B.C. politics has almost always been colourful. Sometimes wacky. Often unpredictable. But rarely does it get as surreal as the sight of Premier Gordon Campbell sharing the stage with and receiving blessings from two high priests of the environmental movement: An Inconvenient Truth's Al Gore and climate-change guru David Suzuki.
In another bizarre twist, the master of ceremonies at the September 29 event at the Westin Bayshore Hotel was former Vancouver Board of Trade chairman Peter Legge. He once wrote to the U.S. ambassador saying he was "shocked and embarrassed" because Canada didn't participate in the war in Iraq–a war that both Gore and Suzuki have condemned from the outset.
Legge described Campbell as a "visionary who believes in the power of collaboration, integration, and sustainability". Gore personally thanked Campbell for his leadership on addressing greenhouse gases, which are linked to global warming. "It really is a fantastic source of optimism and hope," Gore said to the crowd of 1,500, members of which had paid between $250 and $500 to attend the event headlined by the former U.S. vice-president.
It was in sharp contrast to the recent past, when environmentalists routinely condemned Campbell's government as one of the brownest in Canada. In its first term, from 2001 to 2005, the B.C. Liberals under Campbell refused to include greenhouse-gas-emission targets in B.C.'s climate-change plan and increased subsidies for natural-gas producers who wanted to drill wells during summer months. In addition, the Campbell Liberals boosted the financial threshold for capital projects before an environmental assessment is required, slashed spending on environmental protection, vigorously promoted offshore drilling for oil and gas, and championed open-net fish farming.
That wasn't all. The Campbell government raised the starting point on a luxury-car surtax from $32,000 to $49,000, ended requirements for coal companies to pay royalties for the use of gravel for road-building, and secretly began making plans to twin the Port Mann Bridge and expand the regional road network. Not surprisingly, major companies in B.C.'s biggest greenhouse-gas-emitting industries–car dealers, energy and mining corporations, and forest companies–filled B.C. Liberal coffers with political donations, ensuring the party's reelection in 2005.
The David Suzuki Foundation, which was founded by Suzuki to advance environmental solutions, criticized many of these B.C. Liberal policies. But on September 29, Suzuki and Gore appeared in the Westin Bayshore ballroom to praise the premier's pronouncements on climate change, which include cutting B.C.'s greenhouse-gas emissions 33 percent by 2020.
The previous day, in a speech at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention, Campbell literally declared war on global warming, employing a well-used analogy to draw comparisons with the challenges faced by previous generations during the two world wars. He then rattled off a series of policies designed to save the planet. "As Einstein so clearly stated, the world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created this situation," Campbell declared at the convention. "This requires us all to think and act differently."
He described a future of "carbon markets" where people could buy and sell credits, of green buildings, energy conservation, legislated greenhouse-gas-emission caps, sustainable power generation, and a carbon-free government. In that convention speech, he said that the provincial climate-action secretariat has received more than 170 submissions from public servants, scientists, environmental organizations, academics, and industrial groups. As a result, Campbell added, the government has already identified possible reductions of 24 million to 33 million tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions. That would take B.C. 60 to 80 percent of the way toward the goal identified in the throne speech.
In October, he said, the government will announce a climate-action team that will include "a blue-ribbon team of leaders from business, scientific, and environment communities, First Nations, and academics". By December 31, 2008, he said, there will be legally required emission targets for 2012 and 2016. He noted that B.C. and Manitoba are the first Canadian provinces to join the Climate Registry, which is developing a common approach to measure, report, and verify greenhouse gases for 40 U.S. states.
"It's a critical part of the long-term strategy," he said, later adding, "Every province and territory in Canada intends to join the Climate Registry."
Campbell's decision to meet with Gore and Suzuki was either the B.C. political world's equivalent of Richard Nixon going to China or the greatest greenwashing spectacle in Canadian history. It came two days after NDP leader Carole James told the UBCM convention that she opposes the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge. To about 75 demonstrators standing in the rain outside the Westin Bayshore on the evening of Gore's visit, the premier's proclamations on climate change were as believable as an earlier pledge to create the most open and accountable government in Canada.
The protesters had gathered to focus attention on the B.C. Liberal government's $3-billion Gateway road-building program, which includes the Port Mann Bridge project, widening Highway 1, and developing the North Fraser and South Fraser perimeter roads.
