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Say what you will about Patrick Brown, the ousted former leader of Ontario's Progressive Conservatives: At least his plan for a carbon tax dragged the party kicking and screaming into the 21st century on climate policy.

Under Mr. Brown, the PCs pledged to replace Ontario's current cap-and-trade system with a carbon tax that would hit $50 a tonne by 2022. The party would then plow most of that revenue into other tax cuts and credits.

It was not exactly a bold, visionary approach – the federal government is forcing any province without a carbon price to adopt the same regime this year anyway.

But credit where it's due: The pledge marked an acknowledgment by the right wing of Canada's biggest province that climate change is a serious, man-made problem, and that addressing it requires charging for CO2 emissions.

All too predictably, there are already signs that Doug Ford, Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney – the contenders so far to replace Mr. Brown – are edging away from this sensible, small-c conservative policy. It has gone down like castor oil with the PC base, who recoil at higher energy costs even if they come with tax savings elsewhere.

Mr. Ford, ever the populist shouter, says there would be no carbon tax if he were premier, without explaining how he would sidestep Ottawa. ("Just watch me," he said.)

Ms. Elliott has made oddly ambiguous noises about her intentions, saying in the same interview last week that she was "not personally in favour" of a carbon tax and that it is "one of the answers" to climate change. "I'm doing my homework," she allowed.

The political rookie in the race, Ms. Mulroney, has come closest to saying she will stick with the party's current policy, but only because Ottawa is forcing it down Ontario's throat.

This is a sorry state of affairs for a modern conservative party. Carbon taxes are a market-driven way to reduce emissions, and the revenues can be used to lower other taxes.

It shouldn't be too much for the PCs to make an affirmative, non-grudging, conservative case for tackling the epoch-defining challenge of climate change. Here's hoping one of the leadership hopefuls is up to it.