There has been little talk about the environment in this year’s election campaign and that’s nothing new when it comes to federal politics, according to a UBC professor who studies climate change and politics.
And if historical election patterns continue, the environment will likely go largely unmentioned in this federal campaign despite the fact climate change is “the biggest environmental problem the world has ever faced,” according to UBC professor Kathryn Harrison.
“Historically the environment has not been very prominent in Canadian elections,” said Harrison, an expert in Canadian and environmental politics, global warming and climate change. “The leaders are all, at least on the surface, debating tweaks here and there to a business-as-usual economic strategy. But I think a much more fundamental challenge is looming large for Canada. We have one of the most greenhouse gas reliant economies in the world. Canadians live in big houses and drive big cars. And we rely on producing greenhouse gasses for export. We are potentially vulnerable in that regard in that as the countries we rely on to export our fossil fuels to get serious about climate change, they are not going to want what we are selling anymore.”
As climate change continues to loom, Harrison says the problem is the effects of climate change are still coming in terms of decades, not days, allowing the three major political parties to avoid talking about the issue. And for Mother Earth, it’s been that way through the history of Canadian politics. Only a few times in Canadian voting history has the environment been an issue at the forefront of the federal campaign and each time it coincided with a period of economic prosperity as well as major environmental incidents, said Harrison.
In the late 1960s, pollution issues and oil spills brought the environment to the fore while in the late 1980s, word of problems with the ozone layer were top of mind for Canadians. In 2008 climate change was briefly part of the conversation as was urban air pollution, before a recession brought people’s thoughts back to the economy.
But as the world prepares for the largest ever conference on climate change coming up this fall—the COP 21 Sustainable Innovation Forum in Paris—you would think politicians would be trying to tackle the issue. But people listening to the three major party leaders haven’t heard it. And the one party with the environment as its main agenda—the Greens—are still considered fringe with the hope to maybe elect a handful of candidates.
“I think we have this chicken and egg problem because Canada is one of the country’s that needs to change the most,” said Harrison. “We need to make the most fundamental changes to our economy and our systems in order to address climate change. For 25 years politicians have said ‘don’t worry we can have it all, a healthy climate and a healthy economy are compatible.’ That’s true. But that doesn’t mean any economy is compatible with a healthy climate. And ours is not.”
Harrison said the complexity of the problem and the major changes needed to the Canadian economy to make an impact on climate change is keeping the parties from really sinking their teeth into the environmental issue.
“Voters have been led to believe this will be easy and as a result no politician in the middle of an election campaign wants to say ‘oh by the way we are going to make gasoline more expensive’,” said Harrison. “The Liberals and the NDP have promised more than the Conservatives. They have been speaking in code for those who are listening while not trying to alienate voters who have yet to grasp how fundamental the challenge for Canada is.”