First off, I'd like to start this post with an apology. I'm sorry that this is going to be a very lengthy post, and the fact is, I'm liable to lose many of my readers part way through. I'm encouraging you, however, to hang in there with me, because this is one of the more important posts that I've written in a while now. Which isn't to suggest that I don't think my other material is "important" - but the fact is, I usually write "off the cuff" posts. This one, though, has taken over a week to compose, in part because I've been mulling over the subject material, and in part because I think my message here is quite important, especially for those who consider themselves "progressive conservatives". Anyway, again, I'm sorry about the length.
Conservative Conversation about Conservation
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Sudbury Conservative Electoral District Association’s first Sir John A. MacDonald Conversations event at the Holiday Inn. The Sudbury Conservatives had invited Manitoba MP Robert (Bob) Sopuck (Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette) to speak on the subject of “Conservative Environmentalism in the 21st Century”. That evening was intended to be the first in a series of “conversations” hosted by the Sudbury Conservative EDA, and if decisions to hold future events are influenced by the success of that evening, it’s fair to say that Sudbury can expect to hear more such conversations.
I’ve not written about this evening until now, because it’s taken me some time to digest and reconcile what I heard and experienced that night with what I have come to understand of the Conservative Party, and in particular, their anti-democratic and bullying techniques, and with their seeming contempt for all things “environmental”. That night, with only a few small exceptions, MP Sopuck stowed the negative rhetoric, and gave a thoughtful presentation on what environmentalism means to him – and made a forceful case to those present that Conservatives need to start thinking along similar lines.
As a known member of the Green Party, it seemed to me that the volunteers with the Conservative EDA went out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable attending their event (although I suppose it’s possible that they’re really just friendly people), which had been advertised as being open for any and all with an interest in the topic. Donations were being accepted by the Friends of Lake Laurentian (and Mark Signoretti of the Friends gave an excellent presentation on the great work that Sudbury residents are doing to improve the health of Lake Laurentian, one of the City’s 300 lakes). The EDA certainly knew how to host an event, with a great finger-food buffet, tea, coffee and a cash bar.
The attendees appeared to be composed entirely of Conservative Party members or supporters, but there may have been some in the room who were non-aligned. Fred Slade, the CEO of the Sudbury Conservative EDA, and past-candidate in the 2011 federal election, acknowledged that there was a fundraiser taking place that seem evening for the Greater Sudbury Watershed Alliance, and it could be that some community members were faced with a difficult choice (I had sent my regrets to the GSWA about attending their fundraiser – and I’ll certainly continue to do all that I can to support that important community organization). Slade also indicated that the media had been invited to attend, but there did not appear to be any media present. In my opinion, that was very unfortunate, given that Robert Sopuck is a visiting member of parliament, and an MP’s visit to our City remains a newsworthy item.
Robert Sopuck, MP
Bob Sopuck has been described as a “right-wing environmentalist”, and seems to wear the term as a badge of honour. He has been, at one time or another, the Environmental Advisor to former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon; a member of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, an ultra-right-wing think tank associated with climate change deniers such as Tim Ball; and, a member of the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy, an independent public policy advisory organization to the federal government which was killed off earlier this year by the Harper Conservatives, allegedly for continuing to offer advice which the government didn’t want to hear (see: “John Baird happily admits that Tories didn’t like axed environmental watchdog’s advice”, Josh Visser, the National Post, May 14, 2012). A partial biography for Sopuck is available on Wikipedia.
Conservative Environmentalism and the Mainstream
Sopuck’s presentation focused on the notion of “conservative environmentalism” (my term, and note the use of the lower-case “c”), which he (interestingly, in my opinion) contrasted to what he believed to be more “mainstream” environmentalism. Critiquing the mainstream for waging campaigns based on emotion rather than facts, he chastised the “left” for failing to do the math, and urged “conservatives” to focus on fixing and doing things which can be quantified. He suggested that the mainstream focussed too much on energy conservation (which he noted was an important issue, but not the only issue), and for being too urban-oriented, rather than tackling “real” issues related to air, land and water.
