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jeffrey simpson

What a difference an election makes. At this point in the last campaign three years ago, one issue had emerged to define the campaign. That issue - climate change and the Liberals' plan for a carbon tax - has disappeared.

In a country with the worst record in the industrialized world for greenhouse gas emissions, you might have thought that the subject of climate change might merit more than a cursory discussion. After all, 2010 was the warmest year on record around the world, with 19 countries setting all-time temperature highs.

You might have thought, too, that the Harper government's commitment to reduce emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 might be fodder for discussion, since Canada was widely mocked by all who follow the issue.

But, for many reasons, the environment in general and greenhouse gas emissions in particular have largely disappeared from political debate. The Greens, so feisty and noticed three years ago, have all but vanished.

The big parties know climate change has declined precipitously as an issue. The recession knocked everything off the agenda for nearly two years. The failure of international climate-change negotiations to make serious progress removed an impetus. The inability of the U.S. Congress to get its climate-change act together also removed pressure on Canada.

For the Harper Conservatives, climate change has always been a downer. In five years in office, the Prime Minister has never given a complete speech on Canadian soil about the issue.

His Environment Minister, Peter Kent, became a song-and-dance man for the tar sands, which are responsible for 5 per cent of emissions, a share that will grow as they expand. Mr. Kent, echoing someone else's bizarre argument, said oil from tar sands was more "ethical" than that from Libya, Venezuela and Iran. He thus became the first Canadian cabinet minister to compare Canada's ethical standards not against the idea of the "good," the whole point of ethics, but against those of thugocracies.

Last week, the Prime Minister sold the federal loan guarantee for the Labrador hydroelectric project in part as a climate-change measure. In fact, it will make only a tiny dent in emissions - the equivalent of about 4.5 million tonnes. The last Conservative budget did allocate, over two years, $400-million for retrofitting homes and $252-million for forthcoming regulations, presumably over the oil and gas industries - regulations that have been promised so many times as to be laughable.

The NDP mentions climate change in its platform, but the party doesn't make much of it. Environmentalists, after all, are still fuming that the party opposed a carbon tax nationally and in B.C., where the provincial party screamed "axe the tax."

The Liberals, authors under Stéphane Dion of the carbon tax idea, are petrified of the issue as a result of withering Conservative attacks in the last campaign. The new Conservative attack ads have pounded Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff for having favoured a carbon tax during the Liberal leadership campaign. The ads don't say Mr. Ignatieff has repeatedly disavowed the idea.

The Liberals now favour a cap-and-trade system, but their platform is vague about how such a system would work and be financed, suggesting they either haven't thought much about the problem or are politically scared of drawing attention to their pledge. The NDP also favours a cap-and-trade system. The Harper Conservatives did, too, when it looked as if the Americans might design one.

Without placing a price on carbon emissions - either by a tax or a market mechanism such as a cap-and-trade system - any policy will largely fail. Even Alberta's Conservative government acknowledges this elementary fact by placing a small intensity-based tax, or levy, on emissions.

In other areas, the Harper government prefers to achieve objectives through the tax system. With greenhouse gas emissions, it prefers the matrix of "socialist" policies that have always failed and always will - heavy regulations and subsidies.

The government's 17-per-cent reduction target can't be met with policies now in place, and every expert in the country knows it. Canadians just don't care. So the issue is barely mentioned in the campaign.

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