Chris Turner’s latest book is The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, which won last year’s National Business Book Award.
Justin Trudeau’s victory speech in the early hours of Tuesday morning closed with one of those mawkish anecdotal stories of a revelatory conversation with a voter on the campaign trail. He’d met a lifelong Conservative voter named Dean, who told the Prime Minister he was switching his vote to the Liberals on behalf of his daughter. Surrounded in the speech by mention of “students who are marching for climate-change action” and an election that was “about the next 40 years,” the implication was that Dean’s daughter was making him defect from the party with a bad joke of a climate plan.
“Tonight,” the Prime Minister said, “I want to say this to Dean. I need to earn your vote. Not just your daughter’s.”
This speech wasn’t one for the annals of great oratory. But it did succinctly summarize the challenge now facing Mr. Trudeau – a challenge evident in particularly high relief on the climate and energy files.
Climate change has never before played as central a role in a Canadian federal election as it did this year, and Mr. Trudeau ran hard on his record as the only leader offering both credible action on climate change and continued support for Canada’s oil and gas sector. The Liberals were, as Mr. Trudeau once put it, the only ones who saw both pipelines and wind turbines in Canada’s energy future. This was Mr. Trudeau’s grand climate bargain – better market access for oil and gas in a sort of trade for consensus on a workable path to a low-carbon economy – and Canadians have given him a shot at seeing that bargain through. I’d argue his legacy as a Prime Minister will ultimately rest on whether he can deliver on it. Mr. Trudeau’s reference to a referendum on the next 40 years was not self-aggrandizing on the climate front.
That grand bargain might look, at first glance, heavily compromised and in peril from all sides. Ontario and Alberta have elected governments ferociously opposed to the carbon price at its centre and most of its other details since it was first struck between the federal and provincial governments in 2016. British Columbia, meanwhile, elected a government nearly as strident in its opposition to the pipeline that was intended to seal the deal. And to maintain confidence as a minority government, the Liberals will now need the support of the federal NDP, who stand in muddled opposition to pipelines and draw nearly half their shrunken caucus from the B.C. heartland of pipeline opposition, or the Bloc Québécois, who definitely don’t want a new pipeline anywhere near Quebec.
This doesn’t sound like a formula for bold climate action. It wouldn’t even be that hard to conjure up a scenario in which the new government falls over support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion or some other intractable climate issue.
But there’s a chance – a much stronger chance, I’d wager – that Mr. Trudeau’s grand bargain has already made it through its heaviest sledding. The Liberals embarked on the lethally dangerous political act of running on a plan with the word “tax” at its centre and survived. And because climate policies plow into unknown terrain and tend to gain support when they fail to bring about chaos and ruin, another few years up and running may prove decisive for the long-term survival of carbon pricing. (In 2018, pollsters found 55 per cent of British Columbians no longer knew for certain whether the carbon tax operating in the province since 2008 even existed.)
What’s more, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives bet hard against climate-change action – and lost. Two-thirds of the seats in Parliament are now occupied by members whose parties want a price on carbon and even more strident action on climate change. Mr. Trudeau has promised exactly that – a vague pledge of five-year binding emissions targets, moving toward a net-zero economy by mid-century. There are next to no concrete details aside from what was already in the Liberal plan – an escalating carbon price, a coal phaseout, tens of billions in green infrastructure – but filling in those details gives the climate warriors across the aisle in this new Parliament an opportunity to force the Liberals to push past their own ambitions.
Coming to a compromise with NDP, Bloc and Green MPs even provides Mr. Trudeau with some political cover. He’ll want them to stand down on pipeline opposition; they will surely demand more than the current emissions trajectory, which in return falls short of Canada’s Paris target.
If you’re a climate-first voter, this is promising terrain. Perilous, too – the volatility of pipeline politics, which reduces the staggering complexity of climate action to a false with-us-or-with-the-deniers binary, could sink this government. But if it doesn’t, the opportunity exists for the climate-action equivalent of the Pearson minority that embedded universal health care forever in the Canadian political bedrock. And that would be an impressive legacy indeed.