The Maple Leaf Lag

Under Justin Trudeau, Canada has a chance to make amends for a decade of climate inaction. But if it’s ever to catch up, it needs to start right now.

Christopher Policarpio/Flickr
Credit: Photo: Christopher Policarpio/Flickr

As the U.S. presidential election process heats up and partisanship rises to a fever pitch, you may already be seeing that same old empty threat pop up in your social media feeds: If Americans are actually crazy/stupid enough to elect that man/woman as president, then I’m totally moving to Canada!

But judging from Americans’ giddy response to our northern neighbor’s recently elected prime minister, Justin Trudeau, plenty of folks here may be ready to hoof it over the border right now—regardless of who wins the presidency in 2016.

Last week, Trudeau became Canada’s 23rd prime minister after a landslide victory for the Liberal Party, a win that his candidacy very much helped to achieve. Almost immediately, media outlets across the globe were focusing on how the 43-year-old melds his considerable personal style with a savvy political outlook that acknowledges modernity and embraces diversity. When asked why he had appointed women to half of his administration’s cabinet positions, for example, Trudeau’s pithy and pitch-perfect response—“Because it’s 2015”—instantly branded him as a new kind of world leader, mainly by exposing the utter ridiculousness of the question.

Within just 48 hours of Trudeau’s swearing-in last Wednesday, it was also apparent that the new prime minister would be taking a very different approach to environmental science from that of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, who had effectively silenced Canada’s climate scientists during his decade in office. On Friday, the country’s National Observer newspaper quoted a spokesperson from Environment Canada who said scientists from her agency and others had just been informed that they—for the first time in years—could “share their research and speak freely about their work with the media and the public.” No more, for example, would a reporter’s request to interview a government scientist about a recent report on algae fall into a bureaucratic morass entailing 110 pages of e-mails, reflecting “input” from more than a dozen different communications officials. (Shockingly, that interview never took place.)

And if Trudeau’s campaign rhetoric about climate change is to be believed, then perhaps the Canadian government will no longer routinely threaten and intimidate those who criticize the country’s embrace of dirty tar-sands oil. Harper actually went so far as to revise anti-terrorism legislation so that many of the environmental groups his administration deemed “extremist” (not to mention suspiciously funded with “foreign money”) could be listed as potential threats to national security. By contrast, a campaigning Trudeau pluckily reminded a roomful of oil industry representatives last February that “climate change is real” and that “our children’s future requires us to reduce carbon emissions.” Later in that same speech, he called for “greater diplomacy, not less” when it came to crafting his nation’s energy and environmental policy, noting that “calling people names and issuing ultimatums does nothing” to further Canada’s interests.

And finally, lest anyone doubt what Trudeau’s sincerity about cutting carbon emissions: He’s just renamed his cabinet’s Minister of Environment position to Minister of Environment and Climate Change, appointing Catherine McKenna, a human rights lawyer and professor, to the job. On the day she was sworn in, her new boss assured Canadians—and the rest of us—that “Canada is going to be a strong and positive actor on the world stage,” including during the COP 21 global climate conference in Paris, which gets under way in just two weeks. “That’s why we have a very strong minister not only of the environment, but of environment and climate change, who will be at the heart of this discussion,” he said.

Let’s hope Trudeau’s read on McKenna’s fortitude is accurate—because her strength is about to be seriously tested. Heading into Paris, the climate policy she has inherited is in shambles. Harper’s administration was so cavalier on the topic that the 2014 Climate Change Performance Index, which ranks nations on the efficacy of their climate action, singled out Canada as “the worst performer of all industrialised countries,” assailing it for “show[ing] no intention of moving forward with climate policy.” Indeed, to this day, Canada remains the only country to have repudiated and withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, which it did 4 years ago, 14 years after having signed the historic climate-change accord.

Canada, to put it mildly, has a lot of catching up to do. And for that reason, some observers seem prepared to give it a “pass” for Paris—to allow the country to slide through the conference without demanding too much in the way of improved carbon targets. The ones Harper submitted in May of this year were risibly poor. The assumption seems to be that new and stronger targets will come in due course, once the new administration has had a little more time to craft a workable climate plan.

But we can’t afford to assume too much with regard to Justin Trudeau, Catherine McKenna, or Canada’s Liberal Party. For all of Trudeau’s welcome rhetoric, one of his very first official acts as prime minister was to formally express his country’s “disappointment” at President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline last week. (The Liberals—Canada’s center-left party, as opposed to its hard-left party—nominally supported the pipeline’s completion.)

My best guess is that Justin Trudeau is secretly happy that President Obama nixed KXL just two days into his new job. Left unresolved, the issue would have become an albatross and almost certainly would have impeded what ought to be a new era of convergent thinking between the United States and Canada on climate change. Now that he’s publicly registered his disappointment with KXL’s rejection, in accordance with his party’s official stance on it, Trudeau can get down to the important business of cooperating with the United States—his country’s greatest ally and trading partner—on climate change, an issue that has been a thorn in the side of our relationship for far too long.

So let’s do the neighborly thing and wish Prime Minister Trudeau, Minister of Environment and Climate Change McKenna, and the rest of Canada’s new government the best of luck. They certainly need it. And look: We know we’re not perfect down here, but if it turns out that anybody up there needs our assistance in setting new climate targets—or in reevaluating the specious merits of filthy tar-sands oil, for that matter—well, you know where to find us.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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