Canada

Facing off over greenhouse gases

Pressure to curb emissions splits the Liberals

BRUCE WALLACE November 3 1997
Canada

Facing off over greenhouse gases

Pressure to curb emissions splits the Liberals

BRUCE WALLACE November 3 1997

Facing off over greenhouse gases

Pressure to curb emissions splits the Liberals

BRUCE WALLACE

Canada

Richard Haskayne and Jim Bruce became officers of the Order of Canada one after the other last week. In the Ballroom of Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, a room dripping with gold leaf and the aura of good works, they were among 49 Canadians honored by Gov.-Gen. Roméo LeBlanc for their generosity, compassion and service to the country. Bruce has been in the vanguard of scientific research that claims to have established a discernible link between man’s burning of fossil fuels and warming of the planet’s climate. He has seen global warming, with its implications for catastrophic climatic change, evolve from a fringe concept once jeeringly dismissed as loopy science, to the point where 150 nations will gather in Kyoto, Japan, this December to negotiate a treaty aimed at reducing the amount of greenhouse gases spiralling into the atmosphere. “The science,” said a quietly satisfied Bruce last week after receiving his medal, “is now pretty well accepted everywhere.” Not by Haskayne, whose Order of Canada was draped around his neck by the Governor General in recognition of “his high ethical business standards” as a star in the firmament of Calgary’s oilpatch. Haskayne sits on the boards of several energy companies, some of which, as he readily puts it, “burn an awful lot of coal.” But he remains unconvinced that burning fossil fuels is responsible for heating the planet. And he can get mighty worked up when asked about the international pressure to curb the production of greenhouse gases like carbon and methane. “People get these great theories without any regard for how it is going to affect their jobs and lives,” said Haskayne, waving a post-ceremony drink on the carpeted stairs of Rideau Hall. And he gets “upset and offended” at the way environmentalists pin blame on his industry for climatic havoc that has not yet happened. “We’ve all got families and we are not out there deliberately raping and pillaging,” he says. “I don’t think that Canadians, much as we like to be boy scouts, will want to make irrational commitments in Kyoto without understanding the implications for the way we live.”

Two Canadians—respected, honorable, intelligent—two wildly different perspectives on climate change. That gulf underscores why the cabinet debate over the upcoming Kyoto conference—which is now emerging from back-rooms into the open—has Jean Chretien’s government in a jam. After months of intense discussion, senior ministers are still finding it impossible to bridge the worlds of Bruce and Haskayne. The Liberal cabinet is divided, flummoxed over the political and economic risks of leaning too far in either direction.

And the stakes are profound. Agree to tough targets, such as those proposed by the 15 countries of the European Union, and the rising cost of energy might bring the currently happy Canadian economic story to a crashing end. That would especially alienate Albertans, whose energy-centric economy would suffer the most from emission cutbacks. The province’s politicians and energy executives are already talking the language of rebellion should Ottawa take too green a stand: “catastrophic” was Premier Ralph Klein’s prediction of the consequences if the federal government adopts an environmental hard line. Haskayne agrees, suggesting that stringent measures “would have serious, serious implications for the federation.” Those warnings will resonate with a prime minister who saw, firsthand, the damage that the National Energy Program of the early 1980s did to the Liberal party’s fortunes in the West. But do little or nothing at Kyoto, argue scientists, environmentalists and just plain-worried voters, and future generations may be condemned to a hotter, less hospitable, storm-and-disaster-ravaged world.

Opposition parties hammered away at the government in the House of Commons last week, mocking the Liberals for refusing to state by how much and how fast they will cut greenhouse gases. In the easy days of being the opposition themselves, the Liberals pledged to curb emissions by 20 per cent. But Canadian emissions have soared by as much as 11 per cent through the booming 1990s, and new Environment Minister Christine Stewart admitted last week that even Ottawa’s less ambitious past commitments, made at the Rio Summit on the environment in 1992, cannot be kept. The Liberals now promise only to sign an agreement offering “realistic” targets that are legally binding on all countries. Lacking wider consensus in her own party, Stewart has been forced to stick to that mantra, with its unwelcome side-effect of worrying skittish energy producers and environmentalists alike.

Realistically, there was no way Ottawa could outline its position until it knew what proposals the Americans would take to Kyoto. “The Canadian government is not going to deviate from the American government because our economies are just so tightly linked,” says Stuart Smith, chairman of the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy. That view was supported by Canadian officials who joined an international meeting in Bonn last week where the groundwork for the Kyoto agreement was being debated. “Although climate change is an environmental problem, all we’re talking about over here are the trade and competitive implications,” notes one frustrated official in Bonn. The pressure was eased somewhat last week when President Bill Clinton finally unveiled the U.S. stance: a modest target to reduce greenhouse gases to their 1990 levels over the next 10 to 15 years.

Getting there would require a mix of measures, everything from increasing solar panel use to technological innovations that increase the efficiency of automobile gasoline. One thing the Chrétien government has promised not to do is impose a carbon tax: a direct levy on industries that produce carbon gas as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. The Liberals, however, are still entertaining the possibility of a more broadly based tax on all types of energy consumption. In an interview with Maclean’s the day after Clinton’s announcement, Stewart said she was still not ready to announce Ottawa’s policy, but acknowledged that Canada “can’t be too far ahead of the Americans, or too far behind. That,” she said, “is just the reality.”

The environmental lobby fulminates at that sort of talk, of course. “I like Christine,” says Jim Fulton, the former New Democrat MP from British Columbia who now heads the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver. “But I’m surprised she has not shown some leadership.” Fulton also knows, however, that while Stewart is the main flak-catcher for government policy, she is just one voice among many in terms of drafting it. When he came to Ottawa in early October to lobby the Liberals for a 20-per-cent reduction, Fulton opted to pitch the Suzuki argument to Finance Minister Paul Martin, bypassing Stewart altogether.

