The NDP is in trouble on the environment, and it’s really starting to show. Engaged environmentalists across Canada have really started in on the NDP over that party’s support of bitumen pipelines, and over a recent vote on the Canada-South Korea trade deal which includes investor state provisions – mechanisms designed to frustrate democratic laws passed in Canada which may threaten the profits of rich, multinational corporations. Repeatedly, the NDP is being called out – asked to do more to address the climate crisis. The response so far has been incredibly pathetic. The NDP’s strategy appears to be “dodge questions, confuse the issue and slam Elizabeth May and the Green Party”.
Growing Concerns about Climate Change
Things have really started coming to a head recently. Last week, TransCanada filed for approval of the Energy East pipeline with the National Energy Board (NEB). While this action has long been anticipated by environmentalists, the NEB filing really ratcheted things up a notch in the eyes of the media. As a result, all parties have come under media scrutiny for their stances on the pipeline. More on that later.
On Sunday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final installment of its 5th Assessment Report – the Synthesis Report, which essentially says that while there is still time to hold warming to 2 degrees Celsius, decisive action must now be taken to reverse emissions by reducing the consumption of fossil fuels. This means that alternative sources of energy must be found and our reliance on carbon fuels (coal, oil & gas) must be reduced. To achieve this result, a significant amount of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground as unburnable carbon (see: “IPCC Press Release”, November 2, 2014).
About a month ago, what is sure to be one of the most important books of the first half of the 21st Century was published. Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” profoundly makes the case that business as usual isn’t working for the planet, and that only significant reforms made to our corporate capitalist economic model are going to move us forward. These changes have to acknowledge the natural limits of the planet to absorb climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. What’s standing in the way, according to Klein, is the political will to champion the planet over profit.
As a growing number of readers pick up Klein’s book, even those who might not agree with her thesis are probably coming to realize that most of the western world’s leading political parties are woefully equipped to champion the planet over corporate profit margins. Here in Canada, this realization is apparently coming as a bit of a surprise to many long-time supporters of the NDP – a party which has moved against the tide of history and towards the centre of the Canada’s political spectrum in a bid to gain vote share and govern. For the most part, environmentalists and those concerned about climate change had already abandoned the Liberal Party after Stephane Dion stepped down as leader. Michael Ignatieff really took the Liberals in a different direction on climate change, and although Justin Trudeau now wants Canadians to believe that his party will take some sort of (very ill defined) action, it’s not at all clear what that might be, or how it could ever be reconciled with his stated support for grossly expanding the Alberta tar sands.
For many, that has largely left the NDP as the only “mainstream” (read: “likely to be elected”) party who has a somewhat decent position on climate change. After all, starting in 2006, it was the NDP that introduced the Climate Change Accountability Act, which made it all the way to the Senate before Conservative Senators killed it without debate. And the NDP has long championed a cap and trade emissions scheme for large emitters, which would put a price on carbon and might even lead to a reduction in emissions. For those paying attention, those actions had resonance.
But while a (slightly) revamped Climate Change Accountability Act and a cap and trade scheme remain in the cards for today’s NDP, that’s about all the NDP has on offer regarding climate change. And while those two measures would be vast improvements over what’s in place in Canada today, it’s the other issues that the NDP are championing which would take Canada in the opposite direction on climate change. Specifically, the NDP’s reversal on the Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and outright support for the Energy East pipeline are incompatible with the kind of action envisioned by Naomi Klein and others, as the creation of these pipelines will lead to the expansion of the tar sands – more than doubling the rate of production by 2030.
The NDP, Energy East, Trans Mountain and 2 Degrees C
The NDP won’t admit that their support of these two massive pipeline projects will lead to an expansion of the tar sands – even though it is self-evident. Energy East will have more than double the capacity than Northern Gateway, and Trans Mountain will have about two thirds more. The only reason these pipelines are being proposed in the first place is to facilitate the expansion. By not acknowledging that pipeline infrastructure is directly tied to the expansion of the tar sands, the NDP is being as disingenuous as the National Energy Board, the regulatory body which has refused to include climate change impact assessments as part of the scientific review of the pipelines. As with the Northern Gateway approval process, the NEB believes that down-stream impacts (like greenhouse gases emitted from the refining of bitumen and burning of fossil fuels) are out of scope for their review.
