Ask Canadians about the most pressing issues facing their country and, alongside concerns about the economy and healthcare, they will inevitably raise the need for action on climate change. And no wonder: British Columbia and the Prairies were in the grips of a serious drought this summer and, only weeks after our election, world leaders will head to Paris to try to come up with a serious plan to stop global warming.
Yet, encouraged by Conservative leader Stephen Harper, much of the election debate has been narrowed to focus on “wedge issues” such as cultural differences. But Canadians cannot afford to be pulled in by the politics of diversion and division.
The reason is simple: when it comes to climate change, we are simply out of time. Climate scientists have told us that this is the most critical decade to begin decisively weaning ourselves off fossil fuels if we are to have a decent shot at preventing truly catastrophic warming.
That’s why we are seeing China, India, the United States, the European Union and pretty much every major country besides Canada unveiling their most ambitious climate commitments yet.
It’s not nearly enough, but it puts our country to shame. Because when it comes to climate change, the Canadian government is doing worse than nothing – it is racing in the wrong direction.
The Harper government’s single-minded obsession with tar sands expansion will inevitably result in massive increases of greenhouse gas emissions. It gutted every major water law and aggressively promotes oil pipelines such as Energy East, which will threaten more than 1,000 waterways including the St Lawrence river.
And the government is chasing free trade agreements such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Europe, as well as the recently completed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with Asia-Pacific partners. The latter deal has been much in the news over its impact on dairy farmers and the auto sector, with the government attempting to throw money at the problems it has just created.
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But no amount of money can solve the most serious problem created by the TPP: the way it can be used as a weapon against ambitious climate policy. This is because the TPP, like Ceta and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), gives foreign corporations the right to directly sue our government for new laws or regulations – whether environmental, health or human rights – that they claim negatively affect their bottom line.
Canada is currently facing $2.6bn in legal challenges from American corporations under Nafta. Current and past challenges have targeted bans against harmful additives to gasoline and exports of PCBs, and a moratorium on fracking. If a future government wants to reinstate our water laws or fulfill a commitment to serious fossil fuel reduction that might be agreed to in Paris, TPP adds a whole new batch of foreign investors to the current group that already have the right to challenge those laws before a private tribunal.
It is true that neither of the two main opposition parties has laid out a climate action plan that will get us off fossil fuels fast enough – which is why we both signed the Leap Manifesto, a people’s platform for ambitious and justice-based climate action.
But this issue and this election are too important not to say this: another term of Harper’s Conservatives is a guarantee that Canada’s pattern of climate vandalism will pass the point of no return. At international climate negotiations, our government’s defiant commitment to carbon pollution will continue to be a barrier to progress, giving other governments an excuse to lower their ambitions and waste what is left of this critical decade.
As we are seeing outside our borders, climate ambition is contagious. But as we know from experience at UN negotiations, so too is intransigence.
With Harper at the helm, our best hope will be that other countries cut their emissions enough to account not just for their own share of global pollution but for Canada’s as well. It’s a hope that is both unrealistic and deeply unworthy of our nation.
There is another path. When we vote on 19 October, we can choose to stay focused on the planetary stakes of this election. We must remove the single greatest barrier to climate progress, rejecting the politics of distraction and division. Then, on 20 October, we can begin the real work of moving to a clean economy, one that brings all who share this country closer together.