This article is based on the April 13 Mallory Lecture delivered by Tom Mulcair at McGill University.
Canadians consistently tell pollsters that the environment in general, and climate change in particular, are important issues for them. Yet Canadian governments consistently fail to meet our international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While different parties have taken different paths, they have arrived at the same outcome. Here I briefly set out what is it going to take to go beyond this impasse and start achieving results.
The world has set an ambitious goal to keep climate change in check. The point of reference is the beginning of the industrial era. We have the collective obligation to ensure that average temperatures go up by no more than 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius, during this century, as stipulated by the Paris Accord adopted in 2015.
Failure would entail catastrophic effects on biodiversity, arable land and fresh water supplies, as explained in the most recent, and alarming, special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.1 Mass migrations, increased famines and epidemics would result. Security issues would dominate – chief among them, of course, security of life itself on our planet. As a young Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, told world leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, in January, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.”2
Instead of Thunberg’s sense of urgency, what Canadians recently had, on the front cover of Maclean’s magazine, is a photo of “The Resistance,” provincial premiers from Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario together with federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and Jason Kenney, leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party and now its Premier. What they were vowing to resist was the tepid effort by the Liberal government to enact a fig leaf of a carbon tax in the final year of its mandate, to hide its failure to act on climate change.3
I was in that room, in Paris, in 2015 when Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, dramatically intoned, “Canada is back.” This was meant to be reassuring. Canada, shamefully, under the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper, was the first country in the world to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. Canada, it was understood, had a new government that was going to do things differently. We would stop being bad actors. We would get it right.
Very few people in the room knew that Canada was in fact back with the same targets and timelines as those set by the previous Conservative government. These are targets and timelines that Canada’s neutral and highly respected Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner, Julie Gelfand, reported would not be met for want of a plan.4
Canada was also a bad actor under the Liberal government that preceded the Harper Conservatives, having completely failed to reduce GHGs after signing the Kyoto agreement. As Jean Chrétien’s former chief of staff, Eddie Goldenberg, explained, that signature was more about galvanizing public opinion.5 In other words, it was more about political communications and public relations than about buckling down to do our part to avoid the climate crisis.
Robert MacNeil, a Canadian professor working at the University of Sydney in Australia, has looked at both countries and found some startling similarities in the climate file.6 Australia and Canada are huge and sparsely populated. Both have had a historic reliance on resource extraction to develop their economies. Both had bought into the mantra that free trade agreements did nothing but good. Instead, both had seen real wages of average workers drop in recent years after those free trade accords were signed. Both have completely failed to meet their international obligations on climate change.
Right-wing politicians in both countries had learned to play on the existing fears of workers, to portray any effort to reduce GHGs or introduce a carbon tax as job killers that would threaten their precarious livelihoods even further.
Some, like Stephen Harper, directly attacked any international effort. In his famous words, Kyoto was a socialist scheme to suck money from wealth-producing nations.7 The catastrophic results of Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s 2008 election campaign, centred as it was on a comprehensive “Green Shift,” was an object lesson in the perils of failing to keep the public onside.
As a recovering politician who spent many years on the very partisan stages of Quebec City and Ottawa, I have concluded that dealing with the crisis will first and foremost require a less partisan approach. To paraphrase Tony Blair, this isn’t a question of left or right – it is a question of what works and what doesn’t.
This is not the first time in recent history that we have faced monumental environmental challenges. When leaders imbued with a sense of state and a knowledge of the dangers of a situation decide to act, results will follow. When Brian Mulroney was faced with the issue of acid rain killing our forests, he never had to face anyone who denied that there was a problem.8 He and his American counterpart, George H. W. Bush, put in place a system to cap sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions and allow companies to decide to buy credits or lower their emissions. What was arguably the first real cap-and-trade system was born and it was a success.
For example, major nickel producer Inco only discovered the merits of installing scrubbers to remove sulfur from its giant chimneys the year it would have cost the company more to purchase SO2 credits. Inco also discovered that it now had a new revenue stream with the sulfur it produced – a proof of the Porter hypothesis, which suggests that strict environmental regulation may trigger the discovery and introduction of cleaner technologies and environmental improvements, thereby making production processes and products more efficient. The cost savings achieved may be sufficient to overcompensate for both the compliance costs directly attributed to new regulations and the innovation costs.9
When Ronald Reagan was warned by the best scientists that a hole the size of the United States had opened in the ozone layer above Antarctica, endangering life on earth, he didn’t face a wall of ozone deniers. He acted decisively. Very rapidly, the world came together and, well before Kyoto, the Montreal Protocol was signed to eliminate what had been discovered to be the chief cause of ozone depletion, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). With one major recent exception of cheating, involving China, that deal has held and the hole in the ozone layer has closed.10
As Project Drawdown points out, products used to replace CFCs in the billions of refrigeration and air conditioning units around the world are themselves extremely powerful GHGs.11 It will take time and determination to eliminate GHG-emitting compounds from all of these appliances, but it must be done. Overall, on acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer – very real environmental challenges that were damaging and threatening – action was swift and effective. There was no partisan divide.
It is, perhaps, on the issue of “realness” that the threat of global warming and climate change differs most from the cases mentioned. Acid rain was immediately visible: the effects were right there, and forests were dying. The ozone layer was there: the hole could be measured. It was easy to know it was real. GHGs are ethereal. The effects are real but it is easy to come up with alternative facts. In the words of Maxime Bernier: how can CO2 be considered pollution – it’s what humans breathe out and what plants take in?