Yesterday, in a live Facebook chat, straight-forward questions by environmentalists and private citizens were put to NDP MP and Environment Critic Megan Leslie about whether the NDP would demand the NEB consider climate change impacts in its assessment of Energy East. Leslie dodged and wove and wrote about how Stephen Harper has fundamentally altered the environmental assessment process – but she refused to answer a pretty easy “yes” or “no” question about climate change. I even felt a little embarrassed for her, as it was quite clear to me that the majority of the participants in her Facebook chat were there to hear about the NDP’s position on Energy East and Trans Mountain.
In contrast, when tweeted about her Party’s position on Energy East by 350.org’s tar sands organizer, Cam Fenton, Green Leader Elizabeth May offered a straight-forward response: the Green Party “has been clear. We oppose Energy East and any other pipeline to get bitumen to tidewater.” (see: tweet). Fenton's earlier questions to the NDP about Energy East remain unanswered (see: "10 Questions for the NDP on Energy East & Climate", 350.org, November 3, 2014). Likely, there won't be any answers to these questions coming from the NDP, because if they were to answer them, the edifice of their climate change policies would begin to crumble because expanding the tar sands isn't compatible with holding the line on warming to 2 degrees C.
Meanwhile, BC Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver has been very outspoken and clear about the need for the NEB to include an assessment of climate change impacts in its review of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline (see, “Determining the Scope of the Trans Mountain's Pipeline Consultations”, September 3, 2014, and “Confidence Lost in NEB Assessment Process for Trans Mountain”, November 3, 2014 – both from www.andrewweaver.mla). The NDP has been relatively silent on Trans Mountain, after Tom Mulcair reversed his party’s position of opposition which former BC NDP leader Adrian Dix had voiced on Earth Day during the 2013 election (see, “Mulcair confident in face of sinking polls”, the Vancouver Sun, December 23, 2014).
NDP Browns Triumphing Over Greens
Some brown NDP pundits, including former national leadership contestant Brian Topp, in part blamed Dix’s decision to oppose the pipeline for the NDP’s historic election night loss to Christy Clark’s Liberal Party. Clearly, Mulcair bought into Topp’s analysis this past December when he announced a change in the NDP’s position on Trans Mountain, favouring the browns in his own party over the greens, and putting partisan interests ahead of the public good (see, “Brian Topp Reveals how NDP Plays Cynical Partisan Games with Environmental Issues”, Sudbury Steve May, September 24, 2013).
The NDP’s support for Energy East is no different. Mulcair believes that there are votes at stake, and that a majority of Canadians want the tar sands to expand because of all of the jobs that will be created. He’s also trying to pick up the support of some of the labour unions like LIUNA and UNIFOR which have either abandoned him completely, or have vowed to back a Liberals on a case by case basis. Many in the labour movement are greedy about the jobs which they believe will be created through pipeline construction.
Again, though, a simple truth continues to emerge. None of this is compatible with holding warming at 2 degrees Celsius. Investing in pipelines will guarantee an expansion of the tar sands enterprise, locking Canada even further into putting all of our energy eggs in the bitumen basket. Mulcair has talked a good game about using the proceeds of an expanded economy to invest in renewables, but the reality of the matter is that we just can’t grow our economy this way and hope to hold the line on warming. The other reality is that the fastest growing industrial sector in the world right now is the renewable energy sector, and the longer that Canada delays its significant entry into that market, the more we expose ourselves to risk – from border adjustments, and from the bursting of a carbon bubble. With this in mind, it is fair to say that the NDP’s plan to expand the tar sands through pipelines is a bad one for both the environment and the economy.
Tar Sands Expansion and Cap & Trade Insanity
Yet, the NDP believes that it can limit emissions from an expanded tar sands through cap and trade. Theoretically, that might be possible, but the implications for Canada’s resource extraction and manufacturing sector would be too much to bear. If the NDP’s plan to expand the tar sands and cut emissions through cap and trade were to play itself out, what we would have would be emissions continuing to rise like there’s no tomorrow due to the tar sands – and a corresponding massive offset in emissions from all other industrial sectors, including manufacturing, mining , agriculture and transportation. In this scenario, the oil industry is put front and centre, while those engaged in industrial activity in other sectors are penalized so that Big Oil can get bigger.
