Mercury Rising

Thirty Years of Failure
Understanding Canadian Climate Policy

By Robert MacNeil  

Fortitude is necessary if you’re looking to read today’s climate change books, as they come with such titles as The Uninhabitable Earth, The Plundered Planet, The Super-Fucked World, and The Weather Is Coming to Kill You. (The first couple are real; the other two will, I’m sure, appear in bookstores sometime in 2020.) Add to this cascade of books the daily news reports of California wildfires and Australia wildfires and whatever wildfires have erupted since you began this paragraph. Even reviews now serve as disturbing companion literature. In a February 2019 issue of the London Review of Books, for example, McKenzie Funk opened his assessment of four climate change publications by describing his move to Ashland, Oregon, during fire season, where he soon got “used to wearing my smoke mask in public, grunting muffled hellos to other pedestrians in masks of their own.”

Climate change makes for emotional subject matter — as it should. But understanding strategy and policy is as important as absorbing all the impassioned reportage. Some authors refrain from travelling around our warming earth and instead focus on a single country: enter Robert MacNeil’s sharp and well-structured Thirty Years of Failure. At last, Canadians who don’t want to get depressed globally can get depressed locally.

Thirty Years of Failure will jolt a certain type of optimistic Canadian who believes all is okay, who quietly consumes, rolls up his rim to win, and exhibits an unshakable belief in our inherent goodness. After all, surely Canada is better than the United States when it comes to climate? That fact just feels right. Didn’t we take in 70 million Syrian refugees and give each one a Canada Goose jacket at the airport? Don’t we always play the role of the good guy?

MacNeil, a senior lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney and a Canadian himself, has prepared a cascade of disturbing facts to counter this myth: Canada is, instead, something of a climate saboteur. One fact rings out early in the book, and it comes from before the much-maligned Stephen Harper era. In the early 1990s, we promised to reduce emissions by 6 percent by 2006. Not only did we fail, we actually increased them by 27 percent.

Unlike climate change travelogues, MacNeil’s project is constrained: “It aims to provide a simple and pragmatic guide for understanding how activists can create as much change as possible starting right now.” And right here. With this pragmatism in mind, MacNeil shares short histories of the political institutions that have complicated our situation: federalism, first past the post, our legal system, and Aboriginal title, followed by examinations of the economic interests and the pre-eminent ideas that have recently shaped the country. MacNeil marks his text with helpful and depressing subtitles like “1988–1993: Soaring Rhetoric, No Meaningful Action,” which conveniently brings Brian Mulroney into view.

“Though it may seem difficult to believe today,” MacNeil writes, “the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney was actually quite well suited for taking up the task of climate action.” In that long-ago era, up was down, conservatives wanted to conserve, and “environmentalism enjoyed broad cross-partisan support in Canada.” Influential caucus members, including Lucien Bouchard and Jean Charest, held the position of environment minister. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act were rolled out. “But Mulroney’s most commendable ecological accomplishments arguably came at the international level,” MacNeil continues, “where he positioned Canada as a moral authority.” Whether the country has gone on to deserve it or not, moral authority is the perch Canada is loath to desert.

MacNeil moves on to the “modest effort, no substantive action” of the Chrétien-Martin years. Canada’s talent at creating an inflated self-image remains, as does the “impulse to maintain Canada’s image as a ‘good global citizen.’” But let’s set the record straight: “During the first half-dozen years of Chrétien’s tenure as prime minister, Canada’s once-proud reputation as a global environmental leader entered into steady decline.” Jean Chrétien did manage “to ratify a stronger than anticipated emissions target under Kyoto,” in 1997, but then ran smack into opposition from the provinces and industry. Hope for strong regulatory action and strong regulatory mechanisms quickly evaporated.

When Paul Martin took over as PM, he kept up the country’s weird and unearned swagger. In 2005, he “suggested that the US lacked a global conscience, and invited President Bush to visit the Canadian Arctic so he could witness firsthand its rapid warming.” Problem was, while smarming at George W. Bush, Martin was overlooking the fact that American emissions performance far exceeded Canada’s.

No one prime minister plays the role of the villain in Thirty Years of Failure. Leaders over the past few decades have together acted like a particularly ingenious improv troupe, as if they’ve been given the audience suggestion of “Do nothing.”

Unsurprisingly, things did not get better in the Harper years. “If there is anything positive one could say about Harper’s new approach to climate policy beginning in early 2006,” MacNeil notes, “he was at least slightly more honest about the situation than his predecessors.”

“MacNeil’s central message is that it’s time to pay attention. We mustn’t get fooled again.” There were other “positive” signs, like Harper gaining international renown for Canada. By 2006, Canada was “being accused of sabotaging” talks around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, with one report describing us as the “black hatted villains.” Soon after, the outside world “came to view Canada as a villainous spoiler.” We were even singled out by the United Nations Development Programme, in its 2008 annual report, as “a threat to the world’s collective future.”

There is more dubious praise to come. If nothing else, Canada has remained remarkably consistent and dependable, “in terms of an inability to create effective legislation, meet modest targets, craft solid intergovernmental deals, obtain the support of industry, or maintain credibility within the international community.” Our values of listening, cooperating, and working toward a common goal are evident in the legacy left behind by lobbyists and conservative groups, who banded together and assiduously capsized progressive environmental policies.

