Tuesday, November 13, 2012

World Turned Upside Down? The Politics of Carbon Pricing

What’s a Green to make out of the rumours coming out of Washington that President Barack Obama may consider including a carbon tax as part of the mechanism which the U.S. will use to back away from the looming “Fiscal Cliff”? The U.K.’s Guardian reports that former Vice President Al Gore will be calling on Obama to do just that (see: “Al Gore calls on Obama to ‘act boldly’ on climate change”, November 13 2012), and that some conservatives in the U.S. have also been eyeing a carbon tax as a tool to generate revenue and lower wage-based taxes for income earners.

Greens should be pretty darn excited about this news, right? Even those of us, such as myself, who doesn’t think Obama has any kind of mandate from the people who just elected him to take this kind of ‘bold’ action, given that he pretty much failed to mutter the words “climate change” or “global warming” throughout the recent election campaign. Of course, a carbon tax is more than just a tool to reign in greenhouse gas emissions – it’s also a revenue generator for governments, and when coupled with a shift to other kinds of taxes, could also lead to tax cuts for taxpayers. And these tax cuts could be targeted towards the middle class, rather than the top 1%. Hmmm…I do recall Obama talking about those sorts of tax tools during the recent campaign. Perhaps he does have a mandate to consider a carbon tax after all.

Anyway, there’s no denying that U.S. actions to limit greenhouse gas production can only be a good thing for the United States, Canada and the world. The fact is that we have for far too long been ignoring the need to move away from non-renewable fossil fuels and towards energy conservation and a greater emphasis on renewables. A carbon tax, even a modest one, will be a good first step for the U.S., but more importantly, it will finally show the world that its largest national economic engine is finally getting serious about the crisis which we are in.

So clearly, if Obama does opt to push for a carbon tax (and if he finds willing partners in Congress), Greens in Canada should be very satisfied with the outcome. Right?

Well…yes, for sure – but what about the risks?

Recall that Stephen Harper has long insisted that Canada can’t go alone into the brave new world of carbon pricing, and it was the defeat of the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill in the U.S. Congress that ultimately proved to be the deciding factor for the Conservative Party of Canada to abandon its plan to pursue cap and trade (or, as the Conservatives are calling it now, “a job killing carbon tax”). With Waxman-Markey dead in Congress, Obama had little choice but to go the Regulation route to reduce emissions, and although the Conservatives have been woefully slow on action in this department, they too have a plan to regulate large sectoral emitters, such as the coal and oil sectors.

But if Obama decided to tax carbon, wouldn’t the Conservatives follow suit? Yes, sure, there’s the “job killing” rhetoric to backtrack from, but keep in mind that Harper has been very clear and consistent about following America’s lead on this issue. And with the opportunity to slew-foot both Tom Mulcair’s NDP and an emergent Liberal Party which just might want to champion (again) a carbon tax, could Harper resist?

Former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning (and current think-tank-thinker) has, in the past, strongly suggested that the Conservative Party “own” the issue of the environment. Although clearly the current version of the Conservatives under Stephen Harper have made the environment a back-seat issue to resource exploitation, perhaps the imposition of a carbon tax, even when done “against their will and better judgement”, might be the sort of green cred the Cons desperately need to win back voters. Or to at least neutralize the issue of the environment, preventing their opposition from owning it.

Sure, there’ll still be issues related to pipelines, water quality, species at risk, and the end of science. The NDP, Liberals and Greens will certainly be able to make a case that the Conservatives aren’t the right environmental custodians which Canada needs in the 21st Century. But every time an opposition MP pops up to flay the Cons about an environmental issue, the Conservative talking point is sure to include “We are the Party which finally got serious about combatting climate change and imposed a tax on carbon pollution.” The “Carbon Tax” talking point will prove to be a much better neutralizer than the “job killing carbon tax” one they’re using now, because Cons will actually be able to say (finally) that they’re doing something about the issue.

I suspect that Conservatives might find it a relief to take on the opposition NDP over strictly economic issues, and put aside these emerging (and to their point of view) side issues related to the environment. A Conservative Party which embraces, even reluctantly, a U.S. led plan to tax carbon, would certainly end the debate about carbon pricing once and for all. And it would be done in such a way that it could be more easily sold to their own base. “Hey, look, we did what we could, but if the Yanks are doing it, well, we had to go along. Plus, those CEO guys and the oil industry, and even our pet Sun Media preferred a straight tax to a cap and trade scheme, so…here we are.”

In this world turned upside down, with the Conservative Party of Canada becoming the champion of a carbon tax, where would that leave the opposition parties? A more important question for me – where it would it leave my Green Party? Although the Green Party, which is a party built on shared values, would remain relevant to its base, and to many Canadians who have come to view it as an alternative to the old line parties, it can’t be denied that one of the major issues of the Green Party will have been largely neutralized. Sure, we’ll continue to push for our form of carbon sequestration, and be the champions of democracy. But, let’s face it, one of the significant factors which made our Party “different” from the old line parties will have been taken away from us.

Sure, we Greens like to say that we’re all in favour of other parties adopting our good ideas, and if the Conservatives decided to impose a carbon tax, I believe that Green MP’s would vote for it, even if the price per tonne was modest. But looking down the road, the Party may have lost one of its significant reasons for being. That’s not to say that the Green Party doesn’t have other policy options which clearly define us in a different way from the other mainstream parties, but the fact is that we’ve been the go-to Party for climate change and environmental issues. Should those issues be neutralized, how well will we, a fourth party (5th in Quebec) be able to “sell” our other issues to the media, and to a larger Canadian electorate. With but a few exceptions, we’ve not exactly been doing a great job with getting our message out on most other issues to this date. I guess we could fall back on the legalization of marijuana, and continue to rail against unnecessary pipelines (although I would think that if the U.S. Congress were to ever go for a carbon tax, Keystone XL would have to be put back on the table by Obama), ending the seal hunt, providing a guaranteed annual income to those living in poverty; that sort of thing.

But with the wind stolen from our sails by a pre-emptive Conservative strike on the carbon tax front, I’m not certain that the Green Party will prove nimble enough to recover. Publicly differentiating ourselves from the NDP and Liberals, which has been difficult enough even with environmental and climate change politics in play, may become downright impossible in a world of limited media oxygen.

In a world turned upside down, Greens will need to pay close attention to the writing on the wall, or else the Party might just be over.

(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)

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