Climate change shouldn’t be a left-wing versus right-wing political issue. I might take some flak for saying this, but “progressives” who claim only they have the correct ideas to fix the world are guilty of terrible hubris. And for “conservatives” to align themselves uncritically with global oil corporations betrays either intellectual laziness or cowardice.
All of us have a moral obligation to leave things better off for our kids. We might have different priorities or policy ideas, but at the end of the day we have to share this country – and parliament. And whether you believe in climate change or not, its social and economic impacts will eventually affect all of our lives.
The choice we face is whether to hunker down into polarized political camps, or reach out and find ways to work together.
This month I attended the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa for the third year in a row. It’s the country’s preeminent annual gathering of conservative activists, academics, campaign experts and candidates – and I look forward to it every spring.
People ask me “but you oppose oil tanker projects. What are you doing at a conservative conference?”
The fact is, Dogwood Initiative has supporters from across the political spectrum. My job is to represent your views in conversations with all the federal and provincial parties, with industry and government, First Nations and NGOs. Hanging out at the Manning Conference this year was a good reminder that Dogwood has friends, allies (and grudging admirers!) all over the map.
Why do conservatives in British Columbia support Dogwood? For one thing, they believe the integrity of our democracy is more important than the profits of Chinese state-owned oil companies – or a bunch of ex-Enron executives in Houston. The same conservatives believe the rights of local people should trump the reelection plans of politicians in Ottawa. And many believe that if we can’t find a way to use our oil safely and fairly, we should leave it in the ground for another day.
There’s nothing conservative about blanketing the sea floor in bitumen because we couldn’t figure out how else to balance a budget. And there’s nothing conservative about building bigger and bigger fossil fuel infrastructure when common sense tells us we need to head in a new direction.
Don’t take my word for it. Look up Bob Inglis, a former six-term Republican congressman from the “reddest corner of the reddest state in America”: South Carolina. Lauded by pro-life groups and the National Rifle Association, Inglis is very conservative. But in 2010 the Tea Party (backed by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch) helped a rookie Republican challenger defeat congressman Inglis in a primary.
Why? According to Inglis, it’s because he started raising the alarm about climate change.
Inglis spoke on a panel at the Manning conference called “Market-based Environmental Conservation”. His argument, delivered in a folksy drawl, was this: as mega-storms, drought and sea level rise kick in, fearful citizens will demand a response. Conservatives can either get ahead of the emissions curve now, or watch their nightmare come to life: big government running everyone’s lives.
Tax polluters now, Inglis says, and you create incentives for companies to emit less carbon. Keep pretending climate change is fiction, and the only option left when things get really bad will be top-down management by the state – the socialist response.
In reality we need a combination of both. We need government policy makers and private-sector innovators pulling in the same direction. Right now we have political gridlock – and emissions keep rising. Getting past that is going to require a bit of Naomi Klein, a bit of Bob Inglis.
It’s a myth that conservatives don’t care about the environment. Our province is full of good-hearted gun owners in big pickup trucks who spend a lot more time outdoors than the typical Gastown activist. These hunters and anglers, farmers and ranchers know that humans have a duty to steward the land. They agree with Preston Manning that “conservatism and conservation come from the same root.”
One of Manning’s friends, former Conservative cabinet minister Monte Solberg, explained this worldview to conference-goers in terms I found quite moving:
“That’s the milieu I grew up in: Conservatism and conservation. Conservatism was about human flourishing, families and faith, markets and individual freedom,” said Solberg, who grew up in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“But it was also about stewardship of the land, respect for nature, and an acknowledgement that our surroundings and the kind of communities we grow up in matters, because our communities shape us. That’s a conservatism that is integrated and whole, and it’s still the conservatism I believe in.”
Solberg advocates conservation projects as a bridge between political solitudes. You know, like sloshing around in waders planting marsh grass or counting birds. Whether you think climate change is “hokum,” as Solberg puts it – or the biggest problem ever to face humanity – we need to roll up our sleeves and get used to working together.
“Restoring wetlands, forests and prairie does much more than just create habitat for animals, or clean the air, land and water, or mitigate flooding, or provide water for livestock, or give us new places to camp, hunt and fish,” says Solberg. “Wetlands, prairie and trees naturally sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide.”
Is that enough to fix the whole world? Perhaps not. But conservation is something people can get behind no matter where they sit on the political spectrum. And going for a hike sure beats shouting at each other from different ideological silos. I think Solberg is offering a worthwhile idea that could make it easier to tackle more difficult tasks later on, like drafting collaborative legislation.
So, progressive comrades, I’m tired of hearing that “Stephen Harper is destroying Canada”. It may feel satisfying to say around the dinner table or brave to post on Facebook, but it just makes Conservative organizers chuckle. If your goal is to elect somebody else, you’re going to have to convince people who voted for a Conservative MP in 2011 that their representative has done a poor job on their behalf and no longer deserves their support. That conversation has to start with mutual trust and respect.
Conservative friends, if you think letting global energy companies write their own rules is responsible governance – well, you’re just being taken advantage of. Alberta tried that and look where they ended up: public finances a mess, nothing in the Heritage Trust Fund, treaties broken, water polluted and reputational damage worldwide (ironically now restricting market access in the U.S. and Europe).
If we’re going to ride out the next few decades without major disruption to our lives due to climate change, burnable fuels will need to be conserved. Each province will need a plan for how to ration out that fossil energy long enough to power the transition to cleaner sources of power. And we’ll need a strategy to integrate those policies at the national and continental level.
Waiting around for the perfect solution is not an option. We have to find whatever common ground will be supported by a democratic majority of citizens at the local level and start from there. Don’t worry, saying the words “climate change” doesn’t make you a pinko: look at Bob Inglis. And taking inspiration from Monte Solberg doesn’t make you a progressive traitor.
At the end of the day, energy use is not a left-right issue. You can still read Ayn Rand by the light of a photovoltaic cell – just as people enjoyed Das Kapital next to their coal-oil lamps.