I found it interesting that Sopuck began to characterize “mainstream” environmentalists as being on the left side of the political spectrum. Perhaps that’s because I’m inhabiting a different reality than the one which Sopuck is stuck in. Being a Conservative MP, I suppose it’s difficult for him to look at the world through anything other than the left/right lens of old line partisanship. I instead inhabit a post-partisan reality, and although I have often characterized myself as a “Green partisan”, most often I have done so ironically (as the notion of partisanship within the Green Party is something which most Greens instinctively rebel from). Instead of viewing the world through a left/right lens, I can’t help but look at my world from the lens of right/wrong.
That Old Left vs. Right Political Spectrum Thing
So, I found myself somewhat uncomfortable with Sopuck’s notion that mainstream environmentalists inhabit the “left” of the political spectrum, in part because I consider myself to be an environmentalist whose ideas and opinions tend to fall within what I would characterize as the “mainstream”. And I do not consider myself to be on the “left” (or on the “right” for that matter). So, this notion that environmentalists must be associated with one or the other side of an antiquated political spectrum was a little disturbing for me, and was outside of my own personal experiences. But I suppose I understand well enough where Sopuck was coming from, given his own perspectives.
What I did agree with Sopuck on was his criticism of some (not all) environmental campaigns which seek to treat “nature” as a “museum”. This notion seemed to resonate a little more with the audience in Sudbury, which might be expected, given Sudbury’s historic association with extractive resource industries. While I believe that it is important to set aside and preserve some natural areas, I can’t help but acknowledge the importance of resource-based development, and the need to recognize that a balance between sustainable development and conservation must be found.
Sopuck was also critical of the mainstream environmental movement’s emphasis on process over product, and reliance on regulation and laws over the notion of providing individuals and corporations with incentives to conserve (I would be remiss if I did not report that Sopuck was speaking only about those circumstances when laws and regulations did not provide measurable outcomes; Sopuck certainly acknowledged the importance of regulation and law when it made sense as a tool to achieve desired outcomes). Sopuck also indicated that he thought the notion of “green jobs” was little more than “leftist misdirection” (my term for summarizing my understanding of his thoughts), and indicated that he believed that “every job should be a green job” (his words this time) and that all jobs should be carried out in as environmentally responsible manner as possible.
I remember thinking “Wow” when I heard this last little bit. Are there large-C Conservatives out there who really think this? Of course, Sopuck broke the mystification with a follow-up comment about the (now discredited) Spanish study on jobs lost vs. green jobs created, oft-cited by Conservatives as reasons to kill investment in renewable energy technology.
Hmmm…there’s that notion of energy coming up again, I thought at the time, in a slightly different context. Maybe I should pay a little more attention to what Sopuck says, or doesn’t say, but energy conservation and renewables.
Policy for Small-c Conservative Environmentalists?
After this critique of left-wing “mainstream” environmentalism, Sopuck schooled those in attendance with principles of conservative environmental policy-making. Along with the need to focus on measurable results, conservative environmental policy must be based on truly “unbiased” science (whatever that means), and emphasize property rights and incentives over focusing on a regime of regulatory compliance.
OK, sure, there’s nothing too strange there. It always makes sense to measure results, and I’ve too often seen the wrong set of tools employed to address significant environmental policy issues. I’ve also sometimes detected a lack of understanding around the issue of property rights and public takings without compensation when proposals to limit rights are being discussed. While I doubt very much that I am on the same page as Sopuck is with regards to the rights of property owners, I can’t help but acknowledge that these rights must not be ignored when looking for solutions to complex problems (although they ought not necessarily be considered paramount, either, especially when there are clear competing rights – think of a factory which emits pollutants and how those pollutants might impact the public commons – air, land and water).
Celebrating the Creation of Wealth in the Absence of Sustainable Practices
What might be considered a little more controversial was Sopuck’s insistence that “conservative environmentalists” celebrate the creation of wealth as a “wellspring of environmental improvement”. On the surface, wealth-creation and environmentalism going hand-in-hand might sound heretical to some environmentalists, because the creation of wealth has often led to environmental degradation. Really, there’s no denying that. But Sopuck’s point was that rich countries are much better positioned than poor countries to address environmental issues. And, really, there’s little denying that’s the case, especially when you look at what richer nations have accomplished over the past few decades. I don’t need to look further than out of my own window to acknowledge this fact: would Sudbury’s transition from moonscape to a city of lakes and forests have been possible in the context of an impoverished economy? I really don’t think so.
