwithstanding Peter Kent’s crocodile tears over the failure of cap-and-trade  legislation in the U.S., the sad truth of the matter is that fossil fuel interests on both sides of the border have  sidelined effective action on climate change for the foreseeable future.

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13 responses to “2011 Canadian election: The other debate

  1. Good post, as usual. Are you familiar with The Sixth Estate? He has been blogging about Bruce Carson, appointees to CSEE, NRC, and other research groups, etc. For instance: http://sixthestate.net/?p=1498 about the NRC being privatized; http://sixthestate.net/?p=1536 about Carson’s replacements at CSEE and Carbon Management Canada; and a bunch more posts about Carson here: http://sixthestate.net/?tag=bruce-carson

  2. All the parties except the Conservatives answered questions about their environment policies: http://www.pembina.org/pub/2208

  3. Superb summary of the state of climate politics in Canada.

    You might be interested to know that Carson’s replacement at the Canada School of Energy is an oil lobby consultant, and his replacement at Carbon Management Canada is a Suncor executive.

    For what it’s worth, the NSERC board also has James Blatz, associated with the Frontier Centre (I believe).

  4. I’m so disappointed that the other parties seem unwilling to describe the government clearly and frankly as lying manipulators in the pockets (deep pockets) of vested interests. Add in the madness of their ‘justice’ policies (spend more, do more harm), opposition to safe-injection sites and needle exchanges despite their demonstrated benefits and obsession with a short-sighted, narrow-minded approach to international affairs, the Conservatives (no longer progressive even in name) have become a pale, cynical reflection of the Republican party in the U.S. (and the ‘Liberals’ in Australia), claiming economic virtue and resposibility while serving privilege and special interests. I expect pure and open denialism to become the new fashion of the day for them if they’re lucky enough to extract a majority out of a very divided vote on May 2.

  5. A minor niggle, DC, and perhaps I’ve brought it up before and am being repetitive, but “oil sands” is the preferred term of all of those who wish to see the development of this resource proceed untrammeled by any environmental considerations. “Tar sands” is a lot more accurate – one of the guys in the lab was working up that way and brought some cores back. Looked like asphalt and smelled like Brooks on a hot day. “Oil sands” sounds like the material is actually a lot more labile than it is in fact, and this hides just how tightly locked into the substrate the hydrocarbons really are.
    Also, Ed Stelmach would rather that you called them “oil sands”. Do you need a better reason not to?

    • There’s a good article in The Tyee. on the oil/tar distinction and which is more negative in perception. I think that Albertans, long used to seeing the benefits of production, have this wrong, it’s only in their minds that oil is good, whereas tar is dirty. Using “tar sands” instead of “oil sands” may, as Lars points out, be worthwhile because it peeves prominent Albertans, but according to the study cited in the Tyee article, public perception of “oil” is no better than “tar”.

      “Bitumen sands” would be the most scientifically accurate term to use.

  6. Carson managed to make his way to Copenhagen, presumably on funding from CSEE (i.e. the Canadian taxpayer):

    P. 36: http://www.canadaschoolofenergy.com/uploads/documents/reports/CSEE%20Annual%20Report%202009-10%20eng.pdf

    Unfortunately for Canadian climate scientists, the Conservative government has stacked NSERC’s board with patronage appointments (see Sixth Estates’ detailed list here: http://sixthestate.net/?p=1415). Christopher Essex (coauthor of the Willie Soon-endorsed “Taken By Storm”, with Ross McKitrick) was appointed in 2009. Arlene Ponting, appointed in 2007, appears to have more objectivity , but her partner Philip was also granted a patronage appointment to the Canada Council for the Arts in 2009 – apparently a $2250 donation ($500 after taxes) can get you somewhere!

    See also the Climate Action Network’s report on the Harper Government (TM) approach to Climate Science here:

    http://www.climateactionnetwork.ca/webyep-system/program/download.php?FILENAME=67-at-PDF_File_Upload_4.pdf&ORG_FILENAME=Troubling-Evidence-The-Harper-Government%92s-Approach-to-Climate-Science_Research_in_Canada.pdf

    • The last reference mentions the Harper Government’s (TM) last-minute cancellation of Don MacIver’s (EC) presentation at the WMO’s World Climate Conference-3 in Poland. I thought this example contrasted nicely with Bruce Carson’s appearance in Copenhagen…

  7. I don’t think the whole cap and trade idea has done us progressives any favours regards getting us moving towards a carbon neutral economy. This sums it up rather nicely:

    The Story of Cap and Trade

    Just another way for the futures/trading fat cats to make money at the expense of humanity, while leaving the problem of emissions largely unaddressed. Much better is something like James Hansen’s proposed fee and dividend, that cuts out the unnecessary middle men, and would provide money for investment in developing renewables.

    • Gavin's Pussycat

      Yep, as I remember it, ironically cap & trade was invented because at the time, tax was a three letter word…

  8. A sad state of affairs…

  9. An important article about Bruce Carson, by Andrew Nikiforuk:
    http://thetyee.ca/News/2011/04/27/CarsonOilSands/

  10. Daniel J. Andrews

    Given the info (in the article and the comments) about antiscience folks working their way into positions where they can do more damage, I’m feeling very depressed on this sunny Saturday morning. Other than voting (which I already did in the advanced polls), not sure what else I can do that I’m not already doing.

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