The profound and urgent threat of climate change still hangs over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government — quite literally this week, after smoke from the wildfires in California and Oregon spread across the continent, casting a dull haze across the skies.
Questions are being asked now about how quickly or enthusiastically the Liberals should turn their focus back to that challenge. There is, after all, the small matter of an ongoing health emergency to tackle.
But the unfolding climate emergency will not get any easier to deal with over time — and the Liberals might regret missing any available opportunities to make meaningful progress toward the mid-century goal of net-zero emissions.
Although it’s not clear if the government’s actual plans for the next year have changed (or if it’s merely the official messaging about those plans that has been adjusted), it has shifted its publicly stated focus conspicuously to the immediate crisis posed by COVID-19.
“[Controlling the spread of COVID-19] is our government’s 100 per cent priority,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday. “It is what we are overwhelmingly focused on.”
“I think we recognize and have always recognized that dealing with the pandemic is job one,” Trudeau said Wednesday.
After the Liberals’ heady talk in late summer about a pivotal opportunity for ambitious change, that sounds like a course correction. If so, it’s a concession to simple reality.
While a moment could be emerging when political circumstance and necessity align to create a rare opportunity for real change, it would be hard for any government to do much of anything if COVID-19 is allowed to run roughshod. COVID-19 is also (understandably) the central preoccupation of most Canadians: according to a survey by Abacus Data, 45 per cent of Canadians still believe the pandemic will get worse before it gets better.
Parents nervously sending their children back to school might not be terribly interested right now in hearing about the better world that might emerge in the wake of COVID-19 — and they might be very inclined to punish any government that seems to take its eye off the immediate threat.
As much as combating climate change and building a clean economy can still seem like optional pursuits — things that would be nice to have rather than necessary — Liberals might worry about seeming to have let “green” interests hijack the moment.
Outside government, talk of a green recovery began soon after the pandemic’s arrival. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the idea as a passing fad; while Abacus polled fear about the pandemic, it also found that concern about climate change remains high, particularly among Liberal, NDP, Bloc Québécois and Green voters.
While Gerald Butts, a former senior adviser to Trudeau, counselled progressive policy wonks on Monday to mind the real pandemic-related anxieties of voters, he also was part of a panel of experts that laid out a plan Wednesday calling for $55 billion in green spending over the next five years, largely focused on retrofitting buildings, expanding the use of zero-emission vehicles and accelerating the development of clean energy.
But the task force also pointed out that such investments would be in line with plans being pursued by Germany, France and the United Kingdom. If Joe Biden is elected president of the United States in November, his plans could include as much as $2.7 trillion in green spending.
It’s not an either-or choice
Not all of the problems COVID-19 has exposed or created can be solved by green spending — and it can’t be said that this government has demonstrated a peerless ability to manage multiple major priorities at once.
But a government interested in the long-term goal of a clean economy should still be able to find opportunities to do that while simultaneously addressing the short-term needs of a battered economy. The Liberals themselves did that in May when they offered funding to clean up abandoned oil wells and asked large companies applying for pandemic-related loans to provide climate-risk disclosure.
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that the Liberals already had a list of green things to do before the pandemic arrived. The platform that Trudeau ran on in the fall of 2019 promised new support for retrofits and zero-emission vehicles, a tax cut for companies that develop clean technology, climate change accountability legislation and new flood-mapping (not to mention that plan to plant two billion new trees).
A global pandemic has complicated everyone’s plans for 2020. But Parliament should return next week with the ability to resume something resembling normal proceedings. And not even a global pandemic can fully excuse a government from doing important work.
Climate change as an economic issue
As if to reassure the proponents of a green recovery that something is in the works, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was one of the four ministers selected to stand behind Trudeau on Wednesday when this week’s cabinet retreat ended. But when Trudeau and Freeland did talk about a green agenda, it was in terms of jobs.
“As we reflect on how to restart the economy, how to create good jobs for now and into the future, obviously the green sector and newer jobs and innovation and clean tech are going to be an essential part of building back better and building a stronger future,” Trudeau said.
An emphasis on jobs could ground the green aspect of the government’s agenda in the most immediate and practical concerns of both nervous families and fretful economists. It also would serve as a reminder that a green recovery isn’t about hugging trees — it’s about the future welfare and prosperity of Canadians.
A report to be released by the Institute for Climate Choices this week makes the case that reducing emissions and growing the economy should not be treated as mutually exclusive goals — and that Canada’s work of building a clean economy has only begun. If a government wants to build long-term growth, a transition to a low-carbon economy seems like a decent place to start.
No one can dispute the fact that other issues are now demanding the government’s attention: child care, long-term care, inequality, precarious work, a wounded economy and the ongoing challenge of living with the threat of COVID-19. No government would be easily forgiven for ignoring such things.
But until Canada is on a clear path to net-zero emissions, nearly every federal government can be asked whether it has fully seized every chance to combat the climate crisis — a crisis that was worth worrying about before COVID-19 arrived and will still be worth worrying about long after the virus has faded.