Skip to main content

Ice covered fjord on Baffin Island with Davis Strait in the background. Baffin Island is the largest island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and fifth largest island in the world. 2013Michael Studinger

An international summit on Arctic issues that seems designed to burnish the green legacy of U.S. President Barack Obama is highlighting the absence of climate debate so far in Canada's federal election.

Foreign ministers from eight countries met Monday in Anchorage, Alaska, at the invitation of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, where they discussed "challenges and opportunities" related to climate change in the ecologically and geo-politically sensitive region.

Canada, with the world's longest Arctic coastline, had an official delegation in Anchorage headed by a senior civil servant rather than Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson.

Nicholson's absence was "due to the ongoing federal election," according to departmental spokeswoman Diana Khaddaj — an apparent nod to the "caretaker convention" that discourages all but the most routine and uncontroversial ministerial actions during the election period when Parliament is dissolved.

In his closing statement at the Alaska summit, Kerry made a passing reference to Canada's absent foreign minister.

"The bottom line is that climate is not a distant threat for our children and their children to worry about. It is now. It is happening now," said Kerry.

"And I think anybody running for any high office in any nation in the world should come to Alaska or to any other place where it is happening and inform themselves about this. It is a seismic challenge that is affecting millions of people today."

Opposition parties have been railing against the environmental policy record of Stephen Harper's governing Conservatives for almost a decade but the Alaska summit in Canada's northern backyard raised nary a peep from the various campaigns.

In fact, a month into the official election race and with seven weeks remaining before Canadians go to the polls Oct. 19, climate change as been largely absent from the election dialogue to date.

The New Democratic Party, which leads a close three-way race in most national polling, has yet to release its carbon policy — although Leader Tom Mulcair, a former Liberal Quebec environment minister claimed the NDP leadership in 2012 with a detailed cap-and-trade plan.

The NDP's biggest environmental splash so far in the campaign came when high profile Toronto candidate Linda McQuaig stated "a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground," if Canada is to meet its international climate commitments. Under withering criticism, Mulcair reiterated his party's belief in "sustainable" development of the oil sands.

The Liberals linked some of their deficit-financed $60-billion infrastructure pledge to green projects, and have promised to work with provinces to co-ordinate some kind of price on carbon.

The Conservatives announced in May that Canada will attend a UN climate conference in Paris this December with a commitment to cut emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — but have presented no national plan on how Canada will achieve the target.

"I think the party leaders are afraid to really get into the nub of the matter, which is that we've got to confront our energy system and the approach we've been taking," Louise Comeau of the Climate Action Network Canada said in an interview, calling it "a fundamental state of denial we are in as a country."

"Canada's silence on this issue is not new," added Comeau, noting Canada was the chair of the Arctic Council for the past two years where it pushed a northern development agenda "and actually ensured climate change wasn't discussed."

Greenpeace Canada energy campaigner Keith Stewart had a more positive take on the absence of climate clamour so far on the campaign trail.

Stewart argues climate change is becoming baked into economic and infrastructure assumptions and no longer is consigned to a separate policy silo.

"The Linda McQuaig incident proved that it is still considered heresy to suggest that we aren't going to extract every last drop from the tar sands, but the question is becoming harder to ignore," Stewart said in an email.

"Our political leaders need to stop fearing the wrath of the oil industry and speak out on the benefits for Canada of being a leader in the new green energy economy that will solve the climate crisis."