By Ziya Tong
Half the job is showing up, I’m sure you’ve heard it said. So when it comes to political leadership, what are we to make of it when this most basic of requirements is shrugged off? Where were Canada’s leaders when we declared a national climate emergency?
An emergency in any other context would signal, at minimum, a need for the following: 1) an alarm, or repeated alarms to give notice to the public; 2) an immediate mandate to respective agencies to initiate plans and procedures for an urgent response; and 3) deployment and action of expert teams.
And yet nothing in present-day Canada even hints at the fact that we are in the midst of an emergency. Instead, on June 17, 2019—the day the House of Commons passed a motion declaring a national climate emergency—Justin Trudeau, Jagmeet Singh, and Andrew Scheer were all at the Raptors parade in Toronto, cheering and smiling for the cameras rather than tackling the less glitzy job of public policy.
More egregious, though, is that the party leaders of the Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives did not even vote.
Only one federal leader was present at the debates that day to discuss the single most pressing issue of our time. That leader was Elizabeth May.
This is not the only time May has shown up solo. Just one month later, at the 40th annual general assembly of the Assembly of First Nations, May was the only federal leader present. Although high priority is placed on reconciliation and Indigenous relations in governing rhetoric, here, before an audience of a thousand people, those hollow words collapsed. Chiefs, insulted by the fact that the politicians did not have the time in their schedules to show up, demanded: “Where is your leader?” Their disappointment and anger was justified. After all, what is a nation-to-nation relationship that is based on “rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership” when the leaders of the nation called Canada were not even there?
There is a good reason we are seeing May shine now. Much of it has to do with her unrelenting work ethic, which began when the “Green wave” was just a ripple. The activist, author, mother, and former lawyer has also flourished beyond Ottawa’s circles by coming across as the “nonpolitician’s” politician. As the Green party leader for the past 13 years, she has brandished a simple method of cutting through political BS: support science, be honest, and have integrity. Importantly, though, May is also fearless when it counts. She is a known cage rattler in the House of Commons, with a record of speaking out in Parliament on unpopular topics—which, in turn, has boosted her public image.
But as all policy wonks know, effective leadership requires more than charisma. Our priority now, as a country, is to find a leader with a solid plan. At this critical juncture, we need someone who can make bold reparations for our nation’s historic injustices while at the same time crafting a visionary and inclusive plan that will ensure a secure and sustainable future for all Canadians.
And we do not have much time.
According to the United Nations’ latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report—which is based on the most reputable science available—we have 11 years left to avert catastrophic damage to our already fragile ecosystems and a mere 17 months for global leaders to agree upon achievable targets leading up to the Conference of the Parties (COP) 26 in 2020. As I write these words, an unprecedented and massive melting—12.5 billion tons of ice—drained off Greenland’s ice sheet in a single day. We had not expected to see melt levels like these until 2070. Calling the situation serious has become an understatement.
So how serious are the federal parties’ plans? To start, Prime Minister Trudeau has been invited to attend the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23 to support the New Deal for Nature and People. All eyes should be on Trudeau because this a critical opportunity for Canada to step up. The ticket to entry, according to UN Secretary General António Guterres, is a concrete plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Guterres stipulates that world leaders should come prepared with real strategies and not just “beautiful speeches”. So the question is: will Trudeau show up? If he does, it will mean outlining a far bolder plan than what the Liberals have previously set forth. Given the current rate of emissions decline under the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, it’s been calculated that it would take one thousand years to reach Canada’s 2050 target. You read that correctly: one thousand years. When put into perspective, it becomes clear that incrementalism of this kind is not climate leadership. It’s a death sentence.
As the Liberals like to point out, however, at least they “have a plan with targets”. And here they should be commended for the hard work of putting a price on carbon. In terms of greenhouse-gas pollution, Scheer’s Real Plan to Protect Our Environment would haul the country backward. The plan itself has no emissions targets at all. (To consider how absurd that is, try to imagine a CEO putting forward a business plan with zero targets.) In practice, the Conservative’s plan would not only increase emissions and the margin by which we miss Canada’s Paris targets but would also be expensive, costing the average taxpayer between $187 to $295 more per household if the federal carbon-tax household rebate and the home-retrofit tax credits were repealed.
If the Conservatives have omitted emissions targets, it should be noted that Singh’s New Deal for Climate Action and Good Jobs makes rather a curious omission as well. While the NDP’s foundation for economic and social justice is strong (and critical for any climate plan to succeed), nowhere in their blueprint is there any mention of where the party stands on expanding oil-and-gas infrastructure. Even the International Energy Agency (IEA)—an organization known for its institutional conservatism—revealed after conducting a thorough audit of “all current and under-construction energy infrastructure around the world” that 95 percent of all permitted emissions under the Paris targets have already been accounted for. That is, there is no room in the carbon budget for expanding fossil-fuel infrastructure.
In conserving my own energy, I shall reserve only one sentence for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada platform, which claims that we should not be duped by “climate alarmist nonsense”, and it is this: federal-party leaders who do not take the science of climate change seriously should not be taken seriously at all.
Which brings me to the one plan that comes equipped with robust targets, has a clear understanding of the science, and a time line that reflects the fact that we are in a climate emergency—and that is the Green Party of Canada’s Mission: Possible.
The document is a 20-step climate action plan that prioritizes ecosystem restoration, new technologies and upgrades, infrastructure adaptation (critical, as any emergency planner is aware), and an immediate transition to green jobs. The plan’s thoroughness is a hallmark of the fact that it was not cobbled together in a single election cycle—it is based on solutions that Greens have been thinking about and refining for the past 36 years. Indeed, Vision Green, the foundational policy document behind the plan, was coauthored by Elizabeth May in 2006. Along with the Leap Manifesto, Vision Green served as a blueprint for the now highly publicized Green New Deal in the United States.
Policywise, the Greens have also benefitted from the expertise of belonging to a network of think tanks, institutes, NGOs, and 80 international member green parties called the Global Greens, a consortium that has grown in strength with the rising alarm triggered by the climate emergency. This united front was a big push behind the “Green Wave” that swept through the European Parliament in the spring of 2019, when 75 Green members were elected as MEPs, and in the U.K., where the Green party won more seats than incumbent Conservatives. So in Canada, it is ironic that the Greens were not taken seriously until recently, because when it comes to the facts of climate change, they have long been the most serious party of all.
Now, as the physical heat rises, May’s popularity is rising as well. Naturally, the bigger spotlight will lead to more scrutiny. The proof of her leadership in the months ahead will be in how well she responds to critics on the feasibility of her plans, and how she plans to pay for them. There is no doubt that she has positively influenced the political climate; the question is, how will the political climate influence her?
In closing, I should make it clear that I have no partisan interest. I am not a card-carrying Green member. What I am is an advocate for science. May has a record of demonstrating the kind of courage and leadership that is needed right now: proposing what science says is critical, not what politics says is polling well. If she gains enough support within Parliament to become a presence that cannot be ignored, I believe all Canadians will benefit, because she will raise the bar on any national climate agenda that is put forward.
Ultimately, the mark of a great leader is one who shows up and steps up with bold action. As Canadians, we do not deserve a watered-down climate plan. As Canadians, we deserve an emergency plan that will save us.