ourEconomy: Feature

Canada’s elections: How the climate crisis is reshaping politics

In June, Canada became one of the hottest places on Earth – forcing its political parties to confront the realities of climate breakdown

Shreya Kalra
16 September 2021, 12.37pm
View of forest fire smoke from Skaha Lake in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, on 19 July 2021
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Kevin Miller / Alamy Stock Photo

Canada is on fire. On 29 June, Lytton, a small village in British Columbia, became one of the hottest places on Earth, hitting a Canadian record high of 49.6°C. The following day, the village burned to the ground, with hundreds of deaths in the region.

On 20 July, Environment Canada issued a heat warning for Old Crow, Yukon’s northernmost territory, when temperatures hit a record 29°C.

Then, on 14 August, wildfire smoke resulted in Vancouver reportedly having the worst air quality of any major city on Earth. And now Saskatchewan, which is responsible for more than 40% of Canada’s cultivated farmland, is experiencing one of the worst droughts on record.

As Canadians head to the polls on 20 September, the climate emergency is rapidly rising up the agenda.

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Recent polling suggests that the race is nearly tied between Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party and the Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole – with the New Democratic Party (NDP) led by Jagmeet Singh trailing in third.

“This summer the climate emergency really hit home for Canadians,” said Caroline Brouillette, domestic policy manager at Climate Action Network Canada. According to AbacusData, more than 50% of Canadians are concerned about climate change.

The Conservative Party’s proposals... are completely contrary to what science is saying

Despite this growing concern, climate change failed to get much airtime in the initial election coverage. “The election cycle started off with us hearing practically nothing for the first two weeks,” said Brouillette. However, in recent weeks the conversation has started to shift “towards where we need to be”, she added.

Trudeau’s incumbent Liberal Party has committed to reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45% from 2005 levels by 2030, banning thermal coal exports by 2030, and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies by 2023.

Throughout his term in office, Trudeau has faced criticism from climate activists for continuing to subsidise oil and gas drilling, and approving the Trans Mountain oil pipeline extension bringing petroleum from Edmonton to Vancouver. Canada is the only G7 country whose emissions have increased since signing the Paris Climate Agreement – mainly due to the increase in oil sands production.

The Conservative Party is currently polling in second place. The party has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 30% of 2005 levels by 2030.

Other parts of the Conservative plan include making Canada a “leader in zero emissions vehicles”, upgrading the electricity grid and standing up to major polluters “like China”. However, O’Toole continues to support the Trans Mountain pipeline and building the cancelled Northern Gateway pipeline – considering export pipelines “a priority”.

Climate watchdogs widely agree about the dangers of Conservatives’ climate agenda. “Their [the Conservative Party’s] proposals to expand the oil and gas industry are completely contrary to what science is saying at the moment,” says Brouillette.

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Singh’s NDP has one of the boldest climate policies of the major parties. The party platform includes reducing carbon emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, and stresses that it “will put workers front and centre of their climate action plan”, and phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

Avi Lewis, the longtime documentary filmmaker and climate activist running as the NDP candidate for West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country district, told openDemocracy that “there is no party on Earth that is currently addressing the climate movement in the way it needs to be”. For Lewis, the climate emergency isn’t just a climate emergency, “it’s also a housing emergency, transit emergency, inequality emergency”.

However, Lewis decided to run as an NDP nominee because he “sees a sense of urgency in the platform”. “All these emergencies are linked,” he says, “but so are the solutions.”

According to Maggie Chao, campaign director at Leadnow, an independent progressive campaigning organisation, the parties are “moving in the right direction” and recognise that “climate change is a pressing issue”. However, Chao insisted that “we’re nowhere on the scale and pace we need to be”.

For far too long, climate action has been framed as a sacrifice

“There’s a cognitive dissonance among some [parties] that we can keep increasing the fossil fuel industry while reducing emissions,” added Brouillette. “Right now, Canadians are worried and anxious after this summer of disastrous climate impact and more than a year of the global pandemic.”

Chao said that “if we’re being honest”, the climate emergency cannot be dealt with without “acknowledging [that] the originating driver for these issues is an economic system that relentlessly pursues profit above all else”.

Both Brouillette and Chao agree that plans are only part of the puzzle, and that there also needs to be accountability. Limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C will be impossible without “dramatic cuts to fossil fuel production”. With the exception of the Green Party, none of Canada’s major parties have a plan to completely wean the country off its addiction to fossil fuels.

Even so, seasoned climate activists like Lewis remain hopeful about the party's direction. “For far too long, climate action has been framed as a sacrifice,” he says. “When it’s actually an opportunity to reimagine our communities and economy, and centre people over profit.”

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