"It's time to say no to Gateway emphatically, and say yes to funding public transit," Vancouver COPE councillor David Cadman said to the crowd. "We're 600 to 800 buses behind where we need to be. We could be having buses on that bridge right now, the Port Mann, and park-and-ride situations to bring people in from the valley."
Dave Fields, a campaigner with the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, sarcastically declared that the premier has captured attention with his "fine words on climate change", but he added that the only thing he has to show for them so far is the Gateway project. "What's standing in our way is a premier that is beholden to car dealers and port interests," Fields claimed.
Michael Sather, the NDP MLA for Maple Ridge–Pitt Meadows, claimed that the Gateway program is really about "greed" and advancing the global corporate agenda, which puts profits before people. He also claimed that the recently negotiated treaty with the Tsawwassen First Nation was "a corporate deal that was rammed down their throat, which takes 355 acres of the best farmland out of production for a parking lot for containers".
"The Agricultural Land Reserve is the single best tool we have to prevent urban sprawl in our area," Sather said. "If we don't prevent urban sprawl, how the hell are we ever going to deal with global warming in our area?"
Another speaker, Richmond councillor Harold Steves, was introduced as "the father of the Agricultural Land Reserve" because he was instrumental in making this NDP policy in the 1960s. "It is an impossible dream when the premier tells us he's going to cut greenhouse gases by one-third by 2020 when he's going to put three times as many trucks on the roads of British Columbia," Steves declared. "It is an impossible dream when he says he is going to cap the pollution from industry to zero emissions when we are shipping coal out of the Roberts Bank superport in increasing large amounts to factories in Asia that are polluting the air with particulates and soot. It is an impossible dream when he supports Gateway, which is going to destroy 1,000 acres of agricultural land in the Delta area, when his own government, his own department of agriculture, tells him that by 2025 we must add 200,000 acres of irrigated land in the Fraser Valley if we are able to feed ourselves. It's an impossible dream, my friends, and if we don't stop Gateway, it's going to be an impossible nightmare."
Previously, B.C. transportation minister Kevin Falcon had dismissed Gateway critics in a hallway interview with the Straight at the UBCM convention. He said the Gateway project and the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge will include a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of transit and cycling improvements, which he described as "unprecedented". He also claimed that the system will be designed so that people can board rapid buses and get across the bridge in a way that is almost as good as having rapid transit.
"I think when people see the details unveiled in the next couple of weeks, they're going to understand exactly why we're doing this project," Falcon said.
According to the province's own analysis, the Gateway program will increase traffic-related greenhouse-gas emissions in this region by 2.6 percent. The City of Burnaby recently issued a report stating that this provincial review did not take into consideration "induced traffic", resulting from increased development in the suburbs, which will result in higher emissions. The Burnaby report also notes that the provincial greenhouse-gas analysis was based on the concept of an eight-lane Port Mann crossing, whereas 10 or 11 lanes might be allowed.
Ian Bruce, a climate-change specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that road transportation is responsible for about 25 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in B.C. He described the premier's road-building proposal as "obsolete" and claimed it will lead to more congestion and more cars on the roads. "And it's because of people driving more and more cars on the roads that greenhouse-gas emissions will rise," Bruce said. "It locks us into rising emissions, so it's certainly something the premier needs to look at. There are certainly more affordable and proven transportation solutions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions."
Bruce pointed out that a contradiction exists between the premier's stated goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 33 percent and a provincially appointed TransLink review panel's assumption that TransLink fuel-tax revenues will increase by one percent per year. "All of their recommendations for transit funding”¦are not based on trying to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by a third from today's levels," he said.
Inside the Westin Bayshore, Suzuki made no mention of the Gateway program, telling the well-heeled crowd that politicians are beginning to take climate change very seriously. "Some, like our premier, are making commitments to begin to reduce in a serious way our greenhouse-gas emissions," Suzuki stated.
(On October 1, Suzuki told the Straight in a phone interview that he was scheduled to meet Campbell in the following week, which is why he didn't mention the Gateway program. "I thought, 'Well, shit, if I get up and slang him now, the chances are that he will pull out of that,'" Suzuki said. "I feel that it's really important for me to see him face to face. I will raise it again, of course. That was the reason I didn't say anything.")
After Suzuki delivered a rousing call to action on climate change, Campbell strolled onto the stage to introduce Gore, the keynote speaker. The premier jokingly claimed he had "an awful lot" in common with Gore: both were born in 1948; both lost elections in which they won the most votes; and both have been accused of lacking charisma. Then, adopting a more earnest tone, Campbell praised Gore for the lessons that he can teach and for the inspiration he provides.
