For Conservatives who believe their party needs to get more serious about climate change, Andrew Scheer’s exit is a step in the right direction.
By the time he announced his resignation as leader on Thursday, Mr. Scheer had made clear that he would never make carbon-emissions reduction a policy priority. After October’s election, he doubled down on the indifference that may have contributed to the Tories’ grim results east of the Prairies – scarcely mentioning the issue at all, other than to continue attacking Justin Trudeau’s Liberals for imposing carbon pricing and being insufficiently supportive of fossil-fuel extraction.
But to look at the way the Conservative movement has taken shape in this country in recent years is to know there is no guarantee that whoever replaces Mr. Scheer will be more willing to embrace climate policy. And there is a real chance that the coming leadership campaign instead further entrenches the opposite.
Whether that happens will be a test of environmentally minded Conservatives’ conviction, and of their ability to back it up with organizational prowess.
Conversations with Conservative elites in recent years have gone down an increasingly familiar path. Some people who have worked at high levels of government or past campaigns will acknowledge that they believe modern conservatism should involve a strong environmental streak, and that market-oriented carbon pricing theoretically aligns with conservative values. They worry about establishing the impression among younger voters that the party doesn’t care about the future of the planet. Then they’ll lament that the party base seems increasingly inclined to treat opposition to policies such as carbon pricing as a conservative litmus test.
It’s easy to attribute such resistance to the Tories’ staunchest supporters being disproportionately in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where opposition to anything that could adversely affect the resource sector runs highest. But the best recent evidence of how Conservative leadership contests can serve as vetoes of ambitious climate policy – even more striking than the rejection of Michael Chong, the lone candidate who advocated carbon pricing in the past federal leadership race – comes from Ontario.
Heading into that province’s 2018 election, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown attempted to signal a new sort of green conservatism by building his platform around a carbon tax. His Tories seemed on pace to win, but the plan – which Mr. Brown had revealed only after winning the leadership – caused friction with party grassroots.
When sexual-misconduct allegations forced Mr. Brown out of his job months before the election, contenders to replace him initially pledged to maintain his policy agenda. But it was so obvious that the people who would vote in that contest hated carbon pricing that all of the candidates, even relative moderates such as Caroline Mulroney, rapidly disavowed it. Eventual winner Doug Ford continued to play to the base by rolling back even less contentious provincial climate policy, such as support for electric vehicles.
Myriad factors explain that sort of positioning becoming an article of faith for conservatives in Canada, despite greater cross-partisan climate consensus in many other (especially European) countries. But to some extent, it’s been self-perpetuating.
In the 2008 election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives successfully hammered then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion for a carbon-tax plan that he struggled to articulate, despite having themselves flirted with some manner of carbon pricing. From that point, they continually invoked it and other climate-oriented policy as a looming Liberal plot to make life more expensive and hurt the economy. The more they drove that home to core supporters through fundraising pitches and other messaging, the harder they made it to adjust course.
That doesn’t mean the Tories are incapable of entering the next federal campaign with a much more robust climate plan than they did in this year’s, through carbon pricing or other mechanisms. For one thing, their next leader could wait until after winning that job before unveiling it, although Mr. Brown’s experience suggests that’s not a great way to ensure a lasting shift.
The better hope, for Conservatives who believe they can’t keep ceding the issue, is that there emerge leadership candidates capable of persuasively selling climate policy as part of their overall vision – and of backing it up with political organizing.
Only a sliver of Canada’s population votes in parties’ leadership contests, in the low hundreds of thousands at most, which means they tend to be dominated by the hard-core base. It also means that it doesn’t take many new signups to affect the result. If a decent number of voters who align with the Conservatives on other issues but want more climate seriousness were enticed to take out memberships before the leadership vote, the party’s complexion could change in a hurry.
But even attempting to engineer that change wouldn’t be pleasant.
Tellingly, for all the election-night talk about lack of climate policy being a barrier to breakthroughs in Ontario and Quebec, Conservatives spent a lot more time subsequently citing Mr. Scheer’s social conservatism as the problem. That one is relatively easy to fix: find a leader who hasn’t stridently opposed same-sex rights and will go to a Pride parade, and they’re much of the way there.
Trying to land on a level of climate advocacy that doesn’t totally abandon the people who have most enthusiastically bought what the Conservatives have been selling for more than a decade is a much more precarious undertaking.
We’re about to find out how many senior members of the party, those who would stand for the leadership and those who would back them, think it’s worth the effort.