Of course, the presupposition here is that business and industry find themselves on one side of the equation, while the environment is on the other side – that the two are in constant competition. This is a typical neo-liberal misunderstanding of the real world, in my opinion, but it is one based on our recent past experiences: the creation of wealth leads to degradation, but if enough wealth is created, we can improve our circumstances. What this point of view fails to understand, however, is that truly sustainable economic development need not tread too heavily on the natural environment, especially now at the end of the Oil Age. We collectively know better than to foul our own nests, and we have the resources at hand to transition our wasteful economy into something much more sustainable.
The thing is, I think that Sopuck understood this. Certainly, he urged that we embrace new technologies as potential solutions to some environmental problems, and he even urged those in attendance to stop thinking of the environment and the economy as two discrete systems. But it wasn’t clear to me that Sopuck truly understood the need for development which is sustainable over the long-term. Instead, he seemed to me that he was advocating for continuing to do things largely as we have done them in the Oil Age, and to look to a set of tools which can be used to better our lot.
Why wouldn’t Sopuck urge other conservative environmentalists to embrace the concept of sustainable development, especially if he is already convinced that the environment and economy aren’t separate and competing realms? Might this have something to do with energy issues, on which he appeared to be so reluctant to speak of?
Conservative Environmentalism in the 21st Century - The Great Omission
Before I go further, I find that I now need to skip to the end of Mr. Sopuck’s presentation, and offer the one single observation which I could not help but take away from the generally good and positive things he had to say. Honestly, while there were clearly a few things that I did not agree with Sopuck on, I was impressed to discover the significant overlap of issues which Sopuck presented with my own environmental concerns. Clearly, the “right-wing” environmentalist and the “post-partisan” environmentalist found a lot on which they could agree. And I told Sopuck as much after the presentation.
But what I could not help taking away from the evening’s event was what was left unsaid by Mr. Sopuck. In fact, I found it completely baffling.
How could any “environmentalist” give a presentation on environmentalism in the 21st Century and fail to ever once mention or acknowledge the biggest economic and environmental crisis facing humanity: anthropogenic climate change?
Of course, the “conservative environmentalist”, if I understand this idea as espoused by Sopuck, can’t acknowledge the climate crisis for the reality that it is, because the “conservative environmentalist” continues to inhabit a left/right political reality which, in my opinion (and in the opinion of many others), is out-dated and no longer serves a purpose, and which actually exacerbates the anticipated impacts of a warming planet.
Climate Change - What to Do?
See, to acknowledge that climate change is happening and that we must do something about it leads to the notion that we must either a) mitigate the circumstances which are contributing to the crisis; or, b) adapt to the circumstances which we will find ourselves in; or, c) do both.
So here’s the problem for “conservatives environmentalists”. If mitigation is pursued as a solution (or part of the solution), than we find ourselves in a situation where we must end our reliance on greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels. That would be both difficult and undesirable. Further, conservatives tend to take a go-slow approach to change, and that’s just not effective when it comes to the climate crisis. So “conservative environmentalists” are poorly positioned to embrace mitigation as a solution.
How about adaptation? Well, perhaps “conservative environmentalists” fare a little better with the idea that we can adapt to a changing climate. As Sopuck mentioned, we will need to embrace new technologies, and generate wealth in order to implement whatever scheme is necessary. Of course, that approach leads to considerable problems, such as (by way of example) the following scenario: Drought is occurring on the praries, as groundwater resources are depleted and glacial-fed rivers are drying up because of warming. No problem. If Canada is rich enough, why not build a dam across James Bay, create a massive freshwater lake, and divert water back through rivers and aqueducts for crops in Saskatchewan. If we create enough wealth, we can afford to engage in these sorts of schemes.
Choosing Continued Resource Exploitation Over Sustainable Development
Back up for a moment though. How will we create this wealth? Largely through continued exploitation of non-renewable fossil resources, including new sources coming online in the high arctic. So we embrace solutions for the impacts of climate change which first require us to exacerbate climate change impacts – all so that we can afford to implement the solutions in the first place. Sure, it might make some sense, but not much.
Yet, that’s exactly the road that Canada is on right now, and the one which “conservative environmentalists” are being encouraged to remain on. Sopuck’s reluctance to speak seriously about energy conservation, and the immediate need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and embrace renewables, is in keeping with this mindset. And frankly the mindset is one which ignores the perils of a changing climate. And by “peril” I clearly mean to include the significant and overwhelming risk which climate change poses to the health of our economy.
