Sunday, April 28, 2024

Conservatives and the Environment

Who called climate change "perhaps the biggest threat to confront humanity today?"  Was it David Suzuki?  Al Gore?  Pope Francis?  Greta Thunberg?  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama?  Justin Trudeau?  Joe Biden?  If you guessed any of those names, you'd be wrong.  It was Stephen Harper, former Conservative prime minister of Canada.  Harper made that statement on June 4, 2007 in a speech in Berlin, Germany, just steps from the Brandenburg Gate.  In that speech, he called for an international consensus on climate change.  He declared that "Canada will be at the forefront, as a green energy superpower."  My, how times have changed!  I wonder if Stephen Harper would be emphasizing the importance of the environment if he were prime minister today.

April 22nd was Earth Day and I couldn't help thinking how conservatives have turned their back on the environment.  They have abandoned a basic principle of conservatism.  According to the Meriam-Webster Dictionary, the word "conserve" means to keep in a safe or sound state, especially to avoid wasteful or destructive use of, as in conserve natural resources, conserve our wildlife.  

There was a time when conservatives actually did something about the environment.  Former Canadian prime  Brian Mulroney, who died recently, is known for his environmental record.  His most significant environmental achievement was the integral role he played in bringing about the Canada-U.S. acid rain treaty.  In 1991, Mulroney and U.S. President George H.W. Bush committed to curbing acid rain by reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides through a cap and trade system.

It was the Progressive Conservatives, under Brian Mulroney. who convened a global treaty to save the ozone layer in 1987, and who composed the original Environmental Act that became Canadian law in 1988.  During Mulroney's tenure, eight new national parks were created and implemented.  To his credit, Mulroney called for collaboration with the United States to deal with global warming.  He stressed the need to work in tandem with Americans to reduce emissions.

Brian Mulroney

Let's look at Canada's carbon tax history.  It begins in March 2007 in oil-rich Alberta.  Ed Stelmach, a Progressive Conservative, was premier of the province when Alberta became the first jurisdiction to legislate greenhouse gas reductions from large industrial polluters by means of a carbon levy.  Imagine the current right wing premier Alberta, Danielle Smith and her United Conservative Party supporting such a levy!   Today's Canadian conservatives, including federal Conservative leader Pierre Pollievre, are determined to "axe the tax."

In April of 2007, British Columbia teamed up with five U.S. states to form the Western Climate Initiative-a market-based group with the purpose of combatting climate change.  Ontario and Quebec joined up later.  In May of 2008, John Baird, Canada's environment minister, and a member of the Conservative Party, described carbon trading as a "key part" of the governments emission plan in holding oil and gas producers and coal-fired power plants to account.  In July of that same year, British Columbia became the first province to implement a carbon tax, with proceeds returned to tax payers.

In the United States, it was then-president Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, who proposed the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on July 9, 1970.  The EPA was launched on December 2, 1970, after Nixon signed an executive order establishing the ERA.  The EPA was approved by committee hearings in the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Nixon also signed the National Scenic Trails Act in 1968.


Conservatives have changed their position on the environment so drastically because they have shifted further to the right.  In recent years, Canadian conservatives, along with their American counterparts in the Republican Party, have come to view ecological protection as an attack on freedom and affordability.  This includes not only climate change, but protection for forests, endangered species and the banning of single-use plastic bags.  They echo the voice of Donald Trump and his supporters who consider climate change to be a hoax and they refuse to listen to the warnings of  scientists.  Sadly, during Trump's four years in the Oval Office, the United States really lost ground in the fight to preserve our earth from environmental disaster.  Big Oil will certainly be pleased if he is returned to office in November, but it will a tragedy for our planet.  

This anti-environmentalism is not only happening among conservatives in Canada and the United States.  It appears to be occurring around the world.  Brazil's former president, Jair Bolosonaro, as well and India's government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi are prime examples. Unfortunately, anti-environmentalism has become a calling card of the global right.

As scientists have pointed out, humanity doesn't have the luxury of time on its side.  While wildfires rage, floods rise, and glaciers melt, conservatives turn a blind eye.  They are living in a la la land.  They don't want to believe it is happening.

SOURCES: Government of Canada archives, "Prime Minister Stephen Harper Calls for International Consensus on Climate Change," Transcript of Speech, June 4, 2007; The Walrus, :"Why Conservatives Turned against the Environment," by Arno Kopecky, January 1-, 2024; Wikipedia

- Joanne