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When Canadians cast their ballots, they’ll go a long way toward determining what this country’s place will be in the world.

MARTIN OUELLET-DIOTTE/AFP/Getty Images

Heading into a pair of leaders’ debates within two weeks of election day, the federal campaign still seems in need of a defining issue.

But look past all the candidate controversies, personal attacks and vote-buying “affordability” promises, and that issue is right there in plain sight.

It’s so consequential, with genuine and pronounced differences between parties’ approaches, that it renders wrong-headed and reckless the growing body of weary punditry about this being a low-stakes campaign in which all concerned have failed to distinguish themselves from each other.

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On climate-change policy, the world is entering a narrow window in which it may or may not undertake the degree of economic and social upheaval needed to stave off irreversible disaster. When Canadians cast their ballots, they’ll go a long way toward determining what this country’s role in that will be.

It can be tempting, even for those who consider climate change an existential challenge, to play down Canadian voters’ ability to meet it. The pettiness of this campaign has made a relatively small country seem even smaller.

Federal election 2019: Where the four main parties stand on climate policy

But this is not a world in which one can hunker down and avoid global trends. Even setting aside what elevated temperatures might do to Canada’s North, or rising waters to its coasts, the changing climate could cause everything from massive migration shifts to dramatically different trade patterns, not to mention the potential for international conflicts and abject suffering.

Canada’s place in avoiding the worst of those outcomes is yet to be determined, in part because of some unique considerations. It has a very outsized per capita carbon footprint, but is not large enough to put a serious dent in global emissions without other countries doing their part. It is rich enough to have more room than most to adapt, but might have to make unusually large sacrifices because of fossil-fuel extraction’s big role in its economy. It is equally possible to imagine it as a leader, testing the limits of citizens’ capacity for rapid change, or as a laggard, hoping that getting caught behind the curve won’t come back to bite it.

Politicians on the campaign trail don’t always frame it so starkly. They tend to pretend there is no potential downside to their preferred course of action – that we can take dramatic action to cut our emissions without adversely affecting anyone, or avoid making any major changes at all and still somehow do our part.

But unlike the case with many other issues this campaign, there really are three distinct paths from which voters are being asked to choose, which should be readily apparent but are at risk of getting buried by the all-the-same tone to much of this campaign’s coverage.

The Conservative position is effectively that climate change is a real problem, but Canada can’t solve it on its own, so it shouldn’t risk competitive disadvantage by undertaking a hard domestic shift. Or, as Andrew Scheer has put it: “If you shut down Canada’s entire economy for a year, China would replace all of our emissions in three weeks.”

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So, in terms of trying to reshape Canadians’ consumption habits, the Tories are promising to do less than current government policy. They would eliminate carbon-pricing requirements introduced last year, including the federal carbon tax collected in five provinces, and likely soften emissions limits for large industry. They would scrap a planned new fuel standard requiring gasoline to be less carbon-intensive. They would introduce incentive-based programs, such as around home retrofitting, but generally only with policies that fit into the framework of putting more money in Canadians’ pockets.

Meanwhile, they would prioritize oil and gas extraction. Among other measures toward that end, Mr. Scheer promises legislation to make it easier to get pipelines built. It is difficult to know how much success they would have in getting more oil to market, since plans such as the creation of a coast-to-coast “national energy corridor” would face major jurisdictional obstacles. But clearly, the balance would shift toward more promotion of the resource sector and less regulation.

To the extent that the Conservatives see a role for Canada in the global climate fight, it’s largely through developing and exporting technologies, to be supported by a new fund (which large emitters would pay into if they exceeded limits). But trying to avoid economic disruption would mean that in the foreseeable future, domestic emissions would go down only marginally – if they didn’t rise, as the prominent climate-focused economist Mark Jaccard has assessed would happen under the Conservative plan.

The second path, offered by the Liberals, involves major but somewhat gradual change.

That means carbon pricing at a fairly modest 4.4 cents a litre – enough to build acceptance and awareness of revenues being returned to taxpayers in provinces where Ottawa is collecting them, before a planned increase in 2022, but not enough to dramatically impact consumer behaviour yet. It means the phase-in of the clean fuel standard, which is still in the consultation stage. It means an openness to more regulation of consumer behaviour (such as a possible ban on disposable plastics), and a suite of incentives more expansive than those offered by the Tories. The Liberals also promise additional investments in green infrastructure, including to facilitate more use of electric vehicles and expenditures such as planting two billion trees.

Most contentiously, the Liberal approach involves a sort of centrism on resource extraction. While it includes a lot of attempts at regulatory balance-striking, it’s been epitomized by the party’s pipeline policy: opposing or abandoning the proposed Northern Gateway and Energy East projects, but backing the Trans Mountain line’s expansion to the point of spending billions of dollars to purchase it. Justin Trudeau once spoke of a “phase-out” of the oil sands, before backtracking amid an Alberta outcry, and the aim still seems to be a slow transition that keeps getting Canadian oil to market for now, but preparing for diminished demand that other Liberal policies are aimed at creating.

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The Liberals certainly prioritize climate change more than the Tories. But they have yet to display the single-minded focus seemingly required to meet their promise to exceed Canada’s Paris agreement commitment to reduce emissions 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

That’s where the third path, for those who believe patience is a luxury we can no longer afford, comes in, courtesy of the New Democrats and Greens.

Neither has a chance of winning government, but they could push the Liberals toward their positions in a minority Parliament, which is a distinct possibility.

That would mean pressure to abandon the Trans Mountain expansion (although that could be a tough sell at this point), and to end various government subsidies for the oil sands while further tightening regulation. And it would involve a push toward some equivalent of the Green New Deal championed by progressives south of the border, including much more government spending to quickly transition away from fossil-fuel reliance.

Of the various scenarios, that third one is the most ambiguous because of how fluid it would be. And even with the others, nothing is carved in stone. The speed at which climate concern is mounting could, say, cause a Conservative majority government to get more ambitious over the course of its mandate.

The fast-ticking clock, though, also makes the four years until the next scheduled election a long time, when it comes to setting Canada’s climate role. And this month’s vote could provide lasting decisions on the country’s long-term strategy. There’s a good chance that carbon pricing is here to stay if the Conservatives don’t win government; it’s also doubtful the Liberals will ever campaign on it again, if they lose.

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None of this is to say that every Canadian should be expected to keep climate change top of mind in the voting booth. There are plenty of other valid considerations, not least a general sense of trust, which neither Mr. Trudeau nor Mr. Scheer have done wonders to earn in this campaign so far.

But when some of the biggest policy disagreements are around the most daunting global issue of the 21st century, no one should be able to dismiss this election as lacking sufficient meaning.

We may look back on it as more meaningful than most, when it comes to setting Canada’s place in the world.

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