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Hypocrisy, thy name is Harper. Does Canada’s Prime Minister have no shame when it comes to climate policy?


It is rare that I post more frequently than once every 10 to 14 days, but recent news out of Ottawa raised my blood to boiling. So here goes.

Some background

Ever since he came to power far too long ago, Steven Harper has sought to minimize any action by Canada towards the effort to limit GHG emissions. For most of that time, he refused to discuss climate change, sought to dismantle government labs that might provide data on the topic, kept a heavy controlling hand on the shoulders of successive environment ministers, and pushed consistently for any actions that might favor the tar sands operations in Alberta. Those who argued against the degradation of water and land in the Athabasca River basin, or against new pipelines from Alberta to every ocean, by any route, on environmental grounds were labeled terrorists, foreign-inspired or supported betrayers of Canada and its economy. He spent some $75 million of our tax dollars to tell us that he was leading the only government Canada has ever had that could keep its economy humming along – and we have hummed along faintly during his tenure.
Harper in tar sands bath ygreck journal de montreal 64f1739422aad5b20895edfbdf6dd74f

Stephen Harper has always been overly fond of tar sands bitumen. Its impacts on the climate have not been a concern to him. Cartoon © Ygreck, Journal de Montréal

Early in his tenure, he abrogated the Kyoto treaty, instead of undertaking to try and comply with its requirements (something his Liberal predecessors had been pretty ineffective at). Apparently, international treaties are only pieces of paper, easily torn up when life gets inconvenient. At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, under pressure to do something positive, he undertook to bring Canadian GHG emissions to 17 percent below their 2005 level by 2020. That undertaking using a voluntary target chosen by Canada forms part of another international treaty, the Copenhagen Accord. The world, for the most part, politely ignored the fact that 17% below 2005 levels was going to be a substantially weaker achievement than if we had stuck with Kyoto. (The Copenhagen target of 17% below 2005 levels translates into 3% above 1990 levels; the Kyoto target was 6% below 1990 levels by 2012.)

Since Copenhagen, a succession of environment ministers has been required to stand up and lie about Canada’s performance relative to its Copenhagen goal. The phrase “Canada is halfway towards meeting its 2020 goal” sounds reassuring, and has been often repeated, including by Mr. Harper himself. It is very, very far from the truth, and Canada’s emissions have continued to climb, and Harper’s much-promised regulations on the oil and gas industry have been postponed, postponed, and almost forgotten. The current environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, has stopped making this palpably false claim, and instead resorts to “Canada is working hard to bring emissions down” or words to that effect – words not backed by any deeds other than those done by individual provinces acting independently, or done by the Federal government only because of the necessity of remaining in sync with the US. New regulations now being phased in on efficiency of automobiles were announced a year after the US made such changes and were effectively meaningless, since the auto industry is so closely integrated.

Harper in the Arctic

Every year, Stephen Harper has taken a summer trip to the Arctic. He seems to genuinely enjoy being in the far north, and he has seen much more of it than any former prime minister. Yet, on all his visits, he has managed to not see, or at least to not comment on, the immense changes taking place in the northern climate. You’d think he’d at least notice that the ice is melting. Especially, since he constantly talks about how the arctic is opening up for development. Hint to residents of Nunavut – go visit Fort McMurray to see what Harper means when he says “opening up”. Every year at climate conferences, Canada wins awards. Fossil of the Day, Fossil of the Year, a Fossil Trifecta, and Lifetime Unachievement awards have been accumulated. Late in 2014, the think-tank, Germanwatch, announced than on the basis of an objective ranking of performance using a number of criteria to create a Climate Change Performance Index, Canada comes in dead last among developed countries. Canada ranks lowest in the OECD, lowest in the G8, and 4th from the bottom among the 61 countries ranked. Below Canada were Iran, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia, while Australia ranked just ahead.
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Even when the ice is melting all around him… Stephen Harper in the Arctic.
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

A tidal change in his views on climate

Still, the tide is turning in favor of responsible policy for GHG emissions. Even Stephen Harper feels the pressure of the shifting currents. In an interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge a couple of months ago, he actually uttered the words ‘climate change’, and admitted it was ‘one of’ the world’s pressing problems. He has tended to justify his relative inaction, not by denying climate change exists, but by stressing the need to act ‘in consort with’ the USA, and to act in ways that ‘do not impact our economy’. His discomfit as Obama has moved aggressively on climate has been noticeable. And so to the events that have my blood boiling today.

On 3rd March 2015, the Globe and Mail advised us that Environment Canada was quietly canvassing the provinces and territories to find out what policies they have in place and what reductions in GHG emissions they are achieving. The article quotes a spokesman for Leona Aglukkaq as saying in an e-mail, “Canada is actively preparing its intended nationally determined contribution [to global emissions reductions]. … As this is a national contribution, the provinces and territories hold many levers for taking action on emissions, so the minister is seeking feedback from her counterparts on how initiatives in their jurisdictions will factor into Canada’s overall commitment.” That sounds to me like an admission that the Federal government is going to stitch together a patchwork quilt of provincial policies, and call it a federal plan. Minister Aglukkaq refused requests from the Globe for an interview throughout February, so if the national plan has more in it than this, she is keeping it very hush hush.
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Stephen Harper and Leona Aglukkaq discussing how big a quilt of climate policies they can stitch together from provincial efforts. Photo © Postmedia

I was quietly digesting this news when three things happened. First, two groups of citizens stepped forward with coherent, national plans for GHG emissions that would go a long way to improve Canada’s indefensible position internationally. First came the contribution from Sustainable Canada Dialogues, a group of 71 academics from various disciplines at universities across Canada. Their report, which even made the pages of Science, offers a detailed policy road map for Canada to achieve 100% reliance on low-carbon electricity by 2035. It calls for Canada to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and eliminate at least 80% of emissions by midcentury. It also calls for elimination of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and introduction across Canada, of a price for carbon, either as a tax or as a cap-and-trade scheme. Their plan is pragmatic and feasible.

