In a rush not to be outdone by the pushback of Prairie premiers Scott Moe’s and Danielle Smith on federal climate policies, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has fashioned his campaign on the false premise that climate action makes life less affordable for Canadians.
While he’s on record that, as prime minister, he would eliminate the consumer-facing carbon price, more recently he expanded his “axe the tax” campaign to include other federal climate policies, including the clean fuel and clean electricity regulations. While he has not definitively pronounced their demise should he form government, his recent statements suggest a closer ideological alignment with the Alberta and Saskatchewan premiers.
Students of conservative political history, however, will note that climate action and political longevity are intertwined — and that Poilievre might want to rethink hitching his wagon to Prairie populists.
Setting aside for a moment the fact that most Canadian voters want their government to both act on climate change and prepare Canada’s economy to compete in a world moving away from fossil fuels, there’s another reason to pay attention to the global economic transition toward a cleaner economy: self-preservation.
Recent long-lived conservatives have embraced climate action to shape their economies toward industries that will be growing over the coming decades. Four-term former German chancellor Angela Merkel led Germany through its green energy transition to earn the title of “Climate Chancellor” (while also earning the title of the world’s most powerful woman a record 14 times by Forbes).
Two-term republican California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger created the U.S.’s first state economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions and the nation’s first legislated emission reduction targets.
Here in Canada, three-term B.C. premier Gordon Campbell instituted North America’s first revenue-neutral, economy-wide carbon tax, a model that has been hailed by economists and replicated across the world. Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s second term — in stark contrast to the beginning of his first term — has increasingly embraced clean energy as companies looking to invest in the province demand a clean electricity grid.
Other notable conservatives who have moved the agenda include George H.W. Bush, who made legal the requirement for National Climate Assessment Reports while also requiring action on the ozone hole and acid rain, and Boris Johnson, whose 10-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution is nothing short of an all-in bet that the United Kingdom can grow its industries, address climate change and position the nation as a global exporter of clean goods and services.
The story here is that successful conservative leaders understand that climate action is economic action. The math backs this up: between 2010 and 2019, 18 nations, many under conservative leaders, have driven down emissions while growing their economies, according to a recent UN study.
The next federal election will be fought over affordability — but also over Canada’s economic future.
The governing Liberals will point to billions of dollars of investment attracted to Canada in those industries that will thrive in a more sustainable future. The Liberal endgame is clear: paint the Tories as champions of yesterday’s economy, while the Liberals are investing in Canada’s future. Following season after season of wildfires, floods and droughts, this may not be a tough sell to the Canadian public.
The ball is in the federal Conservatives’ court. Numerous industries beyond just clean energy — including chemicals, fertilizers, forest products, mining and steel — are poised for growth in a net-zero future, but staying competitive will require government action. It will require decarbonizing our electricity grid while aligning tax policies, regulatory processes and government spending with clean growth.
This approach aligns with the Conservatives’ own policy declarations of maximizing our value-add industries and creating a more globally competitive economy.
At its core, climate action is as conservative as it is Canadian, as economic as it is environmental. The choice before Poilievre is merely a political one.
Mark Zacharias is the executive director of Clean Energy Canada, a think tank at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.