Lawrence Solomon: Stéphane Dion’s lesson for Justin Trudeau

(October 30, 2015) The secret to success on the climate change file: Talk a good game but do nothing.

Countdown_To_ParisThis article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

To be successful and win reelection, pundits are saying, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should heed lessons from the 1990s and 2000s, which saw Jean Chretien get elected, reelected and reelected again on the strength of debt reduction and fiscal soundness. Maybe so, but Trudeau has an equally important lesson to learn from another Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion – not on how to win big but on how to avoid going down to breathtaking defeat.

Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion severely misjudged the Canadian electorate's concern about global warming. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion severely misjudged the Canadian electorate’s concern about global warming. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Dion, a champion of action on global warming as Canada’s Environment Minister and as chair of the 2005 U.N. Climate Change summit in Montreal, so believed his own rhetoric, and the press’s hype, that he made climate change a central plank in his bid to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the 2008 federal election. The result? The greatest trouncing of the federal Liberals since Confederation in 1867. Once known as Canada’s “natural governing party,” the Liberals were reduced to just 25 per cent of the seats in parliament in an election that inspired so few among the electorate that it set a record for the lowest turnout in history. Dion then resigned, setting another record – he became the shortest-lived Liberal leader in history, and only the second Liberal leader in history to not become a prime minister.

The scale of Dion’s misjudgement of the Canadian electorate’s concern for global warming was all the more surprising given the widespread opposition to global warming hype in the American electorate. Although President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were passionate promoters of the Kyoto Treaty, they utterly failed to sway the American public, as seen by the U.S. Senate’s 95-0 vote against the treaty’s ratification.

Lest Trudeau think anything has changed in the intervening decades, he might consider that no American president since Clinton –  including President Obama, even when he enjoyed a supermajority in the U.S. Senate – has dared seek to have the Kyoto Treaty ratified. Obama did try to introduce cap and trade legislation in his 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act; it has gone down in history as the only failure among Obama’s four major domestic initiatives, with opposition so intense that it never even reached the U.S. Senate for a vote (the other three were Obamacare, his stimulus package and financial reform).

‘Axe the tax’ became the rallying cry of a citizenry that didn’t buy the global warming hype

Trudeau can also learn from his counterparts elsewhere in the English-language world, who like politicians here failed to understand the difference between paying lip service to global warming and paying with taxpayer dollars. In 2012, Australia’s Julia Gillard, a newbie Labour prime minister bewitched by global warming, brought in a carbon tax of the kind many beseech Trudeau to install. That gave her conservative opposition the opening it needed. In the election that soon followed, “axe the tax” became the rallying cry of a citizenry that didn’t buy the global warming hype, but did agree the tax would be a “wrecking ball across the economy.” The right-wing then came to power in what was seen as a decisive referendum on the carbon tax.

The economics of climate change also loomed large earlier this year in the U.K. election, which saw the Labour Party’s Ed Miliband, and his carbon-control-laden Green Plan, lose to David Cameron in a stunning upset, the first to give the Conservatives a majority government in almost two decades. Cameron achieved his stunner after promising to cut wind subsidies and “to get rid of all this green crap” in order to lower electricity bills. Shrewdly, in the run up to the coming UN Climate Change Summit in Paris, Cameron is positioning himself as a champion on climate change, offering £5.8 billion to the cause, including £1.76 billion in 2020, all in aid of meeting the Third World’s demand for $100 billion in climate funding. This money –  every last cent of it – will not add to the UK taxpayer’s burden, however. It is all coming from the UK’s existing foreign aid budget.

So far, Trudeau shows he has been heeding the Dion lesson, and avoiding Dion’s mistakes. In the recent election campaign, he robbed the Conservatives of a potent attack by making climate change a non-issue, paying lip service to its importance while making it primarily a provincial responsibility that wouldn’t even be looked at until next year. “A Liberal government is committed to attending the Paris climate conference, and within 90 days, holding a First Ministers meeting to work together on a framework for combatting climate change,” the Liberal platform dryly stated. “Under the Liberal plan, provincial and territorial governments will have the flexibility to design their own policies to meet these commitments, including their own carbon pricing policies.”

If Trudeau can talk the talk without walking the walk –  as did other successful politicians navigating the climate change mine field – his prospects for reelection will rise. The last few decades show that global warming is a powerful vote-getter – for those who evade any costly action to control it.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe, a Toronto-based environmental group. Email:

About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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