Canada Turns Away From Climate Policy

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As we survey the results of last night’s Canadian federal election, I’ll spare you the jokes about how completely boring Canada is. It’s actually a fascinating, vast nation that I lived in for a year (Scarborough!), one with a mix of cultures and language, a welcoming attitude towards immigrants, a sober banking sector, a fully funded public health system and the Kids in the Hall.

Also it has Tim Horton’s donuts. And lots and lots and lots of oil, which we’ll come to in a second.

The short story, as TIME reporter (and Canadian) Emily Rauhala blogged earlier today, is that the Conservative party led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicked ass, taking majority control of the government. (Harper has run a minority government over the past several years, blunting his power—it’s a parliamentary politics thing.) The Liberals, who virtually ran Canada as a one-party state during most of the 1990s and early 2000s under Jean Chretien, were overwhelmingly repudiated, while the centre (Canadian spelling) left New Democratic Party (NDP) rose to become the main opposition after years in the wilderness. Canada got its first-ever Green Party MP, Elizabeth May of British Columbia. Oh, and French-speaking Quebec’s separatist movement is pretty much dead, though you never know with those wily Quebecers.

But this is an environmental blog—what does the Canadian election mean for environmental and climate policy? As it turns out, nothing very good. I’ll explain why in a second, but first of all, there’s something you need to know about Canada. Americans like to picture Canada as a progressive, friendly, extremely green and Kyoto Protocol-signing sort of country—and in many ways it is. But the truth is, Canada is also a petrostate. The country has 175.2 billion barrels of oil in reserves, third-most in the world, and it produces 2.6 million barrels of crude oil a day. When we think of foreign oil in the U.S., most of us imagine a Saudi sheik or a Venezuelan despot, but the single biggest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. is our friendly neighbor to the north. And thanks to the growth of oil sands (or tar sands, depending on how polluting you consider them), petroleum and fossil fuel energy in general has only become more important to the Canadian economy, moving the country’s power center to the West, where politicians like Harper hail from.

So Harper’s clear victory means you can expect more industry-friendly policies from the now ruling Conservative Party, which is a little bit like Republicans-lite. That also means that Canada will continue its antagonism on the global climate stage, where it has long since abandoned any possibility of meeting its Kyoto carbon reduction targets, not that it was going to happen anyway. (Harper, back in a 2002 letter, referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist scheme.”) Like his ideological counterpart George W. Bush, Harper doesn’t seem to have much interest in dealing with climate change or energy, aside from the oil and gas that has helped Canada thrive recently. His position was in stark opposition to the opposition NDP, which offered more support for clean energy and—importantly—was ready to offer a carbon cap-and-trade program. But the Conservatives argued—in very familiar language—that carbon pricing would be increase energy prices and be a drag on the economy. Last night—in a possible example of what Roger Pielke Jr.’s “iron law of climate policy“—the Conservatives won, meaning that for now, carbon pricing in Canada is even less likely than it will be in the U.S.

It wasn’t all bad—the fact that the Green Party now has a member in parliament puts Canada ahead of the U.S., while the NDP has proven to be a stronger green party on its own than the Liberals ever were. Harper’s Conservatives may have a majority in Parliament, but they won less than 40% of the vote by number, meaning that public opinion on climate and the environment may be significantly more divided than the results suggest. And like in America, climate change and energy policy doesn’t appear to have been a major issue for most voters. But there’s no getting around the fact, as University of British Columbia political scientist George Hoberg blogged today:

The 2011 Canadian election is very bad news for the climate movement.