The Economic Threat of Climate Change
Conservatives know this. Study after study has shown that a warming world will create new challenges to the creation of wealth. Adapting to our circumstances, while necessary, will likely not leave us better off tomorrow than we are today. In fact, climate change is a real problem for those concerned about the need for continued economic growth.
So if both mitigation and adaptation are poor choices for “conservative environmentalists”, where does that leave them? Well, to me it seems it leaves them right where Bob Sopuck’s presentation took them: ignoring the reality of the climate crisis, and instead focusing on resolving more modest, “winnable” environmental issues – those associated with air, land and water. But not with carbon.
It was interesting to hear some of the concerns raised by audience members at the conclusion of Mr. Sopuck’s presentation. A few in particular were concerned about the impression of Canada abroad, when Canada continued to win “fossil” awards at international gatherings. Sopuck was asked for this thoughts on this issue, and his response was rather telling. He insisted this was because there is a left-wing conspiracy to discredit conservative governments, and making them look bad on the international stage is a part of that conspiracy.
Again, there was no mention of how the need for reducing our carbon emissions might have played into the circumstance which led to the questions. In fact, when Sopuck was challenged with a point of view offered by one of the audience members that global warming itself seemed to be a part of that left-wing conspiracy rather than scientific fact, Sopuck’s response was a simple “no comment” (a direct quote).
Look, I’m not going to deny that the political left and the political right don’t sometimes do things to undermine each other. In fact, it’s all too often apparent. Do left-wing activists want to make right-wing governments look bad? Sure they do. And the same is true in opposite situations. But what I’ve got a problem with is when scientific facts themselves fall victim to this political warfare. I understand that many on the right do not accept global warming as a scientific fact – but that the world is warming is not altered by their lack of acceptance.
Let me be clear about this: I was presented with no evidence that evening which suggested to me that MP Bob Sopuck did not believe in the scientifically-proven case that the world is warming and human industrial society is responsible for it. Sopuck never denied climate change as fact. Instead, he chose to ignore the topic completely, and urged other “conservatives” to do the same; not by extension, but by the very presentation he gave which 1) ignored the issue, and 2) urged conservatives to undertake actions which will exacerbate global warming.
A Dead-End Approach to Environment & Economy
Frankly, I’m not at all sure that’s a message which small-c conservatives want to hear, even if it is one which large-C Conservatives espouse daily in Parliament and to the media. Look no further than the “job-killing carbon tax” message coming out of the mouths of myriad Conservatives, including Bob Sopuck’s That a carbon tax is being hailed as the best tool we have available right now to actually reduce carbon emissions seems to be lost on the Conservative Party. It’s not just Greens like myself who are championing a carbon tax. Leaders in the oil industry, the mining industry, corporate CEO’s and right-wing Republican politicians (a few, anyway) are talking about putting a price on carbon through a direct tax. In Canada, it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, that the two largest parties in the House today (the Conservatives and the NDP) fail to understand that a carbon tax makes sense as an economic tool. The NDP, at least, understand the need for some sort of tool. Conservatives? Clearly, not so much.
But the real problem is Large-C Conservatives want small-c conservatives to buy into their dangerous economic plan. By ignoring the economic realities of climate change, Conservatives are actually advocating for real reductions to economic growth, global GDP, and the take-home pay of the middle class. Indeed, the threats to our economy from runaway global warming cannot be understated.
Real Conservative Values Demand a More Robust Form of Environmentalism
Of course, those threats, once realized, will impact the richest Canadians much less than they will impact the rest of us. Since the Conservative Party of Canada has become the operational arm of the 1%, it really doesn’t need to concern itself with the other 99% - unless it’s trying to buy their votes, or frustrate them from being able to vote. In my experience, most conservatives are not members of the economic elite, are not a part of the 1%. They are people who may have well-paying jobs, but are carrying household debt, and are just trying to make ends meet and save a little for the future. They are the middle class, and they are concerned about jobs and economic issues.
