Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The NDP has itself to blame for losing the high ground on climate change

About 14 months ago I attended a meeting of the local Climate Change Action Group in Williams Lake, convened by the MLA for Cariboo-North, NDP Forest Critic Bob Simpson. A sense of urgency had been emparted by the growing mountain of scientific evidence and consensus concerning the nature and magnitude of the problem: reports of polar ice caps melting three times as fast as earlier believed, the irreversible pine beetle epidemic, and the fact that the Campbell Liberals, who had abolished the Ministry of the Environment for a term, who had an overly cozy relationship with the open-net aquaculture industry, were a planning a series of coal-fired electricity plants to meet the province's growing energy needs. Like many people, I was prompted by the urgency of the situation to sign petitions and write letters of protest, like the one posted on this blog .

But it wasn't only Gordon Campbell who seemed unresponsive to the obvious. I seem to recall Mr. Simpson ruefully wondering whether he should continue on in politics, and adverting to certain NDP political operatives who lied awake at night worrying about what he (and perhaps others in the NDP caucus) might say about the need to take action on climate change that would scare off voters.

The rest, as they say, is history. Once enough people had seen An Inconvenient Truth and enough alarming stories about the symptoms of climate change had aired on the news, a tipping point in public opinion had been reached. Gordon Campbell woke up one morning, read the polls, and in a display of Mulroneyesque responsiveness (not necessarily a derogatory label these days)had one of his epiphanies. He bought a Prius, cancelled the coal-fiored generating plants, and set out to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Canada.

Of course, if an NDP Government had suddenly announced ambitious Greenhouse Gas targets, with little consultation and without any serious costing or thought-out plan of implementation, the media would be reflecting a sense of alarm and unease in the business community and the Vancouver Establishment. Life is unfair. But was that a good reason for the NDP, who had far deeper roots than the Liberals in the environmental movement, and who had undoubtedly had done far more thinking and feeling on this issue, to be caught flat-footed?

The answer is NO. Even when I put my cynical political operative's hat on, I am reminded of one of the disastrous legacies of the Clark Government, the alienation of progressive voters to the Green Party. Since the scientific case on Global Warming had been absolutely overwhelming since at least the late 1990s, and evidence of it was all around us, and the very raison d'etre of the NDP was the need to take collective action to deal with collective problems, this was a Golden Opportunity to put the coalition of labour and greens that had existed under the Harcourt government back together again, to bring environmental voters back into the fold.

It is called leadership. In the backdrop for these events that is the U.S. Presidential election, a perfect test of leadership appeared with respect to two defining issues of the early 21st Century: the so-called War on Terror and Global Warming. Plenty of analysis and information existed in 2002 and early 2003 and was freely available in such places as Foreign Affairs and The New Statesman and the New York Times indicating that even if Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction" invasion and regime change was unnecessary, potentially destabilizing for the region, and simply not a good risk if the object was to fight Muslim extremists. But the prevailing political climate was one of deference to President Bush, who was sailing high in the polls. So who would stick their necks out and vote or speak against the war? Not Hillary Clinton, not John Kerry, and not John Edwards. Clinton and Edwards may have the most detailed and carefully weighed policies, but they failed that crucial test of their political courage.

The same with climate change. One sees Al Gore staking his reputation on his ability to point out the obvious but inconvenient truth about climate change, knowing full well that it could complicate any future Presidential bid to take on the oil companies---and the average consumer of gasoline.

It is fitting that Al Gore should receive the Nobel Prize and that Barack Obama should become the odds-on favourite to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. When the morally obvious is politically inconvenient, political risk-takers are needed, and they deserve to be rewarded for their risk. That is something Canadians instinctively understood when they voted Tommy Douglas the Greatest Canadian. It is also apparently something that the BC NDP forgot when it came to climate change.


David Schreck said...

The comment on your blog covers a lot of ground, but I can agree that Campbell has seized the ball and is running with it. Of course, he hasn’t done anything other than strike committees and promote targets. We’ll have to see whether a debate breaks out later this year on the cap & trade system that will be announced in July.

Mark Crawford said...

David: You are right, as usual--it is always possible that Campbell under pressure from business could wimp out on carbon taxes and/or cap and trade, allowing the NDP to regain the initiative.

I wanted to make the larger point about what was reasonable to expect from progressive leadership under the circumstances that obtained before global warming topped the polls in 2007. Some people in the NDP were clearly as guilty as Campbell was of following, rather than leading, public opinion.