time for an adult talk about climate change

Stephen Harper's sock puppet for the Yukon has been doing his bit in Parliament to muddy the discussion of how to tackle climate change.

Stephen Harper’s sock puppet for the Yukon has been doing his bit in Parliament to muddy the discussion of how to tackle climate change.

Given how MP Ryan Leef’s constituency is profoundly affected by a warming world, it’s disappointing to see him recite with gusto the Conservative government’s misleading talking points.

“Mr. Speaker, New Democrats are on the defensive,” Leef told Parliament on Nov. 30. “They are upset that our government is telling Canadians about their plan for a $21-billion carbon tax. I wish it were not true, but regrettably it is. We only need to flip to page four of the 2011 NDP platform. It is right there, in black and white: a proposed tax on carbon that would generate $21 billion off the backs of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.

“Literally everyone would be affected, because the tax would raise the price of everything. It will not matter if people are seniors, veterans or struggling families. Everyone will pay more if they are subjected to this NDP tax regime.

“The truth is sometimes hard to swallow, but we on this side of the House will continue to tell Canadians the painful truth about this NDP carbon tax. We on this side of the House will continue with our low-tax plan for jobs, growth and long-term prosperity.”

New Democrats have responded to such attacks with mocking references to the government’s regulation of tailpipe emissions as a “$36 billion car tax.” In a way, both parties do the public a disservice by playing into the game of treating “tax” as a dirty word.

It’s too bad, because until we’re able to have an adult talk about putting a price on carbon, it’s unlikely that Canada will put a significant dent in its emissions.

Here’s the actual truth about climate change: fighting it will cost money. The only choices involve who pays, how much, and how transparent these costs will be.

One of the strange ironies of Ottawa’s climate change debate is that we find the left-leaning Opposition preferring an approach that harnesses the power of markets, while the reputably market-loving Conservatives are backing the complicated, inefficient, statist approach of sector-by-sector, “command and control” regulation.

The best approach of all would be to adopt a carbon tax. But, contrary to what Leef says, that’s not actually what the New Democrats are proposing.

They’d like to introduce a cap-and-trade system instead. Like a carbon tax, this would put a price on pollution. It would do so by requiring big polluters to buy permits to emit greenhouses gases. These permits are then traded, so that companies that are able to efficiently cut emissions are paid to do so by other companies.

Alberta and Quebec have adopted cap-and-trade systems, and Ontario and Manitoba are on their way to joining them. The federal Conservatives proposed a cap-and-trade system as recently as 2008. That’s right: the proposal that Leef and company are so viciously attacking is, in fact, the same thing Conservatives not long ago promised to adopt.

Studies have shown that the United States’ cap-and-trade system has halved the cost of reducing emissions compared to the traditional regulatory approach, according to Stewart Elgie, a University of Ottawa professor who is chair of the Sustainable Prosperity think tank.

A carbon tax is even cheaper, if British Columbia’s experience is any indication. The province has used revenue from its carbon tax to lower income taxes. In the end, this more than made up for higher prices at the pumps, according to Elgie.

Harper, who is trained as an economist, understands that he is taking the least efficient, most wasteful approach. So why is he doing it? Because he also understands human nature.

He knows that voters will instinctually prefer the choice in which the cost is buried, as in the case with one-off regulations, rather than it being up front, as it would with a tax. And he knows that taxes, being unpopular, are a handy weapon with which to bludgeon the opposition.

It helps that Harper doesn’t actually seem to care about addressing climate change, as evident by the federal government’s past efforts to help derail global climate talks. No serious-minded person believes that Canada will meet its 2020 emissions targets as things stand.

Then there’s Leef. He’s argued in the past that a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax would be needlessly complicated. But the exact opposite is true compared to the wasteful, inefficient scheme the Conservatives are pushing.

The government’s tightening pollution targets have already cost more than the $21 billion that Harper accuses the NDP plan of costing, according to a report in September by the Canadian Press. And the government hasn’t completed regulations for big emitters in several major sectors, including oil and gas.

The costs of any of these approaches are offset by considerable benefits. As industry becomes greener, it becomes more efficient. But there’s no free lunch, no matter which route is taken. And the course preferred by the Conservatives is the priciest and least effective.

Leef has also held that carbon pricing would disproportionately harm northerners, who largely depend on fossil fuels to heat their homes and receive groceries and other goods. There’s something to that, but tax credits that target northerners could cushion the blow.

If there’s a bright side to all of this, we suppose it’s this: Harper is so adept at adopting positions he once shunned, it’s not inconceivable that he could once again embrace putting a price on carbon. But it’s hard to imagine this happening without a big public outcry.

Ideally, things would work the other way around. Leaders would, you know, lead. Instead, as the Yukon’s glaciers and permafrost melt, and the prevalence of landslides, floods and wildfires grows, our MP is more dedicated to spewing misinformation than working towards an effective solution.

It once again goes to show that, rather than being the Yukon’s man in Ottawa, Leef is Harper’s man in the Yukon. (JT)