Gore walked onto the stage to wild applause, and after some quick praise for Campbell, he delivered the slide show on global warming made so famous in the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth. When the lights came back on, Campbell was standing at stage right, giving Gore a standing ovation. Then the premier asked Gore a few questions, including one about emissions caps and carbon-trading programs, which he had announced the previous day at the UBCM convention.
Gore replied positively, but only after dismissing the so-called intensity-reduction approach favoured by Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a "scam" that was probably invented in George Bush's hometown of Crawford, Texas. This involves reducing the greenhouse-gas emissions per unit of goods in the production process; both Gore and Suzuki noted that this won't achieve overall reductions in greenhouse gases if the economy keeps growing.
Campbell's staff haven't granted the Georgia Straight an interview with the premier since before the 2001 election, so it's hard to determine his motivations. But it's likely that Michael Campbell, a Vancouver Sun columnist and former municipal campaign manager for his brother, harbours serious reservations about some of the policies his brother is now espousing.
For example, just last May in one of his predictable newspaper rants about global warming, Michael Campbell dismissed the carbon-credit market, which his brother is now promoting, as "only the latest manifestation of incompetence meeting ideology on a moral crusade when it comes to climate change policy". In the same column, Michael Campbell claimed that the purchase of carbon credits "is the favourite cover for the super-indulgent lifestyles of Hollywood darlings like Al Gore and George Clooney”¦who can't seem to curb their taste for international jet-setting".
In recent years, Michael Campbell has ridiculed Gore and Suzuki several times in his Vancouver Sun columns. Last April, in an Earth Day column, he commented that Gore "has had 15 years to follow his own advice, yet he hasn't managed to reduce his energy footprint". A year earlier, Michael Campbell wrote: "I have no idea whether I should file my concerns over global warming beside my Y2K survival kit, my SARS epidemic face mask, and my avian flu pamphlet. But I do know that there is no scientific consensus as to humanity's impact on climate change."
The premier, on the other hand, categorically declared at the UBCM convention that climate change is "a monumental challenge, largely imposed of our own making". He spoke about creating a better world for our children and grandchildren. (Campbell has often invoked "the children" in his political speeches over the years, notwithstanding his own government's dismal record on child poverty, which was worse in British Columbia than in any other province in 2003 and 2004, according to the Canadian Council on Social Development.)
B.C. emits 15.9 tonnes of carbon per person, Campbell said, compared with just 7.7 tonnes per capita in Sweden. "There is lots of room for us to improve, and I know we can do it," he said.
Some of Campbell's climate-change policies could yield benefits to some of his traditional supporters in the real-estate development and independent-power industries. He told the UBCM delegates that the B.C. government will make greenhouse-gas-reduction strategies and targets a legal requirement in regional growth strategies and in municipalities' official community plans. Municipalities will also have more latitude to forgive development-cost charges.
"The way to reduce costs is to reward green developments with faster approvals and strategies that allow for purchasers of those homes and buildings to avoid costs for municipal services that they just won't use," he said. "Let's encourage people to have their own sewage treatment. Let's make sure that we're helping them conserve water and energy."
Gateway opponents say the premier is really practising blacktop politics.
Campbell said that every time greenhouse gases are created in connection with B.C. government officials travelling, there will be a $25-per-tonne contribution to a new B.C. Carbon Trust. Citizens and organizations will also be allowed to pay to offset their carbon emissions to the trust, which will invest in projects in B.C. that reduce greenhouse gases. He said that there will be a legal requirement that the province and Crown agencies become carbon-neutral by 2010, and he encouraged municipalities to do so by 2012. Campbell also announced $100 million over 10 years to improve flood protection, and $50 million for new buses for BC Transit's fleet.
He also promised that "smart meters" will be installed in every home and business by 2012 so that people can track how they're using electricity at various times during the day. Commercial and residential ratepayers will also be allowed to sell power back into the grid. "It will also allow for green-power pricing that will reward consumers for reducing and shifting power consumption to off-peak periods," Campbell said. "This new level of personal control and choice will provide opportunities for substantial personal savings. It will be a major financial undertaking, but it will provide huge benefits."