Here in Northern Ontario, we are especially at risk from the NDP’s cap and trade insanity. Almost certainly, a national cap on emissions coupled with an expanding tar sands will continue to put on hold any new development in the Ring of Fire. It’s almost impossible to believe that energy-intensive mining industry wouldn’t suffer from the cap – unless carbon credits were priced so low as to be almost useless. The thing is, we just don’t know, because aside from simple declarations about targets, the NDP has actually said very little about the mechanics of its proposals. Nevertheless, if the NDP is serious about climate change (or at least as serious as it claims to be), it is fair to conclude that the NDP’s current plan is reckless in the extreme – to the environment and to Northern Ontario’s well-paying mining jobs.
A much better carbon pricing mechanism – one with an actual track record of proven reductions to emissions – is a carbon tax, using either a straight taxation model (with corresponding offsets to income taxes), or through a revenue neutral carbon fee and dividend, where taxes collected are then redistributed back to all citizens. Industry would benefit from the certainty of a taxation model. Smaller businesses won’t be squeezed by bigger players in a free-for-all stock market-like carbon credit trading scheme. And real money would be much more easily returned to every day citizens to allow them to make smarter decisions about low-carbon goods and services.
Environmental organizations such as Citizens Climate Lobby have championed a carbon fee and dividend approach to carbon pricing, as it’s becoming increasingly apparent that a cumbersome cap and trade scheme as proposed by the NDP is not likely to accomplish its intended outcomes.
The Green Party is Driving the Climate Change Debate in Canada
Back in 2012, the membership of the Green Party of Canada decided to adopt the carbon fee and dividend model for carbon pricing – a slight change from a tax-shifting carbon tax proposal. This action might have had an adverse effect on the NDP, leading that Party to continue on with cap and trade. The NDP continues to feel threatened by the Green Party on its environmental flank. As a result, some (including Brian Topp) have suggested that the NDP has had no choice but to move away from environmental issues. In his “Campaign Post-Mortem” of August 21, 2013, Topp wrote:
“Indeed, the existence of the Green party provides a compelling electoral incentive for all other parties at all levels of government -- New Democrat, Liberal and Conservative -- to marginalize environmental issues, an important reason why these critical issues have faded from Canadian politics. The Green party is a perfectly legitimate player in Canadian politics with every right to contest elections – just as the NDP does. So far, their work is having the opposite effect of their aims.”
What underscores the assumption made by Topp and other NDP strategists regarding environmental issues is poor position the NDP (and the Liberals, for that matter) are in to talk about climate change and the environment more generally in a way which is both serious and sincere. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that the more climate change is talked about, the more apparent the NDP’s anti-climate hypocrisy. When brought out into open daylight, the NDP is exposed as just another pro-corporate greenwashed political party. I realize that probably sounds rather harsh, but I’ve really no other way to reconcile what the NDP says about climate change with the NDP says about pipelines and free trade agreements. I’ve read Naomi Klein’s book, and to me it’s extremely apparent that the NDP is a significant part of the problem – and in a way that the Conservative Party isn’t – mainly because the NDP pretends to be serious about climate change.
The NDP really does need to either up its game on climate change, or get out of the way. It has to stop pretending that it will be a leader – or else it has to actually lay out a realistic program about how it will lead. Clearly, leadership in this circumstance can’t include support for infrastructure projects which lead to an expansion of the tar sands.
Game Playing and Lies from the NDP
And frankly, the NDP has to stop attacking climate allies like Elizabeth May. Yesterday, Megan Leslie tweeted a shameful little personal attack on Elizabeth May for taking “pot shots” at other progressives over climate change – all for the purpose of raising money for the Green Party. Today, the NDP issued a press release about Elizabeth May’s climate hypocrisy, repeating Leslie’s story about May maligning progressives.
All of this stems from an email that Green Party Executive Director Emily McMillan sent to members on the morning of Monday, November 3rd. In that email, McMillan pointed out that neither the Liberals or the NDP had sent anybody to the United Nation’s Conference of the Parties conferences for the past 3 years. Clearly, she was questioning the commitment of each of these parties to taking a strong stand on climate change, in contrast to Elizabeth May, who continues to attend yearly.
However, there was no “ask” for money in this email, which is in my experience unusual for the Green Party. The email directed readers to sign a petition to “Stand with Elizabeth May”. But there was no request for money.