Next came a report from Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission. Titled “The Way Forward: A Practical Approach to Reducing Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions”, this report also provides a coherent plan to make a significant reduction to GHG emissions. It also is predicated on a national price on carbon as a fundamental requirement, and it stresses the need for stringent pricing policies to ensure effective compliance.
Wynne and

Congratulations to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, seen here with Québec Premier Phillippe Couillard, as they sign deal on 13th April 2015, to cooperate in a carbon cap-and-trade program. Photo © Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press.

Almost immediately, on 10th April, came news that Ontario was going to sign a cap-and-trade deal with Quebec, bringing Ontario into the same pool of jurisdictions as Quebec and California. This is a very good step to take, although my personal preference would be for a carbon tax comparable to the one in place in British Columbia. Of course, the media this morning are all over the fact that some large, but unspecifiable amount of revenue will be generated by a cap-and-trade plan, and used by the government for climate adaptation, and that therefore this is a tax. I hope people can get past that bogus anti-tax argument and recognize that at last there is going to be in Ontario a mechanism that will require that we pay for the carbon pollution we are causing, and that reducing those emissions will save money.

Hypocrisy Rampant – Welcome to the blame game

But, those three events are all good news, aren’t they? So why is my blood boiling? Because Stephen Harper has found it necessary to have Leona Aglukkaq send a letter to provinces stating that Ontario and other provinces have failed to provide detailed climate plans that Ottawa says it needs to submit Canada’s emission-reduction commitment to the United Nations. According to the Globe and Mail, a spokesman for Ms. Aglukkaq said Ottawa is taking a co-ordinating approach with the provinces but will be pursuing additional regulatory action of its own. He accused federal Liberals and New Democrats of advocating “top down” policies that would interfere with provincial jurisdiction.

Just think about that for a moment. Maybe go for a quiet walk, or listen to some calming music. Stephen Harper, the man who has resisted doing anything about climate change throughout his time in office is now, at a rather late date, letting it be known that the fault belongs everywhere except within his government.
Stephen Harper Sean Kilpatrick, Canadian Press

Stephen Harper – It’s not my fault that Canada does not have a climate plan.
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Something I missed at the time, but discovered while preparing this rant: the ‘Let’s blame everybody else’ argument was trotted out to the Globe and Mail reporters at the end of March. An article on March 30th provides extensive quotes that say Canada’s lack of progress is all the fault of Mexico and the USA (who had just signed a bilateral climate accord) as well as the provinces. Witness the following quotes from that article:

First, the provinces:
Canada wants to ensure we have a complete picture of what the provinces and territories plan before we submit,” a spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in an email Sunday. Ted Laking said the government will submit its nationally determined contribution “well in advance” of the December summit, as organizers have asked. “Because this is a national contribution and the provinces have targets of their own, we are collecting information on how they intend to meet their targets.

Then, the US and Mexico:
We’ve said for some time, it’s very public, we’re seeking a continental response on this particular question, not just with the United States. We’d like to see Mexico as well in it,” Harper told the CBC. However government statements in recent years have not reflected any substantive talks, let alone agreement, between Canada and the U.S. on common regulation of their oil and gas sectors.

Anyone who has taught at the university or high school level has heard such arguments before, “I was waiting for my lab partners to complete their parts of the report first”, or “My dog ate my homework”, or even, “I’ve been unable to complete the assignment on time because my kid brother spilled chocolate milk all over my laptop”. I just do not expect such blaming and prevarication from the leadership of a country. As people are becoming fond of saying, “Oh! Canada. Indeed!

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now apparently developing an emissions plan for Canada. If only everyone else would stop slowing his progress. Cartoon © Gareth Lind

4 thoughts on “Hypocrisy, thy name is Harper. Does Canada’s Prime Minister have no shame when it comes to climate policy?”

  1. congratulations?! hahahahaha … you’re joking right? kidding … or … Hokey Doodle! … you’re serious?! been working for the UN so long that ‘least worst’ looks good to me? is that it?

    man, you are in a position to know better, sorry to say it

    1. David,
      I’m serious that my blood was boiling, and that Harper really has been criticizing others for not doing enough on climate change. My faith in the essential decency of Canadian governments has hit a new low.

  2. not sure you understood what I meant (?) it was the statement “Congratulations to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, seen here with Québec Premier Phillippe Couillard, as they sign deal on 13th April 2015, to cooperate in a carbon cap-and-trade program.” that I was objecting to, because they deserve no congratulations for this deal which is not a good one

    1. No, David,
      I was being completely serious, and I guess we disagree about cap-and-trade plans. I would have preferred a carbon tax, but either a tax or a trading scheme puts a price on carbon emissions. A price works in our market economy, causing people to work to reduce their pollution. I think Ontario should be congratulated for getting on board. Of course, I’d be much happier with a country-wide tax on carbon, with the funds raised being used for climate adaptation and to assist the less well off deal with the increased cost of living, but half a loaf is much better than no food at all.

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