On the carbon tax, Justin Trudeau’s job is indeed to be popular

Photo by: Dave Cournoyer via Flickr (License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)

“My job is not to be popular.” When the Prime Minister uttered those words amid a passionate, seven-minute defence of the carbon price this week, he must have known he had just written his own headline.

In many respects, it was a compelling speech. Far from looking tired after eight years of leadership, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sounded impassioned, authentic, ready for battle. He really believes what he’s saying, and he happens to be right. Canada’s price on pollution is an effective, elegantly designed climate policy that maximizes emissions reductions while minimizing potential downsides.

Well, all except the biggest downside of all. The carbon price – or carbon tax, depending on where you sit in Parliament – was always going to be challenging to communicate and was always going to have political enemies. The Conservative Party of Canada has fought (and to date, lost) three consecutive elections making it a wedge issue, while a number of premiers continue to use it for political gain.

But much of that was before an affordability crisis reshaped Canada’s – and the world’s – political landscape. Once again, the problem is not with the policy itself. Studies show the carbon price has increased food prices by a negligible 0.3 per cent, while economists still widely consider it the most cost-effective way to reduce climate pollution.

The cost of climate change, on the other hand, will be catastrophic, as Canadians are already experiencing firsthand. Last year was the hottest ever recorded in Canada, with climate-related disasters responsible for $3.1-billion in insured losses alone.

But the carbon price sure makes for an easy scapegoat. Mr. Trudeau’s aforementioned speech was seven minutes long. He’s up against three words: Axe the tax.

Political insiders are worried. Even supporters of the carbon price are looking at recent polls with cold feet. Can this key climate policy truly survive? No one is questioning its quality, but everyone is debating its politics and durability.

And the simple fact is that communicating a carbon price is genuinely hard. It’s complex. The idea of a price signal that gradually guides people toward cleaner choices is not an intuitive concept. Introduce the rebate, and while people like the idea of getting money back, confusion rises further.

To its credit, the government finally renamed the “climate action incentive payment,” which is now the “Canada carbon rebate.” (“Carbon price rebate” probably would have been even better.) But this doesn’t solve carbon pricing’s deeper confusion problem.

In February, Clean Energy Canada and research firm Stratcom asked British Columbians whether they agreed with the statement, “Given that we pay carbon tax, then get the tax rebate, I don’t understand why we even have it.” More than half (54 per cent) agreed it was confusing to them, while just 15 per cent felt it made sense.

But this isn’t new intel. We’ve known for years that the policy has a communications weak spot, and this is where the Liberals truly failed to act.

“My job is not to be popular,” the Prime Minister said this week, but of course it is. This federal government has developed some of the most thoughtful climate measures in the world, but many of them may be history before they’re finally given their due credit.

The fact is, the Liberals had most of their time in office to undertake a public education campaign around carbon pricing. Instead, the opposition did it for them.

In Mr. Trudeau’s seven-minute speech, a common theme emerged: This is the right thing to do. There is research to back this simple appeal to values. It’s the reason most people give for supporting climate action, after all.

And yet, now more than ever, Canadians must also hear that climate action cuts energy bills and creates jobs (which it does do), not because they will say that’s why they support climate action in a poll, but because those issues need to be addressed for them first and foremost. Especially affordability.

Carbon pricing is right not just because it’s the moral thing, but because it’s the smart, serious thing. That needs to be the message, and it needs to tie into a bigger vision for the Liberals heading into 2025.

In other words, they need to go deeper, driving greater public understanding, and they need to go wider, creating a coherent vision that bridges climate action, affordability and the economy.

Put another way, they need to make it their job to be popular.

This post was co-authored by Mark Zacharias and originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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