Green policy vs. hard politics in North America: lessons from Canada’s left coast

On an environmental map of Canada, British Columbia looks like the greenest province in the country. One of the most influential Canadian environmental lobbies, the David Suzuki Foundation, is headquartered in Vancouver. The swashbuckling Greenpeace was conceived in and inflicted on the world from Vancouver. The BC Liberal government was the first in Canada to bring in a carbon tax—encouraged to do so by Simon Fraser University’s Mark Jaccard, one of the leading environmental thinkers in Canada. And yet, in the October 14 federal election, the two parties that claimed most strongly to represent “the environment”—the Liberals and Greens, whose policy proposals were inspired by Jaccard and supported by Suzuki and Greenpeace—were trounced (see article).

Combined, the Liberal–Green vote in British Columbia barely surpassed that of the New Democrat Party (see results). The Greens, who had gained their first-ever federal seat when Blair Wilson, an independent Vancouver-area MP, “crossed the floor” in late September, lost the seat two weeks later when Wilson was demolished by Conservative John Weston. Weston got nearly three times as many votes as Wilson.

You could say this was just bad timing. The BC Liberal government introduced the provincial carbon tax on July 1, during a time of unprecedented gasoline prices. The federal election was called just two months later, and gasoline prices stayed high during that time (see article). The Liberals, led by Stéphane Dion, put a carbon tax as the central plank in their election platform. The Greens, strongly allied with the Liberals, said they wanted an even higher tax.

But I think it’s more than just bad timing. Most mainstream environmentalist advocates of a carbon tax assume two things. First, if we make fossil fuels more expensive, people will use them less. Emissions will go down as a result. Second, if people must use energy, there are better sources than fossil fuels. Renewable sources like wind and solar are frequently talked up. Efficiency measures, such as replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescent ones, are also touted as a major part of the solution.

Neither of these assumptions is correct. If the price of gasoline goes high enough, people will indeed use it less, but that will be at the cost of economic activity. This makes the resulting carbon emission reductions punitively expensive—something even carbon tax advocates claim they want to avoid. As for the alternative sources of energy, as they apply to electricity generation they are drops in the bucket at most. None of them is a new idea. These are the same old proposals, bouncing around inside the same old green box.

So what did BC and Canadian voters reject on October 14? A carbon tax on already-expensive gasoline? Or a warmed-over package of technological “solutions” that the public has been rejecting for years? Or the two in combination? For my post-election hypothesis, see article.

Whatever the outcome of the current Parliamentary maneuvering, a good answer to these questions is vital to all contending parties. A rematch could come sooner rather than later.

3 comments for “Green policy vs. hard politics in North America: lessons from Canada’s left coast

  1. November 30, 2008 at 02:50

    Taxes are collected to raise money. When you try to use them to control people’s beliefs and morals you get into a really complicated mess. The naive Greens dont understand this, and the sophisticated voters did not support them as a result. That was the best aspect of our last election.

    But we still have problems, in that the public expects energy to always be available, but they dont want it to be something they have to think about. That is not possible – thinking is required, even if it hurts. We could be living much better lives – healthier, happier, cleaner, etc. But most people think the current state of affairs is good enough, and dont see any reason to change. We wont see any realistic energy initiatives until Toronto spends a few days freezing in the dark. And then we will try out all sorts of unrealistic approaches until we are finally driven by necessity into using something that actually works. I dont expect to see any new nuclear builds in Canada before we have thoroughly explored every way that wind turbines can fail us. Four decades should be long enough for that.

    The only way I can imagine this being averted would be for people to build their own reactors. Waiting for someone else to solve your problems for you is never a good approach. I think the time has come for this to be seriously considered.

  2. December 5, 2008 at 00:45

    Interesting that Dion, in his televised address yesterday, mentioned the coalition has the support of the Green Party. So what? How many federal seats do the Greens have.

    Even more interesting that one of the books in the bookcase was Hot Air, which was co-authored by Mark Jaccard, of the BC carbon tax. I thought the Green Shift and all its trappings were to have been abandoned when the coalition took over.

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