B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, a former BC Hydro director, scoffed at Campbell's proposal in an interview with the Straight after the speech. Sinclair claimed that Campbell is really planning to end so-called postage-stamp electricity rates, in which every residential customer across the province pays the same price. Instead, Sinclair predicted that prices will increase during peak periods and fall in off-peak times. He said that BC Hydro will be able to use the new meters to charge variable electricity rates, depending on the time of day.
"If you're poor, you're going to be looking at that [meter] and saying, 'Geez, I guess I'll have to stay up to do my laundry for my kids at 10 at night because I can afford to turn it on then,'" Sinclair predicted. "The next morning, I'll drag my ass to work because–guess what?–the postage stamp is gone."
Environmentalist Matt Price, one of the harshest critics of the B.C. Liberal government from 2001 to 2005, told the Straight after the UBCM speech that he believes the premier has undergone a transformation on global warming. "I think Gordon Campbell has had an epiphany–on greenhouse gases, at least," Price said. "Has his caucus? I don't know."
Others are more skeptical. NDP environment critic Shane Simpson told the Straight that the premier's climate-change secretariat has been shrouded in secrecy. He said he wrote to the group in August asking for a briefing and hasn't received a response.
He contrasted that with NDP leader Carole James's proposal last year to create a legislative committee on climate change that would meet the public, hear submissions from experts, and file a report.
"The premier rejected an open legislative committee," Simpson said. "He rejected involving the Opposition. He has rejected involving anybody who won't play in his sandbox."
In an Interview at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver several hours after the UBCM speech, Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies expressed some of her reservations about Campbell. She told the Straight that she has known Campbell since they served together on Vancouver city council in 1984, emphasizing that he "very much controls his own agenda".
"I've always been incredibly suspicious about what he's up to," Davies said. "And so his newfound love for the environment–now we have Al Gore coming tomorrow and so on–I think people have got to recognize that what he says and what he does are diametrically opposed. On the one hand, he tells us that he is embracing climate change in our province, but on the other hand, he is proceeding with this massive Gateway program. On the one hand, he says he is willing to set targets. On the other hand, he gutted the Ministry of Environment. So, you know, the record does count for something. And I think people need to look at his record."
But can the B.C. Liberals, who are so reliant on corporate donations, achieve their goals in the absence of campaign-finance reform? The federal government and the provinces of Manitoba and Quebec have sharply curtailed political contributions from corporations and unions. The B.C. New Democrats introduced a private member's bill to deliver similar reforms in B.C., but that was squashed by the B.C. Liberal majority.
Vancouver-Fairview NDP MLA Gregor Robertson told the Straight after the UBCM speech that there is a "very cozy relationship between the B.C. Liberals and the new-car dealers". The New Car Dealers Association of British Columbia was the largest single contributor to the B.C. Liberals in the four-and-a-half months leading up to the 2005 election, donating $150,299.
"You don't have to dig very deep to see a rationale for expanding car travel and a lot more blacktop," Robertson said. "It works for both parties."
Ned Jacobs, a Vancouver environmental and housing activist, told the Straight last month that he thinks the B.C. Liberals have an agenda to "suppress" public transit to please the car dealers. For proof, he pointed to the cost of the Canada Line, which will drain TransLink's ability to supply new buses.
Price, a B.C. project director with Environmental Defence, has advocated in the past for campaign-finance reform. He noted that the biggest campaign contributor to the B.C. Liberal party over the years has been Teck Cominco Ltd., which is one of Canada's biggest coal producers.
Occasionally, right-wing politicians make some astonishing policy reversals near the end of their careers when they begin worrying about their legacy. And these political somersaults have sometimes riled their traditional supporters. A year before leaving office, U.S. president Ronald Reagan signed a deal with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to reduce intercontinental ballistic missiles. Near the end of his life, Israel's former prime minister Ariel Sharon removed Jewish settlements in Gaza. And, of course, one of the harshest opponents of Communism in the 20th century, Richard Nixon, went to China to clink teacups with an aging Chairman Mao.
Could Campbell be travelling down a similar road as he approaches his 60th birthday? Or is the premier just another right-wing political huckster who talks a good game on climate change as a cover for radically increasing road capacity in the region, paving over farmland, and ramping up coal exports?
Perhaps the answer will be found in future B.C. Liberal party financial reports submitted to Elections BC. If the car dealers, coal barons, and forest-company CEOs sharply curtail their contributions in 2008, it will be a sign that Campbell has gotten their attention.