Carbon Tax Seals Liberal Party’s Defeat in Canada

October 15, 2008 | Jesse Jenkins,

Yesterday was election day in Canada, a fact that I hope I'll be forgiven for missing amidst the frenzy of election politics here in the States. However, this stunning headline from the UK Telegraph grabbed my attention:

"Canadian election: Carbon tax proposals sealed Liberal defeat"

That's right, the opposition Liberal party was just dealt a stunning defeat, and their Achilles heal turned out to be their proposal to enact a carbon tax on coal, natural gas, gasoline and home heating fuels.

As Grist reported in September, the Liberal party called for an election early this summer, gearing up to run on a pro-environment platform they thought would net them enough seats to form a ruling government and dethrone Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Led by the former environment minister Stephane Dion (a man who's dog is named Kyoto after the international global warming treaty) the party ran with a carbon tax proposal as their central plank.

What seemed like a sound plan this summer, when polls showed the Canadian electorate's number one issue was global warming, turned out to be doomed to failure amidst the economic insecurity of the recent months.

Liberals tried to adapt to changing economic circumstances, arguing that the carbon tax proposal would actually boost Canada's economy, but according to Grist, the public didn't buy it:

"Supporters of the carbon tax are discouraged they have been unable to sell the argument that tough action on the environment can actually create jobs and boost the economy, not bankrupt it."

Instead, Harper's Conservative Party successfully turned the October 14th election into a choice between their supposedly pro-economy policies and the pro-environment proposals of the Liberal party. Harper's party successfully exploited the Liberal Party's "Green Shift" carbon tax proposal, using it as damning evidence that the Liberals would put the environment ahead of the economy. After all, if they wanted to boost the economy, why was the Liberals' proposal draped in green, framed about global warming, and advanced by the former Minister of Environment? (or so the argument went...)

The end result: yesterday's election, in which the Liberals hoped to gain several seats in Parliament in fact led to the opposition party's stunning defeat. Prime Minister Steven Harper's reigning Conservative party ended up gaining 17 seats, and Canadian pundits are predicting that Dion will soon be ousted as Leader of the defeated Liberal Party. The election also means a carbon tax is essentially dead in Canada, at least for the foreseeable future.

Grist, the Washington Post and the Telegraph have more details on the election, but this news is perhaps the clearest indicator that economic concerns have pushed aside any strong political imperative to advance proposals explicitly framed around the climate and the environment, even in Canada. Coupled with the news that the European Union's climate action plan is faltering as well, American climate advocates must re-assess their political strategies amidst today's era of heightened economic insecurity. We face an urgent moment, with both opportunities and challenges ahead. Only by developing the right strategy can we hope to advance policies that will drive key climate solutions in the coming year.

Perhaps our best (if not only) chance is to develop a package of proposals that simultaneously spark economic recovery while driving clean energy development and deployment and increases in end-use energy efficiency. Framed primarily and explicitly around economic recovery, such a proposal could be politically popular in today's economic climate. But the Canadian and European examples provide a stark warning: advancing a proposal wrapped in green and framed around the climate will all-to-likely doom our urgently-needed climate solutions to political failure, and we simply cannot afford another year fighting for a climate bill that's actually dead on arrival.