PHOTOS: Hurricane Harvey batters Corpus Christie, Texas. (Photo: ABC News.) Below: Guest post author Barret Weber, Conservative leadership contenders Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives researchers Shannon Daub and Seth Klein.
Guest Post by Barret Weber
One truly surprising aspect of the United Conservative Party leadership race to date has been the lack of sustained reference to the realities faced by Alberta’s citizens.
When it comes to the economy, UCP leadership candidates act as if Alberta is still mired in the economic hardship experienced in the province circa 2015.
Just how closely Alberta’s economic fortunes are linked to the international price of oil is well understood and clearly documented. Indeed, it became the policy of the Alberta government during the years Ralph Klein was premier, and was replicated on the federal front by former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Government.
But while recent oil prices have remained considerably lower than the $108 US per barrel West Texas Intermediate, or WTI, reached in June 2014, they are nevertheless well above their low of $29 in January 2016. Today’s oil prices are in the $40-50/bbl range, and the WTI price has only exceeded $50/bbl once since May, so this appears to be the “new normal.”
While oil prices had stabilized, at least until the recent hurricanes, UCP leadership candidates continue to recycle well-worn talking points – some of them dating to the 1990s – that contain little truth.
It’s obviously not very helpful for Conservative politicians to keep insisting the sky is falling, when it obviously isn’t. Still, such claims may do some good by helping to manage expectations about what’s normal in a province (ideologically) addicted to bumper-sticker prayers for the next oil boom.
But damage can result when conservatives imply only they can bring on a new commodities boom without specifying the policy mechanisms they propose to do this or consider whether such a thing is even desirable.
Putting a price on pollution
In fairness, all UCP leadership candidates seem to have made one key promise in this regard: to “repeal” the “job killing carbon tax.”
This is, of course, yet another remnant of the dismal Harper years in Ottawa: the propensity “to lie and stick to the lie.”
UCP leadership frontrunner Jason Kenney was a former Harper Government cabinet minister. His chief competitor for the job, Brian Jean, was once a Harper Government backbencher. Both have adopted the claim carbon taxes damage to the economy and kill jobs, and that they do little to reduce emissions. They slip in the dubious argument that eliminating taxes on pollution will bring back the economic booms of yesteryear.
On the climate file, there is no upside to careless talk that celebrates an economic approach characterized by sustained and willful ignorance in the face of climate change that threatens every aspect of our current lives and futures.
This is especially so when the Alberta economy is showing real signs of recovery, but the climate crisis is far worse than conservatives want to let on.
What implied action is there from the main UCP leadership candidates?
While Jason Kenney didn’t take the risk of releasing a formal campaign platform, his capacity for misleading anti-carbon-tax polemics seems endless.
Examined in detail, he appears to have no policy beyond promising that if he’s elected premier he’ll “repeal” the provincial carbon levy and perhaps take the federal government to court for backstopping the provincial carbon-pricing system.
Note that soon-to-depart Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall proposed the same response to the policies of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, but, as University of Ottawa professors Nathalie Chalifour and Stewart Elgie recently wrote: “In the end, Mr. Wall’s threat to challenge the federal carbon-pricing backstop may be nothing more than political hot air.”
Mr. Jean released a platform document, but it didn’t say a word about what Alberta would do under his leadership to help mitigate the climate crisis.
Mr. Jean does talk about promoting “energy literacy” in the education curriculum, but, as journalist Markham Hislop wrote, “a modern Alberta education curriculum can’t cheerlead for oil and gas but ignore the most significant global trend affecting the energy industry.”
Mr. Hislop pointed to the widespread distrust and lack of support for Canada’s hydrocarbon industry. “If Brian Jean and the UCP want to support the Alberta oil and gas industry, they need to come up with policies that sound like they weren’t written by Ernest Manning and the Social Credit Party.”
UCP candidates are not only letting their own base down by promising things they can never deliver, they are failing all Albertans and Canadians down by mocking sensible policies like pricing pollution that, while no panacea, can play a role in responding to the realities climate change represents for our environment, lives and economies.
The time for action is now
While politicians surely have a role to play in the public policy dilemmas we face, we all are responsible for resisting a turn to regressive, populist temptations.
This truth was has been driven home in recent days by disastrous hurricanes in the Caribbean and on the U.S. Gulf Coast, and the huge fires this summer in California and British Columbia.
Not only is it impossible or expensive to prevent such events, the costs of cleanup can be massive – and a good use for carbon tax revenues.
Individual events can’t be pinned directly on climate change, of course, but we know it plays a significant role in the string of “once in a century” events now happening with increasingly regularity, like the floods in southern Alberta in 2013 and those in Texas last week.
Instead of standing by while conservative politicians act out, we need to ask what kind of society allows politicians to grandstand in ways so radically separated from the realities and challenges we all face.
If there was ever a time to think about alternatives to the status quo, it is now. Instead, Alberta’s would-be UCP leaders are relying on recycled and nostalgic mantras.
As Seth Klein and Shannon Daub of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives argued last year, perhaps “it’s time for an intervention!”
Sometimes, real friends just have to tell the truth. We can acknowledge the steps our political leaders have taken towards becoming climate leaders – but we also need to keep pushing them to meaningful action.
Conservatives have had their fun with climate change denialism, but putting off dealing with the crisis is a luxury Albertans can no longer afford.
Barret Weber is an Edmonton researcher with a doctorate in sociology from the University of Alberta.