Which is why “conservative environmentalists” must be concerned about climate change, regardless of what large-C Conservatives would have them believe. If climate change is the “real and present danger” Environment Minister (and Conservative) Peter Kent recently described it as, than why for the love of God are Conservatives so determined to make the economic impacts of a changing climate worse in the long-term, all in the name of short-term gain?
Look, small c-conservatives have children too. As much as the Conservative Party seems to like to think that people are inherently selfish and will put their own good ahead of the good of others, including that of their own offspring, I can’t help but believe that notion isn’t in keeping with reality. It’s certainly not been my experience. Of course, I’m biased, and perhaps I’m simply equating my own circumstance with those of my neighbours. I did, after all, choose to become politically engaged over long-term concerns about the sort of planet that I would be leaving to my children. This was before I even had children.
Real and Present Dangers to Canada
So, when I left the Sudbury Conservative EDA event a few weeks ago, I had all of these thoughts percolating around in my mind. I was struck by the common ground I discovered existed between myself and Robert Sopuck. I was optimistic that some of Sopuck’s messaging might stay with those audience members in attendance, because a lot of it was very good. I was saddened, and a little angry, that Sopuck would fail to mention the climate crisis at all in his presentation.
And, more than ever before, I was left with the impression that Canada faces another “real and present danger” to our well-being. And that is the Conservative Party of Canada. That Party’s wilful ignorance of climate change poses a direct threat to our nation’s economy, and that threat cannot be tolerated by those of us concerned about Canada's future economic health. Further, the Conservative Party has proved successful in convincing a significant minority of Canadians that the exact opposite is true – that the threat to our economy is taking action to reduce climate change impacts. It's actually the reverse which is true.
Climate Change and Economic Health: CPC Favours Corporate Values Over Conservative Values
The Conservative Party of Canada does not speak for true conservatives. Who, then, is it speaking for?
I was pleased to discover that I had a lot in common with attendees of the event, including my fellow Sudbury residents, and with MP Bob Sopuck. Clearly, the problem with the Party is not one of conservative values – at least not the values of individual members. Rather, the problem is clearly with the corporate values of the Conservative Party, and the long-term economic threat those values pose to virtually all Canadians, including many individual Party members.
Although I agreed with much of what MP Sopuck had to say, I could not ignore his omission of the climate crisis from his presentation, and his refusal to engage the audience on this issue. I enjoyed my lengthy conversation with MP Sopuck following his presentation, during which I myself did not bring up the issue of climate change either. Rather, I chose to focus on the apparent common ground which clearly exists between greens and conservatives (and Greens and Conservatives, for that matter). It is important, I believe, to highlight that which brings us together. But it’s also important to establish that which divides us, especially when the division is largely an artificial one, created by corporate interests at the expense of individual rights and values.
Truly progressive conservatives understand that the maintenance of Canada's economic health over the long term requires a robust response to the threats and anticipated impacts of climate change. Environmentalist and economists both - whatever side of the outdated political spectrum they choose to self-identify with - can no longer deny that both mitigation and adaptation strategies must be pursued, else we will almost certainly experience significant economic damage in the coming years.
Anyone claiming to be an "environmentalist" or an "economist" who continues to insist that we ignore the economic and environmental impacts of climate change is, frankly, neither. I'm sorry to have come to the conclusion that the brand of environmentalism preached by the likable Bob Sopuck is, in reality, extremely dangerous to the long-term economic health of our nation. Note that Sopuck's "conservative environmentalist" isn't an exercise in "greenwashing". Instead, it's an idea which has clearly not been thought through, and poses significant risk to the very creation of wealth which Sopuck and a majority of Canadians want to see continue. For real economic progress, we simply can't ignore the things we must do to stave off the worst impacts of a warming world.
As an aside, tonight I am glad to see that there are some conservative voters in Canada who are clearly demonstrating their understanding of this situation. The Calgary Centre by-election takes place next Monday, and polls are indicating that Conservative candidate Joan Crockatt has been bleeding support to Green candidate Chris Turner, while the Liberal (who is an environmentalist, but belongs to a political party almost equally beholden to the same corporate values as the Conservatives are) has stagnated. I have long believed that true progressive conservatives should be casting their ballots for the Green Party – and that they would, if the Green Party could ever get its message out. Well, in Calgary Centre, Turner and his team have been doing an incredible job of getting the word out. And, well, we’ll see what happens come Monday.
(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)