Friday, April 20, 2007

The Conservatives' strange environmental strategy

After reading and watching a bit of the coverage on John Baird's performance (make no mistake, it was a performance) before a parliamentary committee yesterday, I've had a few thoughts about what is going on here.

The Conservatives have displayed a shifting attitude in their treatment of environmental issues, as we all know. Mocking the topic for almost their entire first year leading this minority government with a pathetic Environmental Minister at the helm. The contempt was obvious. Faced with growing public concern over the issue and polls substantiating the public's new priority, Harper and the crew have panicked. They put in place a consummate politician with strong communication skills but no environmental credibility. Mouth a few platitudes and we'll be OK goes the strategy.

With this week's turn to fear mongering about the economic impacts of striving to meet the Kyoto targets, it's become clear, however, that at the end of the day, the Conservatives can't be anything but themselves on the environmental file, really. I mean, the environment is not their thing, baby. Mini Bush didn't run for PM to become an environmental crusader. We're still not completely sure what his agenda is, but the environment certainly didn't make his top 10 when plotting his political future.

So while we're still in wait and see mode on their specifics as their public relations campaign paves their way on this file, their opening gambit is not promising.

At a time of great financial strength in our country, we see the Environment Minister decrying Kyoto as the likely cause of a certain recession within a few years if we adhere to its targets. A little dramatic and out of touch with reality? Whose buying this bluster? There may be a few, likely the Conservative base that are buying. But aren't these supposed to be the times when a nation can meet a global challenge? When surpluses abound at the federal level and the GST's even being cut...aren't these indications that we're resilient and capable of planning to meet the big challenges? Aren't these the times when a nation can make a difference on a significant issue? When it has the reserves and buffer to make headway on a pressing issue?

Why are our politicians so reluctant to challenge Canadians to rally to a cause? To ask for sacrifice in support of something bigger than ourselves. Bush was universally condemned for not asking a willing public to sacrifice to fight terrorism after 9/11. For doing so little with the American public's willingness to act in a significant way in response to the threat. If he'd slapped on a gas tax after 9/11 and rallied his nation to get off foreign oil, the public would have gone with him. It's entirely possible that there's a willingness in the Canadian public to be bold on the environment as well. It's a threat that's manifesting itself in our daily lives. The environmental damage is tangible. The National recently did a great job in presenting examples of any number of hot spots around the world exhibiting symptoms of the impact climate change will have. Houses falling off cliffs from beach erosion in England. And we feel tangible effects. The strange weather we witness, the reports of stranded polar bears that are becoming endangered.

We just might give up some of our comforts, the cost of a movie per week or whatever it is for an individual or a family for the sake of making the difference if we're asked to do it and we know what to do to make that difference. The political leadership that exercises the cheap political gimmickry in response to such feelings is going to be wildly off.

It's remarkable too that the Conservatives seem to be throwing in their lot with the nations around the world who are staking out opposition to the Kyoto framework. The U.S., the Australians. The right wing administrations who have been climate change deniers and who won't come to the table for solutions unless they're dragged kicking and screaming. Canadians aren't aligned with Bush's priorities and certainly not his environmental position. So why the Conservatives in Canada would jeopardize themselves politically by so aligning themselves, even if they're not in full climate change denial, is a strange strategy. For yesterdays presentation certainly moves them further into that side of the political spectrum on the environment. It'll be difficult for them to segue back to the positive now.