Every time we go through a spate of record-breaking floods, heat waves, forest fires or hurricanes, scientists are obliged to say things like: we cannot link any specific event to climate change, but our modelling has predicted for some time that these types of events will increase in frequency and ferocity as, indeed, they have. Unfortunately, this opens the door for the deniers to deny and we’re back to square one.
In the U.K., a worthwhile initiative called the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations has been formed. Its key stated goal is “to internalize longer-term considerations into decision-making processes, and create space for cross-party dialogue on combating short-termism in policy making.” This is precisely the type of change that is needed to deal with these very real issues affecting the world.12
In the fall of 2018 old friends and colleagues, many of whom had been in government together going back to the 1970s, discussed what works and what doesn’t work in terms of public policy that seeks to obtain a specific result. We focused on the notion of an “obligation of result,” which is central to French Civil Law on questions of civil responsibility. As distinct from an obligation of means, it describes an intensity of obligation where it would never be enough to say you had acted in a reasonably prudent manner. You would have the obligation to produce the required result and anything less would be actionable. We agreed that that was where we needed to head. We need a way to impose an obligation of results on our governments, beginning with Quebec, which had set its own targets and was going to fall short, despite being a party to the Western Climate Initiative cap-and-trade plan with California.13
We set about contacting former environment ministers from both sides of the aisle, and produced a great deal of public interest as people who had faced off against each other, such as former Parti Québécois minister Paul Bégin and myself, joined hands to say: we owe it to future generations to achieve the necessary result.
Obligations of results are also about keeping track of undertakings. There’s an old saying in public administration: that which gets measured gets done. Requiring objective reporting and subjecting future resource and industrial projects to fit into a measured carbon budget is the only way to ensure the result and get rid of the political hot air. When Prime Minister Trudeau told Canadians that buying an aging oil pipeline and subsidizing oil companies were necessary ingredients for his plan to meet our Paris obligations, there were a few sceptics who knew how to count.14
There is so much written and said about climate change from so many different angles that personal beliefs, rather than science, too often shape the reaction to various proposals. So we have to first agree that the only way to guarantee a reduction of GHGs is to put a price on carbon, and to push forward even though there is debate over the means to that end. Carbon tax or cap-and-trade? Massive lawsuits against oil companies, like those against tobacco companies, as a way to change their behaviour? Decreeing a national emergency, akin to wartime, with all-party decision-making?
A fascinating, promising and morally vexing proposal from two highly experienced and respected former U.S. politicians contains elements of all of these ideas, and would produce a dramatic reduction. It starts with a serious carbon tax of $40/ton (USD), increasing to $65 by 2030, with subsidies to families to help offset cost increases.15 Former Republican secretaries of state James Baker and George Shultz came up with this plan, which has received support from ideologically starkly different quarters. Moreover, both the petroleum industry and key environmental groups agree that it is very promising.
The support for this proposal by oil companies comes as a bit of a shock, but is not entirely benevolent. The tricky part, ethically and morally, is that participation in the promising scheme would enable oil companies to avoid tort liability. As massive lawsuits launched by New York City and the State of California illustrate, oil companies and their shareholders could be on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars in payments for the damage wrought by climate change. They are trying to get ahead of the issue, in contrast to the tobacco companies, which having denied for so long paid a heavy price in court-imposed damages.
Deal or no deal? If this is an emergency, then we must start treating it like an emergency. Sometimes that requires unpalatable choices, if the most important thing is the result.
1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Summary for Policymakers,” in Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways (Geneva, Switzerland: World Meteorological Organization, 2018).
3 Paul Wells, Canada’s Carbon Tax Is up against a United Front of Powerful Conservatives, Maclean’s, November 7, 2018.
4 Office of the Auditor General of Canada, “Perspectives on Climate Change Action in Canada—A Collaborative Report from Auditors General,” March 27, 2018.
5 Not Ready for Kyoto, Chretien Adviser Says, Thestar.Com, February 22, 2007.
6 Robert MacNeil, “Death and Environmental Taxes: Why Market Environmentalism Fails in Liberal Market Economies,” Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 16, No. 1 (February 2016), pp. 21–37.
7 CBC News and The Canadian Press, Harper’s Letter Dismisses Kyoto as ‘Socialist Scheme’, CBC, January 31, 2007.
8 Brian Mulroney, We Went from Yelling at the Rain, to Talking Common Ground, iPolitics (blog), March 14, 2012.
9 Stefan Ambec et al., “The Porter Hypothesis at 20: Can Environmental Regulation Enhance Innovation and Competitiveness?” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January 1, 2013), pp. 2–22.
10 Agence France-Presse, China Blamed for Mystery Rise in Ozone-Depleting Emissions, The Telegraph, July 9, 2018.
11 Paul Hawken (ed.), Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (New York: Penguin, 2017). Project Drawdown, in the words of its website, “gathers and facilitates a broad coalition of researchers, scientists, graduate students, PhDs, post-docs, policy makers, business leaders and activists to assemble and present the best available information on climate solutions in order to describe their beneficial financial, social and environmental impact over the next thirty years.”
13 Benjamin Shingler, Why Aren’t Quebec’s Political Leaders Talking More about Climate Change? CBC, August 31, 2018.
14 David Lea, More than 1,000 People Attend Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Town Hall in Milton, InsideHalton.Com, February 1, 2019,
15 James A. Baker et al., The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends (Washington, DC: Climate Leadership Council, February 2017).