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Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

The Globe and Mail

The word "conservative" derives from the Latin verb conservare, which means to preserve or conserve.

True political conservatives, if they understood the roots of their label, would be strong environmentalists. They would be determined to preserve and conserve the natural environment, consistent with living in an advanced industrial economy, unlike some on the far left who want to return closer to a communitarian state of nature, and some aboriginal leaders whose idea of the future is to have their people continue to exist as hunters and gatherers.

True conservatives want to pass on the best from the past and to build the future on the best of that past, which must include, of course, the physical environment.

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Instead, conservatives in Canada (and certainly in the United States) have often forgotten their etymological roots. For them, protecting the environment has usually been an afterthought, when it was thought about at all.

Many are the challenges facing the environment in an advanced industrial economy, but in recent times the issue of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change has risen to a matter of worldwide importance. Alas, for the nearly 10 years of Stephen Harper's time as prime minister, Canada's federal government was largely missing in action.

Despite verbal commitments to reduce GHG emissions, they did not fall. Not once did Mr. Harper deliver a full speech on the subject. A succession of hapless ministers passed through the Environment portfolio (Jim Prentice being an honourable exception).

Mr. Harper was discomforted by the issue. He believed that his political coalition did not want serious action, that his home province of Alberta opposed action, that other world leaders were hypocritical in making grandiose but unfulfilled pronouncements and that the solution to curbing emissions lay in technological breakthroughs many years (even decades) hence.

In the last Parliament, MP Michael Chong, now a declared candidate for the Conservative Party leadership, tried to organize a Conservative caucus committee interested in climate change. He got enough interest from colleagues to fill a telephone booth, which suggests that Mr. Harper's indifference, even irritation, with the issue was widely shared in his party.

It is beguiling, when listening to debate dominated by eager-beaver environmentalists and their political supporters, to exaggerate the public's demand for action against emissions.

Polls show that most Canadians now accept that climate change is a fact. They would like to see some action – provided that it does not cost them money, change their lifestyles or divert attention (and money) from issues they care more about, such as jobs, the economy and health care. Climate change is definitely not the No. 1 preoccupation of the largest number of Canadians, no matter what environmental groups proclaim.

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But climate change is an issue of some concern and every political party that wants to be taken seriously has to have a policy about it. For the Conservatives, that means something much better than what they did – or more accurately, what they did not do – while in power.

There are policies and there are policies, some smarter than others. Happily for the Conservatives, politically speaking, federal and provincial Liberals and New Democrats (to say nothing of marginal Greens) are hell-bent on dealing with climate change by taxing citizens and businesses, and then using gobs of new money on subsidies, enforcement of regulations, social engineering, pie-in-the-sky plans, investments in dubious technologies (and some promising ones) and other schemes hatched by those who think they know best about how to deal with the challenge.

One look at the quality of cabinet ministers giving themselves this money and discretion should make any reasonable person apprehensive about how it will be spent, since they have neither expertise nor experience in the selection of projects and plans.

So when the full improbabilities of this approach become clear to ordinary taxpayers (and voters) in the form of short-term pain imposed on their pocketbooks for putative and diffuse very long-term gains, an alternative based on pricing carbon, something the Harper Conservatives stoutly resisted, will become politically attractive – provided the carbon-price revenue is returned to Canadians in the form of lower personal (and corporate) income taxes.

It was always a mystery why Conservatives, who believed in market-based solutions to social problems, rejected them in dealing with climate change. Now that Mr. Harper is no longer cluttering the landscape, they can get back to thinking about where the word "conservative" came from and how to use markets to meet the challenge of climate change.

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