An open letter to conservatives regarding the Climate Change Accountability Act

Dear conservatives,

For Canada’s environmental community, the bad news story of the past week was the Senate’s snap rejection of Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act. Last Tuesday evening (November 16th), Conservative Senators called an unscheduled vote on the Bill, which had been passed by the opposition parties in the House of Commons, taking advantage of sparse attendance by Liberal Senators, to defeat the Bill, 43 to 32.  Prime Minister Harper then defended the actions of the Conservative Senators by attacking the Bill, arguing that it set greenhouse gas reduction targets which were fiscally irresponsible

The Conservative government’s credibility on climate change has been weak for some time.  Prime Minister Harper’s official line is that he recognizes that climate change exists, and that action is required.  Indeed, as recently as 2007 the Prime Minister said that climate change is "perhaps the biggest threat to confront humanity today."  However, even before Tuesday’s snap vote, it was difficult to believe that the Prime Minister and his government really take climate change that seriously when:

But rather than using this post to point out that the Bill’s targets were science-based and essential to effectively address climate change, or pointing out (again) that the government has a history of avoiding meaningful debate on environmental matters,  this blog post is an open letter to Canada’s conservatives (whether members of the Conservative Party of Canada or not) encouraging them to demand real action on climate change. 

Because conservatives can provide real environmental leadership, and have done so.  Indeed, as Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party (and Harper’s former boss), has said: “Conservation and conservative are very closely linked.” 

Here in Canada we are influenced enough by U.S. media and politics that it’s understandable that we think Conservative = Climate Change Denier.  According to one blog, after the recent election there are only 4 Republicans in the US House of Representatives who publicly admit that climate change is real.  One recent poll indicates that only 10% of Republicans think that global warming is a problem.  We hear about the Conservative talk-show hosts and the witch-hunts against climate scientists, all carried out in the name of conservatism. 

Even in the U.S. there are voices pointing out that this is not an inherently conservative position, noting that:

But why take the example of the U.S., when globally conservatives are getting serious about climate change.  Canada might look to the United Kingdom, given our strong historic links to that country, where the Conservative Party recently came to power on a promise to do more to fight climate change.  In 2007 the Conservative Party released its Blueprint for a Green Economy, which was heralded as ground-breaking by environmentalists.  Its discussion of climate change, and how the Conservative Party would respond to it, should be required reading for Canadian Conservatives:

We see growing climate instability as a symptom of the unsustainable way in which we treat the planet. … [We] understand that ‘business as usual’ is an irresponsible option in the face of future economic costs, security concerns and the risk of potentially catastrophic climate tipping points. In the name of economic self-interest, social justice and responsibility to our descendents, we have to change. It is time to consider how our economic system can be developed to place a greater value on the finite stock of natural capital that we depend on.

Having now formed the government (with help from the Liberal Democrats), the U.K.’s Conservative Party’s website now has this to say about climate change:

The Government believes that climate change is one of the gravest threats we face, and that urgent action at home and abroad is required. We need to use a wide range of levers to cut carbon emissions, decarbonise the economy and support the creation of new green jobs and technologies. We will implement a full programme of measures to fulfil our joint ambitions for a low carbon and eco-friendly economy.

  • We will push for the EU to demonstrate leadership in tackling international climate change. 
  • We will seek to increase the target for energy from renewable sources, subject to the advice of the Climate Change Committee.  
  • We will continue public sector investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology for four coal-fired power stations.
  • We will establish a smart grid and roll out smart meters.
  • We will create a green investment bank. … (click here to read the entire page)

Clearly the Conservative Government of the U.K. recognizes the science, and the need to make very fundamental changes to address climate change.  We may not agree with everything in their platform, but it’s a credible, science-based and conservative attempt to address climate change. 

Here in Canada we know that Conservative does not necessarily mean anti-environmental.  In 2006 Corporate Knights Magazine lauded Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister.  And Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party, just last year, published an Op-Ed called Our quality of life depends on a green economy in the National Post, the latest in a series of public statements on the need for Green Conservatism in Canada.  

To return to the present, Prime Minister Harper and the Conservatives in the Senate, by defeating Bill C-311, have sent a message Canada’s Greenhouse Gas targets should not be based on science.  Is that a conservative position?  We would argue, as others have, that it’s actually a very risky position.  Climate scientist, Andrew Weaver, makes this same point in a column by Jack Knox in last Thursday’s Times Colonist:

A truly conservative government would gather the evidence, do a rational analysis of the facts and react accordingly, [Weaver] says. He sounds almost wistful about the approach of Britain's Conservatives, who Wednesday declared their intention to shove the U.K.'s electricity industry into using lower-emitting fuels. Meanwhile, our social reformers … pay lip service to climate change, but in their hearts believe it's some New Age crystal crap that the Liberals left in the basement.

Forget for a moment obligations to our children and grandchildren and to Creation (not to suggest that conservatives don’t value such things): From a purely economic perspective the fiscally conservative choice is clear.  As the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, by a former Chief Economist of the World Bank, stated in 2006:

The evidence shows that ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth. Our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century. And it will be difficult or impossible to reverse these changes. Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries. The earlier effective action is taken, the less costly it will be.

So if action on climate change is a morally and fiscally conservative position, then where are Canada’s Conservative voices asking for action on climate change? 

We know that many conservatives do care.  A poll released last Thursday indicates that a substantial majority of Conservative Party supporters polled believed that Canada and other industrialized countries have a special obligation to take action on climate change.  Other polls confirm that many, perhaps most, conservatives are deeply concerned about climate change. 

But it would be nice to hear your voices raised on this issue a little louder and a little more often.  Perhaps then Prime Minister Harper would feel an obligation to do more than pay lip service to fighting climate change. 


Andrewblogphoto.jpgAndrew Gage, Staff Counsel