Several years into the Kyoto regime that was foisted upon Canadians as part of Jean Chretien's "legacy" initiative, we are at a very interesting point in the debate over Canada's role in the environment. Though few paid significant attention to the Liberals' stewardship on the Kyoto file until it became readily evident that we were in danger of complete and utter failure to meet our specialized target of 6 per cent below 1990 levels--Chretien, in a bid to really stick it to Uncle Sam, gave us a target that was higher than the normal requirements of Kyoto to show how responsible we are compared to the Americans--it is now being defined in some circles, notably long-time Liberal strategist John Duffy, as the "most paramount political issue of our time." Even more than fighting terrorism. Sure, let's play along with that.
Duffy's essay in the latest issue of Policy Options argues that no federal party has yet to really seize this issue and make it their own, thus creating a vast opportunity to seize upon an issue that is of growing importance to Canadians and thus capture the electoral brass ring. However true this may be, is it possible that we've come so far along that neither of the major parties has any credibility on the environment portfolio, thus rendering it impossible for either of them to truly claim it? Rather than an opportunity, is Kyoto an albatross for both the Liberals and Conservatives?
The answer seemingly leans in the affirmative. First, the Liberals.
Under David Anderson and Stephane Dion, the Liberals had two highly competent ministers to lead Canada to the environmental promised land. Neither succeeded. Rather than going down, our emissions rose 24% over the target, ranking Canada 27th among 29 OECD countries. Not exactly a great point of reference, yet inexplicably Paul Martin saw fit to chastize the United States and declare that Washington lacked a conscience on the environment. The Liberal plan, such as it was, seemingly revolved around buying emissions credits from other countries, sinking billions of dollars into other economies while Canada's skies remaining grossly polluted and carbonated in order to claim success. Thus, now that the green-scarved euphoria over Dion being elected Liberal leader has died down, the Conservatives are coming out swinging on his stewardship, likening his credibility on the environment to that of Alfonso Gagliano on accountability. Ouch.
That said, the Tories have little to gloat over. Rona Ambrose has been lambasted in just about every arena she sets foot. She can claim with credibility to have inherited a poisoned chalice, but there has yet to be an overarching environmental strategy put in place after a year of Conservative government. The abandonment of the language and rhetoric of Kyoto has been a very sore spot for many supporters of the policy; no matter how pragmatic Ambrose has been in her assessments of Canada's prospects for meeting our targets, people don't like to hear language that indicates we're simply giving up because the target may be out of reach. Kyoto has become a sacred cow in this country, right up there with weapons in space and the United Nations Security Council, and thus discarding it has been a disaster for the Conservatives. Process matters as much as results to many, and the process the Conservatives are using is not one that is garnering favour. There have been baby steps taken, but they do not meet the expectations of many green Canadians. More and more support is going to Canada's emerging Green Party, and it seems apparent that they will elect their first-ever MP in the next election.
Thus it seems that neither party will be able to claim a credible monopoly on the environment file. The Dion-led Liberals may make it an issue, but their track record works very strongly against them. The Tories may claim to be moving forward on a "made in Canada" approach, but many Canadians are wedded to Kyoto as the best approach to environmental sustainability, and will criticize the government for going it alone when a global response seems preferable. Perhaps with the passage of time the two major parties will earn some credibility on the environment, but in the short term--and given that the short-term is the primary focus of a political system that is perpetually obsessed with the next election--the issue will be an albatross that will hurt the fortunes of both.