A different kind of denial: the Conservative approach to climate change

Trying to follow the Conservative stance on climate change can give you whiplash.After all, this is a party that voted unanimously against signing the Paris Climate Accord in 2016, only to turn around eight months later and vote fully in support of the Accord (with only one Tory member dissenting).  This new commitment didn't last long, however, with Leader Andrew Scheer first stating that the party's climate plan would be built around achieving the Paris targets and then retreating to the vaguely defined goal of achieving “meaningful targets.”Sure, it does seem like at least some progress from the time when Stephen Harper told party members that the Kyoto Accord was “based on tentative and contradictory scientific evidence about climate trends” and “focused on carbon dioxide, which is essential to life, rather than on pollutants.”  Most party members have moved on from that kind of hardline climate denialism, but there's always one to remind you of those good old days. It was just before Christmas that Conservative MP Blaine Calkins resuscitated Harper's climate-change-is-good-for-plant-growth pseudo-science by telling an elementary school group that “whether or not you think carbon dioxide is pollution is, I still think, a question.”It's that kind of talk that got David McLaughlin, then the senior climate advisor to the Manitoba government to wonder aloud at the 2018 Manning Conference about the refusal of conservatives “to do any thinking, any hard thinking, about any alternatives” to the federal carbon tax. “Is it because they don't believe in climate change or think it doesn't really matter? Some days, I'm afraid so,” he said.McLaughlin's observation certainly fits with the “no rush” approach that Scheer has demonstrated on this critical issue. It has been close to a year since Scheer first undertook to deliver a plan that would present a real alternative to the Liberal approach, particularly the hated (by Conservatives) carbon tax.  His first attempt to do so was derailed when “once in a century” flooding again wreaked havoc in eastern Canada this spring, causing Scheer to delay his climate plan's release. (A decision that – to state the obvious -- doesn't augur well for the document's level of ambition). He now says that “I absolutely accept that climate change is causing more extreme events” and that Canadians will see his party's plan before the House of Commons rises this spring.What will be in it? We know taxing pollution is out, despite a long history of Conservative support for market pricing mechanisms. Technology now seems to be a big part of the Tory answer.  Scheer has not been terribly specific about what “clean technologies” he is thinking of when he talks about how Canada is a leader in climate technology that it should be exporting to the world.  It doesn't seem likely that he is referring to electric vehicles or renewable energy, support for which have been slashed by his friends in the Ford and Kenney governments.Scheer's Environment and Climate Change Critic, Ed Fast, may have given us a hint of where the Conservatives are headed in praising carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.  Fast notes that despite the standard Conservative skepticism about governments picking “winners and losers” it could be useful for the government to put its thumb on the scale in favour of CCS, stating “we do want to encourage clean technology, especially in our oil and gas sector.”CCS has long been favoured by the oil and gas industry as a handy way of continuing to rely on fossil fuels while addressing a growing public demand to get a grip on greenhouse gas emissions.  The problem is that there is little evidence it can actually be cost-effectively scaled up to deal with the scope of the problem.  Currently, the National Energy Board calculates that existing and proposed CCS systems worldwide would capture carbon equal to just 1% of current global emissions.  So the Tory's magic bullet is unlikely to be any more effective than the Liberal carbon tax that Fast and Scheer contend is too low – and too economically harmful at higher levels -- to effect real change.Scheer says his major concern about the federal carbon tax, other than its supposed impact on “hard working Canadians,” is that it will lead to manufacturing or resource processing moving out of Canada, particularly to countries with “outdated technology.” Let's ignore for a moment that Canada has long been a large exporter of raw resources and look at which underdeveloped countries are actually struggling with the adoption of clean technology.  China now has more than 400,000 electric buses on the road.  Canada has fewer than 500 (including decades-old electric trolley buses in Vancouver).  India now meets 5.6% of its electricity demand with solar power. Canada meets 0.6%.  It sure doesn't seem like these countries are waiting on Canada to offer climate solutions.Also puzzling is Scheer's objection to measures the Liberals have put in place to lessen the carbon tax impact on industry, calling generous exemptions for industrial emissions a “subsidy.”  It's hard to see how he squares this with his concern that the tax will “drive jobs out of Canada.”But contradictions have now replaced denial as the bread-and-butter of Tory climate policy.  When Andrew Scheer does get around to releasing a climate plan, don't expect to see a coherent path forward.  Much more likely is a lot of hot air.Rick Smith is the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute (www.BroadbentInstitute.ca)