High Stakes - Cleaning Up After Harper

Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau smiles as he leaves his first news conference since winning the election, at the National Press Theatre, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Oct.20, 2015. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

High Stakes - Cleaning Up After Harper

Canadians couldn't have been much clearer on Monday when they hit the polls in numbers that haven't been see for decades: The Harper era is history after some ten years of Conservative rule led by outgoing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Elected with a decisive majority, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada have been given a mandate for change.

Canadians couldn't have been much clearer on Monday when they hit the polls in numbers that haven't been see for decades: The Harper era is history after some ten years of Conservative rule led by outgoing Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Elected with a decisive majority, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada have been given a mandate for change. Canadians were no doubt sick of the divisive politics, our crumbling international reputation, our fragile resource-burdened economy, and a government who was relentless in its bidding for Big Oil.

The Harper years will be reflected on as the darkest in Canada's environmental history. Muzzled federal scientists, the gutting of decades' worth of environmental regulations, the steamrolling of First Nations Rights, the demise of Canada's climate leadership on the world stage, the removal of the public from public consultation processes - the list is long and tragic.

There is a common thread that weaves through all of these scandals: The Alberta tar sands, Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution. The Harper government made it a priority to ensure nothing stood in the way of its rapid, unfettered, and unregulated development. At a time when governments and world leaders were promising action on climate change, Canada was abandoning international climate treaties, and treating the first decade of the century as though the looming climate crisis was non existent.

With Harper and his government turfed to the back benches of parliament, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals face some unprecedented challenges in rebuilding the Canada that Canadians want. A Canada that punches above its weight when it comes to global challenges like climate change, and a Canada that takes justice, equity, and human rights seriously.

It is fair to ask if Trudeau is up for the challenge. Anyone would have been better than Stephen Harper, but this in and of itself is clearly not enough to undo a decade worth of damage. Trudeau needs to be much more than simply better than the guy who was horrible. With the Paris negotiations on climate around the corner, Trudeau has pledged to go and show the world that Canada is back in the game as a constructive player in the talks. But at home, he has his work cut out for him.

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We need a sea change - and Trudeau has not been all that convincing. His campaign lacked details and vision when it came to climate change and a clean energy future for Canada. While there will be ample analysis on all of the portfolios that the Liberals are being handed, here are some things to watch when it comes to tar sands and pipelines. The coming months will be defining for Justin Trudeau to prove he is really ready to lead the country towards a cleaner, safer, just energy future that is not dominated by high cost, high risk, high carbon tar sands.

Tar sands and pipelines are Trudeau's weakest points when it comes to climate and energy. Like many politicians, he has displayed great cognitive dissonance in proclaiming that the Canadian tar sands can expand and Canada can be a climate leader at the same time. At a time when our national emissions need to plummet - Trudeau is suggesting that our largest emitting sector can keep on growing.

Of course - like most politicians - he has also promised better and stronger federal regulations, but has apparently not grappled with the fact that if the tar sands sector grows - every other major emitting sector in the country would have to compensate in impossible ways. It is a circle that can't be squared and a conundrum that, until our politicians confront it, suggests that they don't seriously understand the science (or are choosing not to care).

We need to being talking about the end of growth in the tar sands sector and then what a managed decline will look like, with a just transition for workers and for the economy. The longer we wait to take these discussions seriously, the harder it is going to get. We already have a lost decade - if Trudeau is wise, he will take a new tact here and be a leader that listens to the science, and comes to terms with the fact that expanding tar sands and declining carbon emissions are an oxymoron.

Trudeau's tar sands support has been punctuated by his support of highly controversial pipelines such as Keystone XL - which now finds him standing on opposite sides from the likes of Hillary Clinton, and a litany of other prominent politicians that would otherwise align with many of his policies.

Trudeau and the Liberals have said that they will reject the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline - a project that is all but dead thanks to stunning First Nations leadership and public opposition across British Columbia.

On Kinder Morgan's TransMountain and Energy East, they are pointing to the need for robust environmental assessments (which will need to be resurrected and strengthened) in order to make decisions. But they have not been clear enough in any understanding that pipelines must also be evaluated for their role in driving tar sands expansion and upstream emissions.

The Liberals were already feeling the heat during the election campaign when a senior advisor resigned after he was outed for providing lobby advice to TransCanada on how to win pipeline support should the Liberals win the election.

All parties and all Canadians are aware of the role of the tar sands in Alberta's economy, and they have seen the detriments of a Canadian dollar tied tightly to a volatile resource as the price collapses. After historic provincial elections earlier this year, the Liberals have the unique and unprecedented opportunity of working with the government in Alberta that will be open to these difficult and yet imperative conversations.

Their position on the tar sands and pipelines will make or break the Liberals early climate reputation, and hopefully this is clear to them. With a commitment to allowing our scientists to communicate about their work and returning to evidence-based policy making, a short term peak in tar sands production and emissions is the only reasonable pathway for Canada to do its fair share. And while not all of this will fall under federal jurisdiction, much of it will, and how the Liberals handle it will speak volumes about their climate commitment.

The Liberals have been handed an opportunity to jump on board with millions of Canadians (and citizens the world over) who have been calling for leadership that will keep up with them. Justin Trudeau has the chance to walk into this role, impress, and prove that he is a leader for the 21st century.

Canadians did their duty Monday when they cast their ballots - but the work is far from over. Like any leader, Justin Trudeau will need to feel the pressure. He has to share the vision that Canadians have of a safe, clean, just energy future, and a climate that works for the world. It is up to concerned citizens to make sure he understands that vision and to hold the Liberals accountable every step of the way.

There will still be pipelines to stop, tar sands expansion to end, rights to protect, allies to support, a clean economy to build, and policies to rebuild and strengthen - Canada will not become perfect overnight.

For now, we can and should be happy that the Harper decade has come to an end, but as the dust settles people power must continue to be the key driver of the change we need!

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