But MacNeil is not here to simply marvel at various stalling tactics. The idea for his book came about when an attendee at a panel event asked him, “What specifically would you tell a group of activists and ordinary citizens about what needs to be done to fix the situation?” As he recounts Canada’s failures, MacNeil suggests that we can learn from the ploys of these previous leaders.

The Liberals like rhetoric, not action, and get hamstrung by provincial power. The Conservatives prefer to act like a surly co-worker who mutters “I’m doing it, I’m doing it” just to get others off his back. But nothing happens, especially in the regulation of industry: “Indeed, by the time of the federal election in 2015, the government had successfully passed nearly a decade without ever putting any of these long-promised sectoral regulations in place.”

More informed readers might find Thirty Years of Failure didactic, but MacNeil’s approach seems to be shaped by the tactical ignorance of most Canadians. He patiently takes us by the hand, adding context along the way. He also offers ideas, though no easy solutions. Are Canadians the right people to even consider them? Is change possible? The unwavering accusatory stare of Greta Thunberg might spur us to action, or the hundreds of thousands of angry marchers in the streets, or the wildfires, or the coastal erosion.

MacNeil’s central message is that it’s time to pay attention. We mustn’t get fooled again. We cannot afford to fall for the same old tricks. Unfortunately, he also points out another salient Canadian talent: listening to policy noise instead of actual policy. Over the years, Canadians have tended to favour “signals that looked and sounded like action” rather than the real thing.

Which brings us to today’s smooth crooner of policy noise. In 2015, Justin Trudeau seemed to inherit a climate scenario Chrétien and Martin would have dreamed of: “sympathetic, centrist governments” across a wide swath of the country. In 2016, Ottawa negotiated the “largest and most comprehensive national climate strategy in Canada’s history,” but it has always been politically fragile and based, MacNeil reminds us, on exceedingly weak targets. The policy noise has a pleasing tone, but “if all countries took on the same relative target as Canada, it is estimated that the planet would lock-in warming of up to 4°C.” We’d be well on our way to runaway climate change.

So what do we do? First, be honest. Economic diversification is key for countries staring down climate change, but the truth is Canada has been too busy backsliding. Canadians might believe they live in a forward-looking nation ready for green tech, but they might want to acknowledge the “paltry levels of investment in innovation over the past two decades.” Our investments in innovation now rank “among the worst in the industrialized world” and have fallen to just 0.9 percent of GDP. That’s down a third since 2002.

“Over the years, Canadians have tended to favour ‘signals that looked and sounded like action’ rather than the real thing.” And then there are those of us outside the halls of Ottawa. Is the populace ready? The good news is that some Canadians do listen to scientific consensus. Some of us are very well informed, though the stats imply that regularly attending Canadiens games somehow helps. Belief in anthropogenic climate change reaches “above 90 percent in the Metro Montréal area,” and only one of Quebec’s seventy-eight federal ridings averages below 50 percent belief. But in this complex and fractured country, “provinces like Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba have some of the highest rates of climate denialism on the planet.” Perhaps the most dispiriting trait is disinclination: a decent portion of Canadians may see climate policy as being in their interest, but “there is an obvious tendency for that inclination to diminish when they are confronted with the specific costs of these policies — even if those costs are relatively minor.”

Unlike some of the angrier climate change books, MacNeil’s stresses empathy. Informed or not, disinclined or not, parts of this country cannot be left behind. We like to chastise the Americans for their lack of empathy, but we don’t have a great “leave no one behind” history of our own. And if previous evidence is taken into account, Albertans and extraction industry workers should be scared: “By any measure, Canada has a decidedly pitiful record of ensuring that major industrial transitions are managed properly.” Germany has seen success in redefining the post-industrial Saarland region, but Canada has no easy path ahead. The sectors that need to make the sharpest greenhouse gas cuts, MacNeil reminds us, “are those on which the economy and the federal government are most reliant.” Again, the message is to be empathetic: don’t forget the people who got you this far.

So what does this self-deluding, dysfunctional black-hat country that goes out of its way to sample every flavour of policy failure do in the years to come — as Prince Edward Island erodes into the ocean? MacNeil is not one for excitable language, but he answers the question with some fierce italics: “Canada cannot simultaneously promote the expansion of its oil sector and the decarbonization of its economy.” Trading carbon prices for oil pipelines is an absurd strategy and should be called out as such. If anything’s going to happen, it’s going to require strong, committed, and clear-eyed policies.

Yes, fortitude is needed, not just to get through the horrors of all these climate change books but to face the suggestions put forward in their conclusions. Some verdicts are overheated and emotional. Some are abject and describe inconceivable hardship. Thirty Years of Failure is a much cooler book, but ignore the pointed italicization at your own peril. There’s painful honesty to be found, too. MacNeil proposes a revised legal system that truly honours Indigenous law, as well as “extensive government-led investments in R&D, advanced manufacturing, cleantech, and a range of low-carbon sectors like healthcare, education, and low-carbon agriculture.” He then asks, “Can Canada’s current set of institutions, ideologies and economic interests achieve this?” The answer is short and grim: “Put simply, it would appear that they cannot.”

Can structural changes come to pass, or will Canadians stay frozen in place, or happy enough with themselves, or angry and Wexitty, or disinclined? Will they continue to perform fictions, imagining themselves as climate heroes and heroines because it feels right that they should inhabit the roles? The larger question hovering over MacNeil’s project is the one that stings most: Will we learn in time? Do Canadians have another thirty years to explore new, ground­breaking, well-meaning ways to fail? If this book is to be believed, we most certainly do not.

— Literary Review of Canada, January 2020

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