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David McLaughlin was president and CEO of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and a Conservative chief of staff.

So, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, energy superpower proponent and oil sands advocate, has signed a G7 declaration to get Canada and the world off fossil fuels by 2100. What gives? Satire or substance?

At one level, the G7's commitment this week is ground breaking. It is the first time heads of government have in their decades-long debates about climate change agreed the world actually needs to stop producing and consuming fossil fuel energy. That's the substance.

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At another level, the target is 85 years hence. A child born today would be well into old age before the tank is filled for the last time. That's the satire.

For Mr. Harper, political risk and economic risk go hand-in-hand. As the country's financial steward-in-chief, his government's political fortunes have been tied for several elections now to the smack of strong economic management. This has governed his whole approach to climate change since taking office. Leavened with climate science skepticism, the Conservative government's carbon-reduction plans have been at once ambivalent and tepid.

Signing on to the G7's "off fossil fuel" manifesto offers little immediate political or economic risk to Mr. Harper. It was an easy signature to append. If the oil sands' viability is in doubt (and it is), it is due to every conservative's leviathan: the market. Whatever the G7 said on Monday will not change that current calculus.

But something larger is afoot. It is part symbolism and part reality. And Mr. Harper's acquiescence to this long-term decarbonization of the economy goal underlines just how much the climate change issue has gotten away from Conservative issue management.

From "Kyoto" to "clean air" to "turning the corner" to "no carbon tax" to "align with the United States" to "not align with the United States," the government has struggled to find its policy footing on an issue that continually trips it up. Since taking office in 2006, Mr. Harper's Conservatives have spent their political capital seeking to redefine the issue on terms more accommodating to their view of what they want it to be, not what it is. How much political grief could have been averted if they had simply figured out a viable plan and stuck to it?

Instead, the issue redefined them as "against," without much effort to put in the window what they were "for." When the world and particularly the U.S. was consumed with energy security issues, Canada's climate policy in support of oil sands pipelines could be challenged but still stand. But the world has changed, particularly the U.S., and with it, this government's climate shield.

Mr. Harper headed to the G7 Summit and is going into a federal election with two tectonic shifts underfoot. First, after almost 10 years in power, his government has a climate policy record to defend and it has been found wanting in delivering his own 2020 target. Second, the "keep it in the ground" movement on fossil fuels has become more mainstream as the science of climate warming and carbon emissions converge. To keep the world to no more than 2 C warming by 2050, the argument goes, Canadian oil sands need to remain where they are – in the ground.

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Neither of these two dynamics was in play in the past five years, let alone 10. They make Canada's position of "ring-fencing" the oil sands from any federal regulations until the Americans do something similar, starkly vulnerable in this, the year of the Paris climate conference. And they add a level of significance to Mr. Harper's agreement on behalf of Canada to the G7 declaration.

Three schools of thought drive today's climate policy debate. There are the Ecological Activists, such as Naomi Klein and David Suzuki, who preach that the planet has limits. There are the Smart Growth Reformers, such as Al Gore and Nicholas Stern, who see climate change as a market failure. And there are so-called Ecomodernists, such as Ted Nordhaus and The Breakthrough Institute, who see climate change policy as one of resilience and innovation, to be solved by technological breakthroughs.

Mr. Harper is firmly in the Ecomodernists camp as his statement about long-term technological solutions made clear in Germany. The NDP and the Liberals are in the Smart Growth Reformers block with their focus on carbon pricing regimes such as cap-and-trade. The Greens naturally occupy the Ecological Activists quadrant by saying we have to produce and consume less and change our lifestyles.

Does his "off fossil fuels" commitment suggest a tickle of "ecological limits" in his fibre?

Unlikely. Before philosophy, look to politics to understand his signature. It's the political cycle not the climate cycle that governs what he does.

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