The climate is a hot topic but will it motivate voters on Oct. 21

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Saturday, September 28, 2019. 

In a week with no shortage of international political theatre, from the launch of impeachment proceedings in Washington to the showdown between Parliament and the Supreme Court in London, I found myself returning again to watch a clip of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg in tears, excoriating delegates at a United Nations summit for their inaction on climate change.

On Friday, thousands of Canadians participated in a movement of rotating strikes and protests inspired by Thunberg. It seems that more and more of us are thinking longer and harder about the environment than we ever have before.

In the run-up to the election, pollsters told us that voters ranked the environment higher than ever before as a ballot issue they cared about. What’s more, in some polls, it edged out the perennial leading concerns: health care and the economy.

These findings mark a public opinion sea change from 2015, when barely one-tenth of voters were prioritizing the environment and climate change.

And the parties are paying attention. For the second election in a row, each has addressed environmental issues and climate change in their platforms. But given the increase in interest Canadians are showing toward these policies, it will be the first election where voters now claim to actually care about this issue. This sudden scrambling of priorities means that now we might put to the test once and for all the question of whether Canadians truly care about the environment.

The Liberals are certainly hoping so. Much as in 2015, they have embraced environmentalism as not only a core platform plank, but as a fundamental generational obligation.

They have sent the prime minister out canoeing and hiking to illustrate his commitment to the land and have gone further by pledging to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s land and oceans by 2025.

They have gone to the mat defending the carbon tax (or “price on pollution,” as they prefer to call it), even as it has contributed to a wave of right-wing victories at the provincial level. Yet for some voters, their message has been muddled by their simultaneous backing of pipelines.

The Conservatives are offering a business-friendly plan of their own that relies on innovation and the encouragement of the adoption of new technology, such as capture-and-storage. They promise to repeal the carbon tax and help other countries lower their emissions.

The New Democrats have largely been missing in action, proposing to tinker with the carbon tax and complete the move to zero-carbon energy by 2050.

Stepping into the breach, however, has been Elizabeth May’s Green Party, who have the most to gain from this apparent surge in environmentalism. The party has occasionally pulled ahead of the NDP in the polls, and their provincial counterparts have consistently exceeded expectations.

With an entire platform that revolves around an issue that Canadians suddenly profess to care deeply about, this election represents a golden opportunity for her and her colleagues.

May is the most experienced federal leader, no longer a novelty on the debate stage. She may well be an attractive alternative to disaffected Liberals, who often rank climate change as a higher issue than voters in other parties.

To be that alternative, May will need to be more disciplined during the balance of the campaign. She, and her party, will need to avoid such embarrassing sideshows as a rolling controversy this week over a photoshopped image of her, altered to include a reusable cup instead of a disposable one.

So, does this all represent a once-in-a-career harmonic convergence for May?

While Canadians tripped over themselves to tell one pollster just how much they cared for the environment, another poll quietly released last week by Ipsos found that while nearly half of Canadians wanted action on climate change, that number fell to barely a quarter if the cost were to be even a single cent.

Not unlike their prime minister, Canadians fall sometimes into the habit of virtue signalling. The environment has always been a victim of the gulf between voters’ intentions and their behaviour. This election will once again test that trend.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt