The intense public and scientific debate in recent years over global warming and climate change has overshadowed and even submerged a domestic environmental agenda. Our attention has been directed to the international environment and away from more local concerns. Rather than thinking globally and acting locally, we have been both thinking and acting globally.
However, the ambivalent outcome of the December UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, and the even more ambivalent stance of Americans and their governments toward global warming, have created a breathing space that we should occupy by resurrecting a Canadian environmental agenda.
This Green Canada agenda would stand apart from the broader debate on climate change and global warming, although it would not be aloof from that debate. The focus would be on conservation, on the environmental trinity of reduce, reuse and recycle. The goal would be to build a conservation ethic at home, and the pillars would be land stewardship, water management, air quality, and the health of our urban environments.
Although the agenda would be national, western Canadians would have a particular interest in building a sustainable resource economy, in ensuring that today’s resource wealth supports sustainable economic prosperity for generations to come.
This Green Canada agenda would not preclude a continued interest in international environmental challenges, in global warming and the potential impact of climate change. However, the primary focus would be on the here and now, on our land, water and urban environments. All of these are areas where we can have a direct and immediate impact whereas our potential impact on global warming is slight and uncertain.
We know that a stronger conservation ethic will make Canada a better place for now, and for our kids. We also know that this ethic is compatible with, indeed essential to, economic prosperity in a world where environmental quality will count more and more in terms of market access and the recruitment of talent. Environmental protection and economic prosperity will go hand in glove.
But is there a public appetite for such an initiative, and thus a political appetite? Recent public opinion data is encouraging. Not surprisingly, the priority Canadians attach to environmental concerns has waned during the recession. Nor have environmental concerns replaced concerns about health care, but the latter are perennial features of public opinion surveys in Canada.
However, environmental concerns have by no means evaporated. They have not gone away. The polls also suggest that concerns about the environment reach well beyond concerns about global warming and climate change, that Canadians are most animated by the environment they can see, touch and smell. As in so many other respects, home is where the heart is.
Thus a public foundation is in place for a Green Canada agenda. Think for a moment of the incredible film from B.C. that aired during the Olympics, and the tourism ads that have been running lately for Newfoundland and Labrador; the potential public appeal of an environmental agenda is obvious.
The opportunity is also there for parties from the right, left and centre to build upon that foundation. The Green Canada agenda is too important to be captured by the Green party alone.
Now some will argue that any retreat from a global climate change agenda to a more domestic, Canadian agenda will be a retreat from the most pressing issue of our time, that we will be fiddling while Rome burns. I suspect, however, that this concern is unwarranted, that anything that draws Canadians into supporting a domestic environmental agenda will spill over into support for climate change action. It is not a zero sum game, and a broader environmental coalition will strengthen public support for actions designed to address climate change.
If I’m wrong, then the loss of Canada’s relatively modest contribution to the global-warming challenge will be more than offset by better environmental outcomes within Canada. In this way at least, the world will be a better place for a Green Canada agenda.