After a three-year hiatus, delegates from the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) participated in a virtual convention from March 18-21, marking Erin O’Toole’s first convention as the Party leader. One of the most controversial moments included a vote of 54-46 not to expand an environmental declaration to include the phrase “we recognize that climate change is real. The Conservative Party is willing to act.” Delegates from Saskatchewan and Alberta proved to be the most stringently opposed, with 73% and 62% respectively voting against.
Ironically, the dismissal of this motion occurred after O’Toole claimed the CPC must “defend against the lie from the Liberals that we are a party of climate change deniers.” In addition to stating that climate change is real, the motion would have also highlighted the need to hold corporate polluters more accountable for reducing their carbon emissions.
After the fact, some delegates blamed the denial of the policy expansion on confusing wording, as well as the concern that Canadian industries may lose competitiveness with more environmental policies, rather than on climate skepticism within the party. While O’Toole has encouraged delegates to embrace traditionally unorthodox Conservative policies to fight climate change, the party seems conflicted. However, expecting many Conservatives to shift their priorities seemingly overnight is difficult, especially considering the party’s history of failing to act on climate change, as well as an emergence of climate-denial rhetoric among Canada’s right-wing political leaders.
The Climate Skepticism Machine
Canada has one of the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions per capita, is the fourth-largest producer of oil globally, and is heating up twice as quickly as the rest of the world due to global warming. The effects of climate change are undoubtedly visible in Canada, and the country is disproportionately contributing to it at the global level. While the majority of Canadians believe in the existence of climate change, there has been growing skepticism about whether it is human-caused.
If the vast majority of climate scientists agree that human activity is causing climate change, why is there still skepticism among the public? According to sociologist Riley Dunlap, this skepticism does not exist in a vacuum and is due to a growing climate change counter-movement organized by fossil fuel corporations and conservative think-tanks and politicians. There are obvious economic incentives for these actors in the “dirty” energy industry to prevent policies that limit emissions outputs and threaten their bottom-line. Therefore, distributing misleading media campaigns and financially supporting pro-industry politicians are methods of distorting public opinion about climate change in order to delay the implementation of environmental policies.
Conservative Climate Politics
It is known that political leaders and their policies play a significant role in shaping public understanding of environmental issues. In fact, in Canada, the preferences of federal political parties are some of the most accurate indicators for predicting public attitudes about climate change. While it may be unsurprising that supporters of the Green Party yield the lowest rates of climate skepticism, CPC supporters have the highest rate of climate skepticism among all major federal parties.
Subsequently, former leader of the CPC Stephen Harper’s notable lack of effective climate policies may be a factor in the level of climate skepticism among the party’s constituents. As PM from 2006-2015, Harper failed to enact any environmental policies that would ensure he met his emissions pledges, earning Canada multiple “awards” for not acting on climate change.
More recently, Maxime Bernier narrowly lost the 2017 CPC leadership race to Andrew Scheer, which encouraged Bernier to found the far-right People’s Party of Canada. As its leader, Bernier has made many claims attempting to debunk the science of climate change, specifically questioning the impact of human-activity on the planet, as well as refusing to acknowledge it as a crisis. Bernier’s comments received considerable media coverage and drew attention to climate skepticism. Although he is no longer directly tied to the CPC, it could be argued that Bernier validated doubts about the urgency of acting on climate change among right-leaning Canadians, the political alignment most susceptible to this rhetoric.
Some comments made at the CPC convention in March point to the spread of climate change misinformation among the delegates. For example, it was reported that a delegate from Ontario’s Perth-Wellington district stated that the party’s environmental policies should not aim to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has proven that deep emissions cuts are at the crux of limiting the impacts of climate change. Furthermore, another delegate from Ontario’s Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry district raised issues of health concerns from wind turbines used to create green energy, a claim also espoused by former President Donald Trump as a means of generating fear around climate policies.
It seems that despite O’Toole’s efforts to reposition the CPC as a leader in the fight against climate change, his delegates are not on the same page. However, this conflict among party members should not be solely attributed to O’Toole. The CPC’s history of failing to implement meaningful environmental legislation, as well as the increase in climate skepticism rhetoric among right-wing politicians, may help explain polarization within the party on climate issues.
Are Conservative Policies Enough?
Most Canadians agree that more needs to be done to address climate change. Following the convention, O’Toole has promised that his party will still develop a serious climate plan. But how effective or stringent is the plan expected to be?
Many delegates at the convention who supported the addition of the phrase “climate change is real” also expressed that industries such as oil and gas should remain integral to Canada’s economy. In the historical context of the CPC’s environmental policies, it is expected that O’Toole, like Trudeau, will continue to push for the expansion of extractive industries without a substantial plan for lowering Canada’s dependence on oil and gas.
After being strongly opposed to a price on carbon, O’Toole has revealed a plan to replace Trudeau’s federal carbon tax, which would start at $20 CAD per tonne before capping at $50 per tonne. Currently, the Trudeau government’s climate plan includes capping the federal carbon tax at $170 CAD per tonne by 2030.
While sticking to his word of undermining party orthodoxy, O’Toole’s new carbon plan seems like a half-hearted attempt to appeal to multiple bases. On the one hand, a carbon pricing scheme is an effective tool for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, so the plan may entice some economists and environmentalists. On the other hand, capping the price of carbon at $50 per tonne is not as ambitious as needed to help overcome the climate crisis. Further, O’Toole’s plan is carefully worded to avoid implying that his carbon pricing scheme is a tax – a tactic to quell worried Conservatives – yet, many are still blindsided by O’Toole’s change of heart.
Climate skeptic rhetoric among Conservative delegates provided enough evidence to doubt the effectiveness of the party’s climate plan. Now that we have some knowledge of O’Toole’s proposed approach, elements of which undermine conventional CPC policy, it should still be questioned as to whether it will be enough. To avoid repeating the party’s bleak history of failing to implement effective environmental policies, the CPC must expand its carbon pricing scheme and stop expanding the oil and gas industry to prepare for a sustainable energy transition. Canadians want more action to prevent climate change, and while the CPC is beginning to shift in the right direction, radical policies are needed to combat this emergency.