Canada’s Cautionary Climate Tale

High inflation has provoked an anti-climate backlash that threatens the Great White North’s environmental plans

Climate Canada
Canada’s Cautionary Climate Tale

For years, few countries in the world were as demonstrably enthusiastic about reducing their CO2 emissions as Canada, and few leaders married their brand of politics to the climate more than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But over the past year, things have all fallen apart. Canada is now the poster child of anti-climate backlash. If an election were held tomorrow, Trudeau would be obliterated by a guy who wants to rip up Canada’s entire environmental strategy and replace it with, seemingly, nothing. 

It’s a tragedy in three parts and a cautionary tale for any liberal government hoping to meet their obligation to reduce their CO2 output.

The First Part

Canadians have been clamoring for climate action. For the last three elections in a row, two-thirds of the country has voted in favor of parties who support carbon pricing, banning coal-fired power plants, and capping emissions from the country’s oil-and-gas sector.

The environmental enthusiasm helped propel Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into office and prompted him to enact a national price on carbon in 2019 — CA$20 ($14) per ton of carbon emitted, rising CA$10 per year until it hit CA$50 per ton in 2022.

Canada leads the way on carbon pricing,” declared the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a California-based NGO calling for better climate policy. Getting the policy in place, they wrote, “took – and continues to require – iron determination, careful negotiations within the governing coalition, and unrelenting advocacy.”

An easy majority of the country polled in 2021 supported the carbon price, and actually wanted more stringent environmental regulations. That kind of support was particularly helpful, given that Canada still had a ways to go to meet its Paris Agreement targets. The wind at his sails, Trudeau even escalated the price increase for emissions: Boosting it to CA$15 per year until it hits CA$170 in 2030.

While there are too many variables to identify the exact impact of the carbon price thus far, Ottawa believes it is on track to reach its goal to reduce emissions 40 percent by 2030.

Inflation Hits, and Everything Changes

Canada, like everywhere, has been hit by a cost-of-living crisis. Things have been worsened by the fact that Canada’s major cities were already facing a housing crisis.

Pierre Poilievre, who took over the Conservative Party in 2022 thanks to ample support from the anti-vaccine “Freedom Convoy,” has become an anti-climate action crusader. He has blamed the carbon price for “forcing millions of people to line up outside food banks, while families have to choose between heating their home or filling up their car.” His new political mantra is: “AXE THE TAX.” 

Support for more stringent climate policies has inverted. Now, just a third of the country thinks the idea of pricing pollution is a good one. Support for Poilievre has exploded.

“In Canada you have two years of Pierre Poilievre saying: ‘Inflation, inflation, inflation,” says Andrew Leach, a professor of economics and law at the University of Alberta and author of Between Doom & Denial, “and pivoting it, subtly, to saying: ‘This is all because of the carbon tax.’”

Poilievre’s rhetoric, however, hasn’t been all that subtle. And it has fed into a substantial movement of grassroots activists and high-profile right-wing figures.

Some remnants of the Freedom Convoy, which occupied Ottawa for three weeks in 2022, have reassembled as the Nationwide Protest Against Carbon Tax. The assembled mass — a hodgepodge of oil and gas workers, conspiracy theorists, conservative politicians, and far-right activists — had driven as far as 2,000 miles to make their point two years ago. As one sign affixed to a truck declared, they were there to say, “NO to UN/globalist, carbon tax, tanker ban, dirty foreign oil, open borders.”

But the event turned out to be a bust. It was, in fact, so poorly received that the then-leader of the opposition Conservative Party spent weeks living down his attendance. That ragtag group of activists has now vowed to hold convoys and pickets to block roads “until goals are achieved, regardless of duration.” Their primary goal is the total removal of Canada’s carbon price.

Jordan B. Peterson, the University of Toronto professor turned alt-right influencer, has provided a pseudo-intellectual underpinning for the opposition — calling carbon neutrality an “utterly preposterous and inexcusable goal” and teasing a “revolt” should the policies continue. 

Poilievre is supported by other anti-climate politicians across the country. Danielle Smith, a former radio host who is now premier of oil-rich Alberta, wrote in 2022 that Canada’s climate policies could start to emulate China’s social credit system. If your carbon emissions are too high, she mused without basis, “maybe they just won’t let you leave the country on a plane at all.”

Cheryl Gallant, a particularly kooky member of Poilievre’s party, has questioned whether reporting on extreme weather events is “trying to build the case for climate lockdowns, or just for the W.H.O. [World Health Organization] to be in charge of responses to the weather?”

This paranoia and misinformation has mixed in with some very potent, and very real, economic anxiety to supercharge the movement. Poilievre — who has appeared on Peterson’s podcast, held his own anti-carbon tax rallies, and made common cause with Premier Smith — has been happy to play into it. He even tried to topple the Trudeau government over the carbon tax. (It failed.)

As Leach points out, it’s no great surprise that the carbon price became the target for this vitriolic reaction. Raising prices of certain carbon-intensive things is exactly the point of carbon pricing, in order to incentivize lower-carbon activities and fuels. But in a high-inflation environment, “it becomes a bug, not a feature.”

Governments rarely get credit for taking action a decade into the future, and Canada is no exception. “Climate action and energy transition stuff is a really long game,” Leach notes. “And the cycle of politics is: ‘What have you done for us lately?’”

Canada saw these political problems on the horizon and tried to solve for them.

While the federal government in Ottawa set a minimum price for carbon, it left it to the 13 provinces and territories to establish their own mechanism for applying the price. Quebec, for example, runs a cap-and-trade model in conjunction with California. (Washington may soon join.) Many provinces, however, have balked, leaving it to Ottawa to impose a national backstop.

Trudeau’s plan also aimed to return the taxes collected back to taxpayers, based on income. Low-income households actually stand to make between CA$200 and CA$1,000 in profit from the carbon tax, thanks to those tax rebates. Middle class and rich families were harder hit, but still wound up paying relatively little, between one and three per cent of their disposable income, on the carbon tax. Virtually every household in the country will, this month, be receiving a cheque from the Trudeau government for hundreds — even thousands — of dollars.

But the rebates take time to arrive. In the interim, Leach says, “people are just answering a question about the cost: ‘Would I be better off if I didn’t have to pay this $5.70 on my bill?’” When one pollster asked people, they found that over half of Canadians, incorrectly, believed they never received last year’s rebate.

With reality immaterial, Peterson declared that the tax would “make the poor poorer” and that sentiment reigns supreme.

Which brings us to part three.

Climate Activists Lost the Information War

Poilievre is, for a variety of reasons including the climate backlash, riding high in the polls. Some surveys have him up by as many as 20 points. His lead exists despite, or perhaps because of his, his total lack of a climate policy.

“You have magical thinking,” Leach says, amongst some conservatives, “that Canada can just walk away from action on climate change.” Then comes the “but” — “that’s basically happened. Australia did it.”

Indeed, Australia had a carbon tax in 2012, only to ditch it two years later. While its current Labour government has introduced some new environmental measures, it remains a climate laggard. And it has faced no obvious domestic or international consequences because of it.

“It’s been depressing,” Leach says. “But that’s the challenge we see here. We talk about these things like the world is going to punish inaction.” 

Not all of the misinformation is the fault of the right-wing. Trudeau has pitched the carbon tax as a cure-all, suggesting it would prevent future wildfires and natural disasters. It’s a promise that is sure to be proven wrong, as extreme climate impacts are projected to get worse in the coming years, not better. So it has only set people up for disappointment. “The government bears a lot of this in terms of how they messaged this,” Leach says.

While Trudeau has taken flak from the Conservatives for going too far, he has also been criticized by the center-left New Democratic Party; the Quebec sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois; and ecologist Green Party for not going far enough. The chorus for the past decade, as Leach puts it, has not been about building support for existing policies, but instead; “What are you gonna do now?” Some of their pressure to do much more has been “wrong in the right direction,” Leach says.

Which means that Canada has pursued new policies without doing much to build support for the old stuff. 

When Canadians go to the polls next year, it seems they may opt to follow a similar path as Australia. Unless governments can figure out how to convince people they can reduce carbon emissions and make life more affordable, others are likely to join.

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