Will Stephen Harper follow Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lead and transform himself from a Terminator whose actions threaten the world’s future to one that works to save it? As Schwarzenegger’s roles have progressed from T1 to T2 to Governor of California, we’ve seen him change from a mechanized assassin to humanities protector, and now, to one of the few political leaders to take actions which address the single largest threat to the future of our planet, global warming.

Could we be seeing a similar transformation in Stephen Harper? Are the Tories really getting serious about the environment or just getting serious about spinning their policies green? Should we believe the conservative pledge to do “a lot more” about the environment?

No doubt Harper’s Tories are paying attention to the polls that show the environment tops the list of Canadian’s concerns. Whether they are willing to change more than just their rhetoric could make the difference between whether Harper can say, “I’ll be back” at the next election or whether we’ll all be bidding his minority government “Hasta la vista, baby!”

While we haven’t seen pictures of Mr. Harper in a gas guzzling Hummer his image as an uncompromising, single minded, gun-friendly, man of action unconcerned about the personal consequences is not too far from Arnie’s macho film roles. Politically too, as fiscal conservatives, the two seem cut from the same cloth (although Harper won’t be fitting into Schwarzenegger’s clothes any time soon.)

But Mr. Schwarzenegger’s success at mixing fiscal conservatism with progressive social policies and strong environmental laws is presenting as much of a challenge to the political right as the Republican Senate sex scandals. Surprise, (some) conservatives care about the future of the planet and the welfare and freedoms of their fellow citizens too.

Arnie’s recent re-election in California highlights some important lessons Mr. Harper should consider:

  • that strong laws pushing renewable energy and conservation appeal to voters concerned about the economy;
  • that mandatory caps on carbon emissions is the centrist position that can win elections;
  • that a fiscal conservative doesn’t have to held hostage by old economy industries like oil & gas and automobiles.

Arnie’s image transformation is remarkable. Back in 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger burst on the scene as a muscle bound, gun toting terminator bent on destroying the future of the world. In 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Arnie reversed tacks and became humanities last best hope for survival in fighting evil forces trying to destroy the future. Now, under his leadership as Governor, California has put every other North American jurisdiction to shame with its tough automobile emission standards and mandatory carbon targets.

Mr. Harper’s policies indicate the reverse approach. While no one would accuse Stephen Harper of being either muscle bound or monosyllabic, he certainly is vying to replace Arnie’s first Terminator incarnation. In Harpers first year of office he terminated virtually all programs to address climate change.

As evidence of the seriousness of climate change became clearer. Mr. Harper’s government moved backwards by:

  • Kyoto Commitments- TERMINATED (in all but name); Harper recently admitted that under his leadership Canada is set to miss its Kyoto targets by 50 percent in 2012.
  • Emission Targets – TERMINATED; targets pushed back to 2050, it will all be over by then.
  • Energuide – TERMINATED; Harper has cut most of the programs aimed at reducing individual citizen’s carbon emissions such as Energuide and the One Ton Challenge.
  • Subsidies – DEFENDED; while Mr. Dion has questioned tax breaks to the Tar Sands Harper has risen to their defense.

In the last weeks the Conservatives have resurrected some climate change programs and thrown some new money at them. There will be money for clean energy research and generation as well as a program to help offset the cost of retrofitting homes, a replacement for Energuide. It would seem that Harper would like to try on Arnies suite after all.

Unfortunately it still doesn’t fit. Missing are any hard targets on greenhouse gas emissions and any regulatory and enforcement regimes for industry. There are no plans to curb the runaway development of the tarsands, Canada’s largest producer of new greenhouse gasses.

Arnie, a Republican, has shown his courage by distancing himself from George Bush and his climate change denying sycophants, and taking on the oil and automotive industries with tough emissions laws. Despite Canada’s ratification of the Kyoto treaty, Stephen Harper’s non-policies are closer to Mr. Bush’s, and Alberta’s oil and gas industry and Ontario’s automotive companies seem to be writing government policy.

Perhaps their inaction is no surprise as both leaders’ political bases are the “Have More’s” in oil obsessed western jurisdictions-oil addicted Alberta for Mr. Harper, and oil dependant Texas for Mr. Bush. The fact that the strongest backers of both politicians are big oil-and the officers and directors of oil and gas companies that are receiving massive subsidies while they set record profits-perhaps has more to do with their non-action policies then their ideology.

Reversing course on global warming and moving away from established industries (and donors) requires political courage. Arnie has it, as did his icon characters. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Harper does?

With an unexpectantly populist Stephane Dion championing climate change as “the biggest threat to the Canada’s Future,” Mr. Harper better watch out. If the movies are an accurate harbinger he should remember it was the second Terminator that saved the world and scored biggest at the box office. Canadians are likely to support someone with similar inclination at the ballot box.