British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell says the tipping point for him about the perils of climate change came in 2006 during a trip to China.
He had been reading books about climate change and its consequences. In China, Mr. Campbell said, he saw what environmental havoc was occurring.
At home, he could see global warming's impacts in B.C., most dramatically the devastation wrought by the mountain pine beetle, the principal antidote to which are very cold winters. There hadn't been any for a decade or so.
That year, 2006, British Columbia was battered by storms: the first wave in January, another in November that caused mudslides, the final blows hitting in December, flattening trees in Stanley Park.
"There was," he said, "a big change in public consciousness in that year." And in his own mind, too. Resolved to act, Mr. Campbell drove his government to climate-change policies that are in the vanguard in North America.
"We've got to start somewhere," he insists. "Everybody's waiting for the perfect solution. Well, we're going to shape change in a positive way."
The centrepiece of the Campbell government's approach is a carbon tax on all fuels. It will begin in July at $10 a tonne and rise by $5 a tonne over the next five years. At the pump, motorists will start by paying about 2.4 cents a litre. The government estimates that at $30 a tonne in five years, motorists will pay an additional $70 to $215 a year, depending on the type of vehicle. Of course, the cost of other fuels will rise, too, including heating oils.
The carbon tax will raise an estimated $631-million in the first year. But, every penny will be returned to taxpayers or businesses in the form of low-income tax credits, lowering the bottom two personal income tax rates and dropping business taxes. If this does not happen, the B.C. minister of finance must take a salary cut.
In other words, the carbon tax plan is a tax shift. It raises no additional funds for the government. It is "revenue-neutral." Combined with a cap-and-trade system for industries, plus a raft of additional measures, B.C. plans to reduce GHG emissions by 33 per cent by 2020, the most aggressive target in North America.
Of course, in a sound-bite world, Mr. Campbell is being hammered for a "tax increase," with critics neglecting the lower personal and corporate taxes - and the credit for low-income people.
Into this mindless world, enter the attack dogs of the Harper government, led by Environment Minister John Baird, barking about the federal Liberals' forthcoming embrace of a revenue-neutral levy on carbon.
Mr. Baird has already invented the phrase "Stéphane Dion's 50-cent-a-litre carbon tax," a gross distortion but a tailor-made sound bite. With the NDP also opposed to a carbon tax, Canada now has the fascinating spectacle of a revenue-neutral carbon tax being simultaneously assailed by the NDP with its ties to Big Labour and the Harper Conservative Party, which is essentially a coalition outside Quebec of the old Alberta-based Reform Party and Mike Harris right-wingers from Ontario.
The far left and far right are making common cause against the single policy that is the best available tool to reduce emissions. Whether the partisan politics of fear wins over the common sense of economics will be the forthcoming test.
In B.C., Mr. Campbell is careful to work constructively with whichever one governs in Ottawa, breaking the mould of anti-Ottawa rhetoric coming from Victoria. He welcomes any serious action, including a federal carbon levy, that would compliment his government's actions.
"But we can't wait here," he says. B.C. is already joining other U.S. states (and Manitoba and Quebec) in working on a carbon trading system.
He correctly anticipates that not long after the presidential election, the U.S. will move to California vehicle emission standards and a national carbon trading system. Canada, its federal system running off in all directions, will then have to petition to join whatever the Americans design. Canada will be saved from its own incoherence by the Americans.
Mr. Campbell sees the importance of seriously tackling climate change. He sees, too, where the Americans are heading. He is convinced that pushing green technologies will be an economic winner for B.C. He wants his province to lead, regardless of what other Canadian governments do, or fail to do. "It just makes more sense to be in front," he says.
Governments and parties that move first into uncharted waters take risks. Mr. Campbell has taken the largest thus far in North America. He is being attacked in the Interior and rural areas by those who think their gas prices will soar, courtesy of a government already too focused on the Lower Mainland. The NDP, predictably, is fighting him.
The Premier is doing what people always claim they want from politicians: leading, on a big file, with bold action. British Columbians will decide his policies' fate. The rest of Canada - and the federal parties - will be watching.