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Opinion Canada’s budget deficits continue to grow. But even worse, our climate deficit is going unaddressed

Just as Justin Trudeau will be rightfully scrutinized for failing to shrink the national debt, there’s another deficit for which he should take heat: Canada’s climate deficit.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Four years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a lot of plans, and his mantra told you how he would do it. Infrastructure? “We’re going to run three modest deficits in order to pay for it.” Public transit? “We will run three modest deficits.” Even deficit reduction? “We indeed are going to run three modest deficits over the first three years so we can balance the books in 2019.”

So much for that.

But just as Mr. Trudeau will be rightfully scrutinized for failing to shrink the national debt, there’s another deficit for which he should take heat: Canada’s climate deficit.

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Until now, there’s been much hay made over Mr. Trudeau’s national carbon-pricing scheme. The government has advanced an economically sound policy to reduce CO2 emissions that has worked on the provincial level, in Europe and elsewhere, while the Conservatives have waved their arms about, saying it’s all lies.

But what’s been lost in the fight over whether carbon pricing works (it does) and whether Mr. Trudeau’s plan to price carbon is enough (it’s not) is whether Canada is actually taking the whole problem of CO2 emissions seriously.

It’s inescapable that, without serious and concerted action from every major economy, climate change will be a society-collapsing disaster. Even with serious but insufficient action, severe weather events will cause major human and financial harm.

It is hard to reconcile that massive, existential threat with Ottawa’s tame, disappointingly controversial plan to place a price on carbon.

We need to bring a climate lens to every major deliberation in this country. Anything less is a mistake.

This shouldn’t be a controversial point. We already demand that politicians explain how they intend to pay for their plans and priorities, to avoid heaping debt on the pile. The Harper government ushered in a red-tape reduction plan, which asked policy-makers to find two antiquated regulations to axe for every new one brought in. The Liberals have brought in gender-based analysis for all its decisions.

Why not consider the climate?

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This ball is already rolling in Quebec, where the Parti Québécois has pitched the idea. The separatist party has put forward a bill in the National Assembly that, if adopted, would force the government of Quebec to prepare an analysis of the possible climate impacts of any government policy or plan. It would also require an annual report detailing the CO2 emissions impact of the government’s budget, with an accompanying plan on how to keep those emissions within the province’s targets. It would empower Quebec’s environment commissioner to keep watch on the government’s progress on meeting those emissions, and provide another way to hold a government accountable.

It’s a plan ripped right from the Conservatives’ playbook. In 2015, then-finance minister Joe Oliver passed a federal anti-deficit act, which handcuffed future governments to balanced budgets in much the same way, though it was, ultimately, a bit of electioneering. It was repealed a year later by the Liberals.

But a federal anti-climate-deficit law would turn our public service’s minds toward addressing the problem at every turn and equip us with the data we need to grasp the issue at hand.

The government publishes its own selective report on its progress toward its CO2 emissions targets, but it is inadequate. The most recent report notes that Ottawa is still a long way off from meeting its modest targets. Asked about the gap, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna waved it away, promising everyone her government would figure it out.

We shouldn’t expect much more from this government before the election. It has sustained plenty of wounds defending itself against the bulwark of provincial premiers dead set against reducing climate emissions.

Opponents to strong climate policies tend to lean to the right, though conservative premiers in Quebec and Prince Edward Island have both broken with their federal party in order to actually address the problems at hand, like adults. There is, however, a potential principled incentive: There is nothing conservative about ignoring the increasingly costly externality of climate change.

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Even if Canada only contributes a fraction of the world’s emissions, we stand to shoulder a disproportionate share of the costs. Rising sea levels promise to displace populations along the coasts, increased rainfalls will require ever-larger bailouts for flooded communities in the East, and worsening wildfire seasons have wreaked havoc through the West.

To not prepare more actively to prevent and mitigate that – and to campaign, instead, on the few-hundred bucks in short-term savings that would come from doing nothing – takes the taxpayers for chumps.

Climate change is already costing us billions. If we don’t turn our entire government toward reducing and eliminating further emissions, and preparing and mitigating incoming effects, we’re only compounding the costs we’ll incur down the line.

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