Thursday, 15 October 2015

Canadian climate policy and your vote

“Policy academics are cheap dates.” One of my mentors, professor Aiden Vining, loved saying that. His point was that we policy academics will gladly pay for our own dinner if we think that a politician, of any political stripe, wants our advice. This explains why, in my 30 years of climate policy research, I have willingly advised Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Greens, sometimes when in power, sometimes in opposition. Once, a politician actually paid for my dinner – at McDonalds.

I have learned some things that are relevant to this federal election. One lesson is that climate policy is really, really hard. Our political system has strong incentives for politicians not to implement effective climate policies. To be effective, policies must either price CO2 emissions or regulate CO2-causing fuels and technologies. These compulsory policies impose short-term costs (real and perceived) on some people, some of whom will wage war on the guilty politician. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty: the climate policy and its implementing politician will be blamed for completely unrelated misfortunes by these people, powerful backers, and a media that loves attacking politicians.

Given the clear and present danger of implementing effective climate policy, and the fact that most benefits from such policy will occur after the politician’s career is over, the instinct is to do little or nothing. If the appearance of action is politically important, this may include a seemingly sincere list of innocuous policies that don’t impose costs but also don’t reduce emissions – such as fridge labels, advertisements, subsidies for insulation, etc.

At this point, I must repeat myself because often I’ll hear or read “Jaccard says we must have carbon taxes” or “Jaccard says only regulations work.” Neither is true. My message to politicians for at least 15 years has been consistent. Emissions won’t fall without compulsory policies, which could be emissions pricing via carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, or could be regulations on fuels and technologies. Neither pricing nor regulations is essential. But you must have at least one. I am agnostic as to choice, since this involves a difficult political trade-off between economic efficiency and political acceptability. If the politician wants to go with regulations, make sure to design them with economic efficiency in mind. If it’s to be emissions pricing, design this with political acceptability in mind.

In that regard, perhaps it was also Aiden Vining who once said, “The economist who insists on carbon taxes should be tied to a stake positioned between a large crowd of taxpayers and the politician who announces the carbon tax – making sure to thank the economist.”

Because ‘faking it’ policies are prevalent, my job is to explain how they must change, first to the politician, then to the public if the politician does nothing. This is why I recently issued a ‘report card’ on the Harper government’s climate record (and issued earlier ones on the Chretien government). In nine years, Harper has not implemented a single policy that would significantly reduce Canadian CO2 emissions in any sector of the economy before 2020. And this is why I and other independent entities, like the Commissioner on Environment and Sustainability in the Office of the Auditor General, have said that his 2020 reduction promise is now unattainable. He never tried to attain it – ergo, he had no intention of attaining it, ergo he was not being honest when he made the promise. 

We cannot be sure that a Liberal, NDP or coalition government will do better. But in an uncertain world, we have to base our vote on probabilities. Provincial Liberal governments in Quebec, Ontario and BC have implemented the kinds of compulsory policies we must have, especially BC with its near-zero-emission electricity regulation and its carbon tax, and Quebec with its emissions cap-and-trade program that is integrated with the same policy in California. Ontario’s Liberal government is seeking to join this program and an NDP government in Alberta is assessing compulsory policies. But I have learned, in the latter two cases, to wait for real action before giving credit.

So, if the urgent task is to defeat Harper in this election – in hopes that a future Conservative leader is more like Gordon Campbell or even (what fun!) Arnold Schwarzenegger – then voters need to be ‘strategic.’ (I even counsel Conservatives I know to vote against their usual political preference in order to remove Harper and several say they intend to.) It is still very possible that Harper will win the most seats and then retain power by playing-off the Liberals and NDP, just as he did from 2006 to 2011. ‘Strategic voting’ is how we prevent this. It means voting for the Liberal, NDP, Green or Bloc candidate whom last-minute polls show has the greatest chance of defeating the Conservative – especially when those polls show a tight race with the possibility of the Conservative benefitting from a split in the anti-Harper vote.

Some Green, Liberal and NDP voters are absolutely against strategic voting. They say they must ‘vote their conscience.’ I say they should ‘vote their intelligence and their conscience.’ We do not have a proportional representation system in which every vote has weight. We have 338 separate ‘highest-percentage-wins’ contests in which there is a real cost to voting for the 3rd or 4th place finisher when the 2nd place finisher could have defeated a Conservative and thereby ended the unconscionable Harper era. In such cases, ‘voting your conscience’ gives you some responsibility for another 4 years of Harper, just as those who voted for Ralph Nader in Florida in 2000 bear some responsibility for the George W. Bush presidency. Had just 600 hundred of them voted strategically, Al Gore would have been president, and the US would have a major emissions pricing system in place today – as would likely all major emitting countries.

Fortunately, many people learned from Harper’s 2011 victory, in which he won a majority with under 40% of the vote. Some of these people are working hard to encourage and inform strategic voting. I suggest you visit websites that provide riding specific polls, including the very latest trends, and see what ‘voting your intelligence and your conscience’ might do in your riding. 


  1. Thank you for this excellent blog post. I hope that you will be invited to go to Paris with the Canadian, likely minority government contingent next month.
    I'm working hard for both Leadnow and the Liberals in Winnipeg in two different ridings and voted strategically, when I would have wanted to vote Green. The Greens are the biggest losers this election, ironically, even though when it comes to climate change, they have the political voice we need most to heed.

  2. I shared your article...and have to admit, I can't escape the image of the bound economist..