Nearly a fifth of Canadians say climate change is their top election issue. Are political parties taking it seriously enough?
Massive wildfires that ripped through Canada's western province of British Columbia this summer have made climate change a top issue on the minds of Canadian voters ahead of the federal election later this month [File: Andy Clark/Reuters]
John Haugen had to leave behind pieces of his history when the wildfire arrived.
They were embedded in a collection of baskets that belonged to him and to his mother, Nlaka’pamux people and members of Lytton First Nation, a community that stretches across 56 reserves near the confluence of the powerful Fraser and Thompson rivers in British Columbia.
Haugen did not have enough time to grab them before flames incinerated his home in late June.
“You’ll never see those again because the straw artisans that created them are all gone,” said Haugen, deputy chief of Lytton First Nation. “It’s like a legacy from your past that other people would put in museums – but these were part of a strong family collection and strong family knowledge.”
The mountainous area around Lytton, located less than 300 kilometres from Vancouver in Canada’s westernmost province of BC, became a symbol of the climate crisis this summer, as it smashed national heat records this summer.
Temperatures in Lytton climbed to 49.6 C on June 29 as a deadly heat dome – a weather system that traps and compresses warm air, causing temperatures to rise – extended across the western United States and Canada.
Homes and businesses were engulfed by raging wildfires and the village of Lytton, with a population of 250, was totally destroyed.
“That was incredibly sobering,” said David Miller, a former mayor of Toronto who is now managing director of international diplomacy at C40 Cities, a climate leadership group comprising 97 cities around the world.
“To see that town just disappear, it’s tragic and horrifying and what comes out right after Lytton? The latest International Panel on Climate Change report that says we’ve got to act over the next couple of years to halve emissions by 2030, or we’re not going to be able to stop this.”
Top campaign issue
That message appears to have gotten through to Canada’s political leaders, now in the throes of a federal election campaign in which climate change policy is an important part.
All the major parties have unveiled plans on how Canada can meet its obligations under the Paris Accord international treaty that aims to cap the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.
And nearly a fifth of Canadians said climate change was the most important issue that would decide their vote on September 20, according to a recent Angus Reid Institute poll.
“There’s no question that for Canadians, dealing with climate change is even more important than during the last election,” Miller told Al Jazeera. “There is an incredible urgency to act, people expect action.”
A wildfire raged through the village of Lytton, BC, and forced residents to evacuate this summer [Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters]
But as far as Ken Wu, executive director of the Vancouver-based Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, is concerned, none of the parties is saying enough.
“We know it’s possible, because of COVID, to overhaul large parts of society and of all things it needs to be done for climate change,” said Wu, who has been deeply involved in the battle to protect BC’s old-growth forests.
“That means much stronger targets so that we stay within our 1.5-degree limit, and much stronger carbon pricing, and much stronger protection for nature,” he told Al Jazeera.
With election polls suggesting a dead heat between the ruling Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and the Conservatives, headed by Erin O’Toole, the stakes for the country could not be higher.
As the fourth largest oil producer in the world, Canada’s climate is warming at twice the rate of the global average. Despite the Liberal government signing on to increasingly more aggressive greenhouse gas emission reductions, the country has seen its emissions continue to increase, giving it the worst record among G7 countries.
Environmentalists also have long called on the government to end the expansion of fossil fuel production and kill any new projects seeking federal approval. But as a country with an abundance of natural resources, and an economy built on their extraction, efforts to restrict the fossil fuel industry garner pushback, especially in communities that rely on such projects for employment and income.
Trudeau’s government also bought the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project despite staunch opposition from environmentalists and some Indigenous communities along the route, arguing that revenue generated by the pipeline is needed to fund Canada’s green transition.
“We are going to put a cap on oil sands and oil and gas emissions, and decline it until net zero,” Trudeau said in a heated exchange during a recent leadership debate, insisting the country is on track to exceed its targets.
His plan calls for greenhouse gas reductions of 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and he also plans to increase the price on carbon and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies by 2023.
The left-leaning New Democrats say the Liberals are not being aggressive enough. They, too, have promised to end fossil fuel subsidies and are promising to cut emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Green Party, way down in the polls, wants to hit 60 percent in that same time frame and has promised to cancel all new pipeline projects.
For its part, the Conservative Party is proposing a price on carbon for the first time, after years of fighting tooth and nail against it. But the party refused earlier this year to officially declare climate change real, weakening its credibility. O’Toole also has only promised to meet the original Paris targets of reducing emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, which is below what Canada has since agreed to.
For Miller, some of the solutions already exist – in Canadian cities that are making the necessary commitments to halve emissions by 2030. He pointed to Vancouver, where a world-leading building code demands net zero emissions by that year, or to the United States, where the federal fleet of vehicles is going electric.
The Liberal platform, he said, is “the best thing any [party in] government has ever said in Canada on climate, but we’re not going to get to where we need to be without being bolder”.
Esmé Decker, a 19-year-old University of British Columbia student and climate activist, is also looking for bold action.
She is working to get out the youth vote this election, believing strongly that young voters have the potential to shape environmental policy. She has seen it first hand in climate change storytelling workshops she leads at high schools around Vancouver, where students talk about what it has been like to grow up alongside climate change.
“My message to those leaders is to please just do as much as humanly possible to mitigate the climate crisis,” said Decker. “We have the money, we have the resources to put in these solutions, so it’s just about agreeing on what we’re going to do and making sure it happens.”