Monday, 4 March 2013

Climate and Voting – the environmental, social justice and survival issue of our times

British Columbia, where I live, will have a provincial election in May 2013. By a strange set of circumstances, BC voters have a rare opportunity, for the second provincial election in a row, to significantly influence the global climate struggle with their vote. Ironically, this means switching their vote from what it was in 2009 – it can’t get more non-partisan than that!

In 2009, the NDP opposition crassly promised if elected to kill in the cradle North America’s only true carbon tax, even though they had previously argued for its implementation. Many climate-concerned voters, who might have normally voted for the Greens or the NDP, voted for the governing Liberals in order to save the tax. During the campaign, I joined with experts from a diversity of ideological perspectives to try to convince people to vote strategically in our first-past-the-post system, hoping to ensure the NDP would lose swing ridings and not form government. (The NDP often emphasizes its concern for social justice, but sometimes seems to forget that climate change is one of humanity’s greatest social justice issues – just ask someone from Bangladesh, or a similarly vulnerable poor country, who understands the human implications of climate change.)

The Liberals just barely won the election and the carbon tax was saved, a victory that was even more significant than we thought at the time – since the global financial crisis soon blunted climate policy initiatives in most, but not all, jurisdictions. Today, the tax stands symbolically as the only significant carbon tax in North America, representing a model for future policy efforts. Policy advisors study the tax, the New YorkTimes writes about it, even Republican politicians have talked favorably about it. Preventing the NDP from destroying the tax was the most critical outcome of that election. The struggle was stressful, but successful.

In this election, however, the roles are reversed. The reason is the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline.

Recent papers in Science and Nature on our global carbon emission limits – summarized in Bill McKibben’s article inRolling Stone – explain what many of us have known for at least two decades. Humanity cannot develop our massive unconventional oil resources while at the same time preventing the 2 C temperature increase that scientists believe could destabilize the climate, perhaps leading to runaway global warming. In Canada, this means that we cannot be expanding production levels and transport infrastructure for Alberta’s tar sands. This does not mean shutting down the tar sands tomorrow. With existing production facilities and pipeline infrastructure, its operation would continue for decades. But it cannot be expanding with new major developments and additional pipeline capacity. As McKibben points out, the math is ridiculously simple – and terrifying.

This means that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the US and the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to the BC coast should not be built. They would allow tar sands production to double from its current level of 2 million barrels per day.

The past three decades have shown that the vast majority of politicians have proven adept at expressing great concern for the threat of global warming, while not actually committing to policies that would stop or reduce emissions growth. The governing Liberals in BC, for example, have said they still believe in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, yet promote rapid expansion of shale gas production and new coal mines. They express “concerns” about Northern Gateway, yet refuse to promise to stop it if re-elected in May. We all know what this means.

In contrast, the opposition NDP has promised to kill the project. And believe me, a provincial government that wanted to kill a project like this would be able to do it – even if the federal government had the jurisdiction to approve its construction and had already done so.

The NDP is leading in the polls, but that does not mean they will win the election. The Conservatives have all but collapsed, which will mostly help the Liberals. And the Greens are still capturing a large share of voter interest, which will mostly hurt the NDP. Meanwhile Liberal supporters pound away with personal attack ads – a strategy that has worked well for Stephen Harper in election after election – and one wonders if some desperate oil patch money is behind this. The election outcome is definitely not a foregone conclusion.

All of this sets the stage for well-meaning people concerned about climate to make a tragic mistake this May – by voting Green in ridings where it could have ensured the election of an NDP member instead of a Liberal. (We must never forget how Ralph Nader’s Green candidacy helped George Bush just barely defeat Al Gore.)

In my view, this election is, and should be presented by people concerned about climate, as a referendum on Northern Gateway, and we should be encouraging individuals to vote NDP in any riding where the NDP has a chance of defeating the Liberal candidate, even if that individual would prefer to vote Green in an electoral system with proportional representation. The only riding where I am suggesting climate-focused people might vote Green is in the Victoria riding where climate scientist Andrew Weaver has an excellent chance of winning (hence not a wasted vote) and would be supporting an NDP or Liberal government where it did the right thing and hounding it where it did not. (For example, both the Liberals AND the NDP are too bullish on shale gas and LNG exports – a subject for a future blog.)

At this point, the prevention of Northern Gateway would be a (second) unique occasion in which British Columbian voters would be able to influence the broader struggle to stop global warming with one X on a ballot. Its cancellation would embolden activists and average citizens to realize that the tar sands and other carbon polluters can be stopped and would contribute to a rethinking of climate policies and emission reduction efforts in the two biggest carbon polluting countries in the world: the US and China.


  1. And thus nothing ever changed in BC...just swinging back and forth between the left and the right while our debt keeps going up and the environment is suffering. How any sane person who cares about global warming can advise to vote for the one, but instead to vote for the other cheerleaders for fracking BC's north to smithereens beats me. The pipelines are a terrible idea, but they are just a way to transport Albert's product. Fracked gas is 100% BC's responsibility. So yes, vote NDP if you like it hot...very, very hot.

    1. I am not aware of the NDP's policy on natural gas fracking in Northern B.C. But it would surprise me if a party vigorously campaigning against a pipeline through Northern B.C. for environmental reasons would turn around and advocate for "fracking BC's north to smithereens." It doesn't make sense, and I think that there would be a strong push against it from constituents who voted the NDP into office. However, even if you're right, I would like to see figures on carbon emissions as a result of fracking, relative to carbon emissions produced by doubling tar sands production if a pipeline is approved. I'm no fan of fracking in any form, but aren't we talking about two distinct types of environmental damage?

  2. David Suzuki is encouraging voters in the Federal Liberal Leadership race to vote for Joyce Murray. Is this at odds with your proposal to vote NDP for BC provincial election?