Worried that Kyoto might end in a repeat of the Rio experience— the tough standards that emerged from the meeting caught many from the energy industry off guard—oilpatch executives began a fierce lobbying of the Liberal government. “When you become a target, you can suddenly get terribly interested in an issue,” says Dee Parkinson-Marcoux, president of Calgary’s Gulf Heavy Oil, to explain the industry’s activism. Executives targeted sympathetic ministers from the cabinet’s pro-business wing, and the pressure has ensured that all proposals submitted to cabinet for discussion are now jointly drafted by Environment’s Stewart and Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale. Other departments, especially Industry, but also Transport and Foreign Affairs, also have input. “Kyoto has gripped the imagination of everyone around town,” says a senior environmental official in Ottawa. “Stewart will take the political heat for whatever policy comes out, but every department is having its say on what goes in.”

That is a long fall for the environment department, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s basked in its growing clout. In those heady days, polls placed the environment as the top-of-mind concern, not only among Canadians, but in most Western countries. Environment became the golden ministry, suitably glamorous for Lucien Bouchard in those Tory times when Brian Mulroney desired a high-profile platform for his then-most celebrated Quebec minister.

At a 1989 conference in Bergen, Norway, international Environment ministers were cocky enough to propose a global treaty cutting greenhouse gases, policy that was made up almost on the fly but that launched the process that has led to Kyoto. For a time in Ottawa, Environment was designated to become a superministry, with the power to veto any federal government initiative that did not pass muster with environmentalists.

The decline has been almost as swift and even more complete, gutted on the sharp sword of the recession, which put worries about next week’s paycheque ahead of some distant future flood. “Our rise was an extraordinary phenomenon which flamed out very quickly,” says one longtime environment department bureaucrat. Payback from other government departments followed. “I don’t quite know what we did to antagonize people,” says the official. “It was as if we had forced ourselves into a restricted club, and once the polls changed and the political players changed, the first thing they wanted to do was expel you.” The gallows humor in the corridors of Environment includes hope for a Chernobyl-style disaster to restore the department’s clout.

The sorry slide to junior status was abetted by the in-your-face style of Sheila Copps, the Chrétien government’s first minister in the job. Officials say Copps chafed at the amount of kowtowing needed to get co-operation from the robust provincial environment departments. And she tangled with her cabinet colleagues, most memorably in a losing cause with then-Natural Resources Minister Anne McLellan over the same issue of greenhouse gas emissions. “She made enemies everywhere,” says one official. “Since Copps, the other departments don’t trust us at all.”

Chrétien has made it clear he wants cabinet consensus on greenhouse gas policy, with no revisiting the messy warfare of the CoppsMcLellan era. After the June election, he gave the portfolio to Stewart, a rural Ontario MP first elected in 1988, because “she’s good and she deserved a promotion,” according to a Chrétien aide. Environmentalists immediately saw her as a potential ally because of her previous experience in international development work with nongovernmental organizations. The oil and gas barons sweated her arrival for the same reason. But her own officials worried that they were getting an unknown minister whose low profile and preference for calm dialogue over high-volume posturing meant she might be a pushover in cabinet.

They should not be so certain. For one thing, Stewart has displayed tremendous courage, having spent nearly two decades venturing into some of the world’s nastiest trouble spots, from Nicaragua and El Salvador to the Horn of Africa, as head of her own international aid organization. A red-faced cabinet colleague pounding a fist on the table is hardly intimidating to someone accustomed to dealing with AK-47-toting teenage bandits. Furthermore, Stewart was one of the few MPs to support Paul Martin in the 1990 Liberal leadership campaign. That friendship may not win her special concessions from the all-powerful finance minister, but Martin can at least guarantee that her views get a hearing.

Yet Clinton’s decision to adopt a go-softly approach last week is certain to give the industry-sensitive cabinet ministers a boost. “We’re ready to sign a deal,” said a senior official in Natural Re sources, “as long as it doesn’t give advantages to our trade competitors.” Even Environment officials mutter that the European Union’s call for a drastic cut in emissions—to 15 per cent below 1990 levels—is a cynical ploy to take advantage of the fact that Europeans

made big strides in reducing their emissions only after that year. German gains, for example, come from shuttering much of the former East Germany’s filthy heavy industry, and the British have now completed their shift from heating by coal to natural gas.

But the biggest obstacle for the Liberal government may be convincing Canadians that they need to change their lifestyles to meet a largely invisible threat. There has been so little debate that nobody feels the need to act, mourns Smith. “When you talk climate change with most Canadians, they think you are talking about smog.” Most people, he says, have yet to link their purchase of a gas-guzzling 4 X 4 to the prospect of their grandchildren’s generation enduring drier days on the Prairies, violent hailstorms or the possibility that rising waters will drown sea-level islands in the South Pacific.

Gordon McBean sees that future in his computer models. On a screen in the Hull office of the federal government’s Atmospheric Environment Office, the senior scientist traces his finger along a map of Canada showing how the northern Prairies and the Mackenzie River Delta have significantly warmed over the past 35 years. “We are seeing amazing records of abrupt change,” he says, as an early snow ironically dusts the streets outside his window. McBean knows how difficult it is to convince people: his own brother-in-law, a forest industry executive, remains a skeptic of the science. And when he speaks to farmers, they tell him that they have adapted to weather changes before, and they will again. “Probably true,” McBean says with a smile. “But it’s important that at least we know that change is coming.” If nothing else, the political tempest leading up to Kyoto presents a rare opportunity to air that debate. □