So the NDP have clearly blown it on a couple of fronts. First of all, the email wasn’t from Elizabeth May, but rather from the Executive Director of the Party – not the same person at all (but I suppose in the leader-centric world of the NDP, everything that the Party does must perforce be about the Party leader – something which frankly just doesn’t fly in the Green Party). And second, the NDP has completely made stuff up about this being a fundraiser. And the quote that they used from Elizabeth May was one she made about Rio +20, and not the UNFCC's Conference of the Parties as the NDP would have readers believe. That last one may seem like semantics to some, but not in the world of climate change advocacy. It leads me to question whether the NDP actually know the difference between the various international climate change negotiations which have been going on for decades now. Maybe if they sent some reps to some of them...
I’ll add another to my own list which might not be on everybody’s – and that’s the notion that May bashed other “progressives”. When I look at the Liberals and NDP’s support of Trans Mountain and Energy East, along with their greenwashed approach to climate change, I tell you this: I don’t see either of those two parties as remotely “progressive”.
Only the Green Party Has the Courage to Speak the Truth on Climate Change
Only the Green Party is standing up for climate change action in Canada. At our Biennial General Meeting held earlier this year in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Greens voted to adopt policies which would restrict building significant new fossil fuel infrastructure, such as the Trans Mountain and Energy East pipelines. Infrastructure would only be contemplated where it would be proven to reduce climate change impacts – impacts which would perforce be looked at as a part of any environmental assessment.
The Party also voted to restrict shipping raw bitumen through Canadian waters with the hopes that this would reduce emissions created overseas in jurisdictions with poor environmental regulations. Off-shoring Canada’s responsibility to control emissions might be a part of the Liberal and NDP plans to reduce Canada’s overall emissions, but Greens know and understand that the atmosphere doesn’t care where the bitumen is burned – it all ends up in the same place, and Canada has to take responsibility for what comes out of the ground here.
Eliminating opportunities for off-shoring our responsibilities may lead to the creation of opportunities to do more value-added in Canada. In recognition that existing production might be restrained during the needed shift to renewables, the membership agreed to an increase in refinery capacity within Canada – again, under strict conditions that increasing capacity will lead to an overall reduction in emissions. Clearly, new capacity won’t be put in place to allow tar sands expansion, but rather used as interim measure for existing operations, if necessary.
Behind all of this membership-approved policy is a comprehensive understanding that limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius has to be the outcome of any and all policy initiatives. The health of our living systems – not to mention the health of our economy – is dependent on limiting the impacts of climate change. There really are no other options.
NDP Must Get Out of the Way of Real Progressives Demanding Climate Action
And that’s why, increasingly, those who are concerned about climate change are turning away from the NDP. The more light that is shone on the NDP’s contradictory policies – not to mention the outright lying and bully tactics the party employs to vilify its political opponents – the more voters are going to come to realize that only the Green Party represents a viable choice for Canadians. The Green Party has long had a comprehensive plan in Vision Green – which has been available online since before I joined the Party in 2007. In fact, it was after reading Vision Green that I knew I had found a political organization which shared my views and values.
The NDP must be aware that they are faltering on climate change and the environment. New Democrats are a very poll-driven focus-grouped party. No doubt they’ve been looking at their own softening numbers on climate change, and that’s why we’ve seen the recent assaults on the Green Party – a party whose name the NDP is reluctant to utter, and a party which the NDP has done everything in its power to shut out of legitimate democratic discourse, including the two times that Jack Layton opted to keep Green Leader Elizabeth May out of the televised leader’s debates. Likely, Tom Mulcair will pursue the same course of action regarding May's participation in the 2015 televised debates, in an effort to silence Greens and minimize the public discussion about climate change, given his Party's indefensible and contradictory policy position.
One might think that rather than attack the Green Party, a better move for the NDP would be to change its own policies and positions so that they are more in keeping with the health of the planet. However, that appears to be too difficult for the NDP now in the run-up to 2015. Perhaps after the next federal election – and maybe after Tom Mulcair steps down as leader of the NDP – perhaps then the NDP might decide to look for some consistency on climate change. In the meantime, it appears that the only option available to them will be to lie to voters about Elizabeth May and the Green Party as part of an overall campaign to marginalize Greens.
It would have been my hope that the NDP decided to get serious about climate change. Canada could have used a strong voice in the NDP. But instead, the NDP seems content to play games while the planet continues to heat up. Shame on them!
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)