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Global warming leaves MPs on the hot seat

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Global warming has already been blamed for Canada's weirdest winter in years. Now it threatens to unsettle the political climate as well.

Members of Parliament return to Ottawa next week for a session in which Canada's response to climate change is shaping up as the dominant issue. The polls are as volatile as the weather and the threat of a snap election looms. If a vote were held today, all sides agree climate would be a critical ballot question.

How the parties play their cards in coming weeks will shape how they are perceived on that issue.

The Conservatives and NDP have a common political enemy in Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion, a former environment minister who will be fighting back with his new team of critics. Interest in the Green Party is rising and the Bloc Québécois say their province would be better able to meet Kyoto commitments if Quebec were independent.

But amid these swirling political winds, Tory strategy is clear: Having blown off climate change when they first took office, they are now embracing it in the hope of neutralizing the environment as an issue before voters go to the polls.

And well they should, given the findings of a Globe and Mail/CTV News poll that the environment is, by far, the largest concern Canadians say their country faces. Fully 26 per cent of those surveyed say the changing global ecosystem is the biggest threat to society, well above the 18 per cent who say the same thing about health care.

Starting Monday, Canadians will be able to watch part of the drama play out in a televised committee room in the House of Commons. There, MPs will negotiate changes to the government's Clean Air Act, a new law on pollution that was criticized by opposition parties and environmentalists for not doing enough to address climate change.

Most of the action will be behind the scenes, as Tories eye the NDP as the most likely source of support for the government bill. The Bloc and the Liberals have held joint news conferences on climate change and would need NDP support to get any changes through Parliament.

The flurry of government announcements on climate change after the recent appointment of Environment Minister John Baird — including a repackaging of such Liberal programs as clean-energy subsidies — is part of a longer-term plan.

The goal is to build credibility on the issue over the coming weeks, ideally culminating with a seal of approval from the NDP. The Tories hope that, two months from now, they will have convinced Canadians that Conservatives are at least acting on climate change.

The point is not necessarily to be the greenest party; it is to be green enough for Canadians to cast their ballots on other issues.

A budget focused on pocketbook matters such as tax cuts — including some that help the environment — will be offered up as a primary reason to vote Conservative.

Ottawa lobbyist Goldy Hyder, who has worked on Tory campaigns but is not currently active in planning for the next one, said he doubts voters will be comparing the nuts and bolts of each party's environment platform. Conservatives must simply satisfy Canadians that they can be trusted on the climate front by showing concrete action in specific areas, like supporting public transit.

“It's far more important to have the NDP, the Green Party, the Liberals and the Tories all battling out what they view as the more sound green plan. Because at the end of the day, if people can't differentiate between this and that, then it's not the thing that's going to turn the election, is it?” Mr. Hyder said.

“But having said that, I do think there has to be a genuineness and a sincerity on the part of all parties.”

Another Conservative strategist agreed, but said the coming weeks pose several dangers, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet shuffle raised expectations.

“The change of [environment] ministers has wrongly raised the expectations in the sense that there's almost a new dawn or a new beginning,” said the Tory, who asked not to be identified.

“When you're managing the political expectations on the environment front, as we've all seen, that's playing with dynamite on a second-by-second basis.”

The strategist said Mr. Harper was wise to quickly dispel any notion that his government would rush to meet Canada's Kyoto Protocol targets, which are widely seen as out of reach without spending billions on foreign credits.

While that may be so, Kyoto still appears to be an initiative that the public supports and, hence, may be a vulnerability for the Tories.

The Globe/CTV poll finds that 63 per cent of Canadians believe the government should try to keep its commitments under the accord. A failure by the Tories to do so would invite sharp criticisms from opposition parties in the coming election.

Under the accord, Canada has pledged to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions so that they average 6 per cent below 1990 levels in the years 2008 to 2012. However, emissions are currently about 35 per cent above that target.

