This is a guest post by Dr. David R. Boyd, an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University and author of The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights, and the Environment. Originally published at iPolitics.
Is Stephen Harper the worst prime minister that Canada has ever had, from an environmental perspective? The evidence is mounting that this is indeed the case, despite some early glimmers of hope. Given the deteriorating global environment, this failure of leadership could not have happened at a worse time.
That Canada has become an international laggard in environmental policy and practice is now an incontrovertible fact. In 2009, the Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada 15th out of 17 wealthy industrialized nations on environmental performance. In 2010, researchers at Simon Fraser University ranked Canada 24th out of 25 OECD nations on environmental performance.
Yale and Columbia ranked Canada 37th in their 2012 Environmental Performance Index, far behind green leaders such as Sweden, Norway, and Costa Rica, and trailing major industrial economies including Germany, France, Japan, and Brazil. Worse yet, our performance is deteriorating, as we rank 52nd in terms of progress over the 2000-2010 period. Even Prime Minister Harper has candidly admitted, “Canada’s environmental performance is, by most measures, the worst in the developed world. We’ve got big problems.”
For several years, the Conservatives blamed Canada’s environmental problems on the previous Liberal government, and their own lack of progress on a fractious minority parliament. Now that it has a majority, is the Conservative government attempting to solve environmental problems with stronger laws, higher standards, larger investments, and tougher enforcement?
Not one of the bills introduced in the current session is intended to improve Canada’s environmental record. Instead, environmental laws are being weakened to expedite industrial development. Standards are being relaxed to meet industry’s demands. Environment Canada’s scientific capacity is being slashed. Ecojustice recently released a devastating report on the declining enforcement of environmental laws in Canada.
The first mention of ‘environment’ in last year’s Speech from the Throne mentioned “a stable, predictable, low-tax environment.” The second reference was to an “uncertain global environment.” The third focused on cutting red tape while “maintaining the highest standards to protect our environment.” Obviously the last is a crock. Why would Canada rank among the worst in the industrialized world for environmental protection if we actually had high standards?
In 2006, Prime Minister Harper said “Poor air quality isn’t just a minor irritant to be endured. It is a serious problem that poses an increasing risk to the health and well-being of Canadians.” The Conservatives were elected in 2006 with only one environmental commitment—to enact a Clean Air Act that would impose tough new regulations on polluting industries. As of 2012, there is still no Clean Air Act, no new air quality regulations, and no progress in reducing air pollution. Harper’s broken promise leads to thousands of premature deaths annually, exacerbates the illnesses of millions, and costs billions of dollars in preventable health care expenses.
In 2007, Prime Minister Harper said “climate change is perhaps the greatest threat to the future of humanity.” Five years later, the Conservatives have continued the Liberal tradition of addressing climate change through grand pronouncements, ineffective policies, and counterproductive actions. The federal home energy retrofit program has been canceled, reinstated, and canceled again. Canada allocated a smaller proportion of the recession-induced federal stimulus to green infrastructure and renewable energy than any other nation. After years of surreptitiously undermining climate change negotiations, Canada brazenly joined the US as the only countries in the world to renounce their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, using false arguments to do so.
Canada’s renewed emphasis on accelerating exports of coal, natural gas, and tar sands oil makes a mockery of Harper’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. Aggressive posturing on both the Northern Gateway/oil supertanker scheme and the Keystone XL pipeline, hyperbolic denunciation of ‘radical’ environmental groups, and close ties with the oxymoronic ‘ethical oil’ campaign show the Prime Minister’s true colours.
In his foreword to the federal tourism strategy, Harper describes Canada as “a land of unparalleled beauty” and “a treasure trove of natural wonders.” Yet environmental groups have been forced to sue the Harper government time and time again for breaking the Species at Risk Act. In cases involving endangered caribou, killer whales, sage grouse, and other species, the Federal Court has sided with environmentalists because the government has misconstrued its legal obligations to protect endangered wildlife.
It is impossible to reconcile Prime Minister Harper’s contradictory words and actions without concluding that he deliberately misled Canadians. In 2006 and 2007, opinion polls revealed surging public concern about the state of the environment. Harper made a cold-blooded political calculation to appear green. The global financial crisis and ensuing recession have temporarily superseded the public’s environmental concerns, so Harper no longer needs to resort to such sophistry.
From coast to coast to coast, Canada’s magnificent natural heritage is in grave danger, threatened by a prime minister who pays only lip service to its preservation and restoration.
Image by Remy Steinegger