Climate concerns wounded Conservatives in recent byelections

Photo by: Taymaz Valley via Flickr (License: CC BY 2.0)

Much has already been written about why the Conservative Party of Canada underperformed in the recent federal byelections.

As someone who’s spent the last seven years poring over public opinion research on Canadians, climate change and the clean energy transition, I have my own, perhaps unsurprising, opinion: It’s the climate, stupid.

Two tectonic shifts have altered public opinion at a foundational level over the past few years, but the Conservative Party has yet to find its footing on this new landscape.

The first shift is that climate change has evolved from its abstract roots into an issue that is material for most Canadians. Climate change is no longer a headline buried in the science section. It’s the annual wildfire smoke that never used to be annual. It’s the air purifier you never needed before.

In a recent poll from Abacus Data on behalf of Clean Energy Canada, 71% of Canadians said they have noticed an increase in natural disasters over the past decade that they directly attribute to climate change. A similar percentage drew the link with recent wildfires.

And the second big shift in public opinion? Climate action has become a perennial big issue for voters, alongside the economy, affordability and health care. In 2023, these are the big four — the issues no power-seeking politician can afford to downplay.

Also in this poll, 86% of Canadians surveyed said having a good plan to address climate change and grow Canada’s clean economy will impact their vote, with six in 10 calling it essential or very important — including 66% of Canadians aged 18 to 29.

Yet, climate action remains unlike those other capital-B big issues in one important sense: not every party treats it with the political reverence it deserves. While they may disagree over how best to grow the economy, improve affordability or fix the efficacy of our health-care system, politicians of all stripes speak to those issues and offer solutions (whether you think they’re good solutions is beside the point).

Meanwhile, Canada’s official Opposition isn’t even paying lip service to climate action, let alone doing enough to bring around the moderate Canadians it needs to court in swing ridings — Canadians who are rightly extremely skeptical of the party on this issue.

Even former leader Erin O’Toole, who actually made an effort to develop a climate plan, couldn’t shift how voters viewed the party. (It probably didn’t help that Conservative delegates at the party’s policy convention voted against the phrase “climate change is real” a few months before the 2021 election.)

Current leader Pierre Poilievre has a mountain to climb, and he hasn’t even put on his boots. Indeed, the party’s incorrigible fixation on carbon pricing is undermining its ability to redefine itself as a serious climate party in the eyes of Canadians.

Carbon pricing may lack the populist appeal of a subsidy or a tax break, but it is a strong signal to Canadians and, more importantly, the most cost-effective emissions-cutting policy tool available — without which the federal government would fall well short of its climate targets. That’s something even O’Toole learned when he decided to model his party’s proposed climate plan, which ultimately included a version of carbon pricing.

Of course, the reality of 2023 is that we’re generally past the planning stage. The climate measures designed to achieve our 2030 target are either implemented or underway.

In one sense, Poilievre doesn’t even need to be that ambitious. He could simply agree to keep the trains running on time, moving forward policies already put in place by his would-be predecessor.

That’s less than a number of climate-friendly conservatives who blazed far bolder trails: Gordon Campbell in B.C., Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Angela Merkel in Germany, Boris Johnson in the U.K.

It might sound like an about-face, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s second term is a reminder that softening one’s image isn’t political poison — but a remedy.

If only Poilievre’s party could stop for a second, look down, and take stock of a landscape that has shifted considerably since the Conservatives last formed government.

This post originally appeared in the National Observer.

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