If the opposition succeeds in amending the government's bill to enforce Kyoto, companies that are over the Kyoto target would have to buy Kyoto credits from other companies that have beaten their targets — an exchange under what is known as a “cap and trade” system. Companies can also meet their Kyoto targets by funding projects in developing countries that reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Tory MP and environment committee chairman Bob Mills said the strategists may be selling their program short. He hopes Mr. Baird and Mr. Harper will convince Canadians the government's technology-focused plan will ultimately be far superior to Kyoto or anything proposed by the Liberals.

“We should have been leaders on this right from the beginning,” he said.

New Democrats, meanwhile, are walking a fine line. The party is in its favourite spot, holding the balance of power and wielding influence. A deal on climate change and the budget would allow the NDP to say it “gets results” in minority Parliaments. But Leader Jack Layton's credibility is at stake.

“We would be making a mistake agreeing to a climate-change measure that wasn't real,” said a senior NDP adviser, who asked to remain unidentified. “There's no lack of experts who would jump on any plan that wasn't credible. . . . If there isn't a real plan that addresses the issue credibly, then it's unlikely we would support it and the government would face the consequences.”

Jamey Heath, a former senior adviser to Mr. Layton who now works as an environmental consultant in Toronto, said all parties are under pressure. But so too are Canada's environmental groups.

Mr. Heath fumed as he recalled how, in 2005, the Sierra Club of Canada, then led by current Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, endorsed Mr. Dion's climate-change plans, which called for reductions in emissions — even though 11 other environmental groups jointly condemned the Liberal program as too soft on industry.

“Are we just going to pretend that didn't happen?” Mr. Heath asks.

He said the NDP and Conservatives should not stop reminding Canadians of the Liberal record, particularly since Mr. Dion was once in charge of the environment file.

But Independent MP Garth Turner said most people are sick of hearing references from Tories and NDPers about “13 years” of Liberal government. Although Mr. Turner has mused about joining the Greens, he said Mr. Dion's perceived strength on the environment is a real threat to the Greens and NDP.

“Many Canadians will look at [Mr. Dion] and say, ‘You know what, he's green enough for me,' “ Mr. Turner said. “And why would you waste your vote on an environmental issue with the NDP or the Greens? I mean, what's the point? Neither one is going to form the government.”

Still, the poll suggests there is sympathy for the Greens from traditional supporters of the Liberals and NDP. Thirty per cent of the supporters of both parties think the Greens have the best plan for resolving the global-warming problem. If that sympathy is translated into votes, it could realign the left of the political spectrum.

Several observers also question how the NDP and Tories can strike a deal on climate change when they take polar opposite positions — the NDP intent on meeting Kyoto commitments, the Tories not.

“If [Mr. Layton] doesn't get Kyoto commitments, we've moved backwards from where we were before he pulled the plug on the last government,” said Ms. May, who will be attending the committee meetings. “So he's in a real bind.”

The Bloc is also distancing itself from talk of working with the Tories. MP Bernard Bigras promised to deliver a hard line when he meets with Mr. Baird Monday morning before the committee talks.

“There's no possible compromise. For us, [meeting] the first phase of Kyoto is non-negotiable,” he said. The Bloc's list of demands also includes $328-million to allow Quebec to go it alone on Kyoto.

As for the Liberals, in electing Mr. Dion as leader they voted to cast climate change as the party's central issue in the next election, the party's former national policy chair, Akaash Maharaj, said.

Liberals expect voters will view Tory and NDP actions as cynical political opportunism, particularly the revival of Liberal climate-change programs.

Mr. Dion said this week that, because of Mr. Harper's past skeptical comments about “so-called” greenhouse gases and long-term climate-change predictions, Canadians won't be fooled by the Tories' recent environmental conversion.

But between now and the next election, Mr. Maharaj warned, Liberal MPs will “pay a price” if they don't propose alternatives and work co-operatively during the committee talks.

“The key challenge for the Liberal Party during this period will be to play a constructive role that is genuinely constructive,” he said.

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