Week Two: Are we asking the right questions?

In keeping with the goal of bringing together as much environment-related coverage as possible, this week’s post focuses on how environment issues were framed in the first leadership debate, which took place last Thursday.

Leaders were asked to position themselves in relation to energy and the environment fairly early in the two-hour debate, and as GreenPAC pointed out, we heard more key environmental issues discussed by leaders in this English-language debate, more often, than during the 2011 English-language debate.

Chalk up the presence of the environment on the national debate agenda to sustained citizen activism (as Greenpeace energy campaigner Keith Stewart did here), or to interest in the energy/economy side of environmental questions when oil prices are slumping (consider this Calgary Herald analysis that brings oil prices, pipelines, leaders’ positions, and social license into play). Obviously, the two are inseparable, but it was the latter–energy and its ability to drive Canada’s economy–that offered the primary frame for entering into the environment debate. Consider the debate moderator’s opening question, to Stephen Harper:

Mr. Harper, you’ve been Prime Minister for a decade, and you want to be a different kind of Prime Minister on energy exports. You want Canada to be an energy superpower, but major export projects to the United States and China have stalled on your watch. What have you achieved in energy exports that beats the record of your predecessors? What do you have to show on this file for a decade’s effort?

You can read the entire transcript of the debate here, but let’s take a look at the question and its context:

  • the Conservative government’s emphasis on becoming an “energy superpower,” a slogan the prime minister has touted in public addresses all over the world since 2006, is incorporated in the very backbone of the question
  • two of the “major export projects” that have stalled are the Keystone XL and the Enbridge Northern Gateway, and both projects, proposed to carry bitumen out of Alberta’s oil sands, are hotly contested; the Keystone line is literally in the news in the United States every day, and last Thursday a new poll reflected sustained opposition in British Columbia to the Northern Gateway (though support/against numbers among those polled are close)

This framing of the environment debate doesn’t really unpack any of the problems it sets up. The premise of becoming an “energy superpower,” or whether this is a worthy goal isn’t questioned (this 2011 article, by Laura Way, offers a more exacting look at what constitutes an energy superpower, how boosting exports doesn’t really cut it, and gives us some insight into the extent to which the slogan was not initially adopted by national media). Reading the “major export projects” as “stalled” echoes former natural resource minister Joe Oliver’s call, in 2012, to streamline the pipeline hearing process. To “beat the record” of former federal governments, in terms of moving resources out of Canada, is held out as something of a common objective. And ultimately there is no explicit relationship discussed between extraction and mobility.

Of course, the purpose of an opening question such as this is to actually engage the person who is going to answer. Arguably, asking a question that centers on wind power or solar energy or a different model for encouraging industries to significantly reduce carbon emissions would not really invite an on-topic answer, but a hard steer toward what Harper actually wanted to talk about. Perhaps holding him to his own record, on his own terms, can open more possibilities.

To borrow again from the Maclean’s transcript, and link to the debate video, here is the prime minister’s response:

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper: Well, in fact, our energy exports have increased, not just our — until recently, obviously — not just our oil and gas exports to the United States, but we’ve also seen increasing uranium exports and coal exports and others to Asia. But I would say this, Paul: the federal government does not build pipelines. We obviously favour seeing a diversification of our exports, but we – we establish an environmental assessment process. Companies have to go through that, and they are going through that process.

In terms of the Keystone pipeline, as you know, that’s a – that’s a situation under control of the United States. I’ve had many conversations with President Obama. He’s not asking Canada to say anything. He’s saying he will simply make a decision that’s in the Americans’ best interests. But as you know, there’s overwhelming public support on both sides, so I’m very optimistic in the long run about the future of that project.

In some ways, what is more interesting than engaging Harper on his own terms in this series of questions is how other party leaders don’t really challenge the importance of finding new pathways to move natural resources (though they do highlight problems with the evaluation process, changes to environmental laws, and party positions on individual pipelines or refining more bitumen in Canada range, depending on the project). Over the course of the debate, for example, Thomas Mulcair described the Enbridge Northern Gateway as unsafe, Keystone XL as exporting bitumen refining jobs, and described Energy East as a potential “win-win-win.” Earlier in the week, a CBC reporter live-tweeted points from one of Mulcair’s speeches echoing this:

And campaigning in Calgary, Justin Trudeau also kept the economy and environment firmly linked, saying, “If we had better environmental policy in this country, we would be reassuring our trading partners, we would reassure Canadians, and we would have a much better ability to get those resources to market. That’s what we understand.”

Ultimately, as the Canadian Press writes, the leaders are “treading carefully around pipeline politics as they try to build support from an electorate divided on the country’s energy future.” It’s enough to flatten the debate, evacuating it of the possibility of different questions, like what would happen if extraction rates were curbed?

This is the rub, after all: Is there room in this federal election to talk about alternatives to the status quo? How would a shift work as party leaders move across the country, working to appeal to and motivate voters with different regional interests? Is there room for a discussion about the environment to move substantially outside the frames we have seen so far? My questions are similar to concluding points made in the Greenpeace blog post referenced above, though there are a series of follow-up questions for voters, for reporters, and for campaigners: Do voters want to see a change in how the environment is framed? Is a shift in the terms of the national debate possible? Is a turn to alternatives too future-oriented, intangible, or even too difficult under current economic circumstances? Does a discussion that changes course, instead, need to start or stay much closer to home, at intensely local levels… and if so, how can electoral politics and federal politicians be engaged in a debate shift?

Other links

After the debate, the Toronto Star fact-checked seven points raised during the debate, offering this link for readers to find out more for themselves about Canada’s progress toward meeting its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.

Elizabeth May‘s part in the first debate was celebrated. Maclean’s later described hers as a potential “spoiler role,” particularly among B.C. voters. And she’s barely started campaigning

“Politics, pipelines and oil prices undermine Canada’s ‘superpower’ status

Kinder Morgan pulls Trans Mountain pipeline ads during election campaign”

“Harper attacks NDP over [Toronto-Centre candidate’s] oilsands comment”

“Canada’s election should be about the world

Here is a round-up of other key items political junkies may have taken away from the first week of campaigning. (Also, Stephen Harper’s pretty well grown-up children are on the campaign trail for the first time; the Liberals released a video that featured Justin Trudeau boxing ahead of the debate; Thomas Mulcair emphasizes his experience as an environment minister in Quebec; and this detailed “behind the scenes” account of the debate illuminates which party leaders can bear to be in the same room at the same time with very few buffers.)

Another personality-focused storyline running through the early days of this election is the Harper v. Wynne/Notley narrative. This weekend, The Journal took a long, analytical look at what Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has accomplished during her first three months in power–it’s a great read altogether, and on the environment front:

The carbon levy on heavy polluters was increased and emissions targets strengthened, but Albertans are no closer to seeing a completed climate change strategy than they were under the Tory government.

(The province’s industrial carbon levy was increased from $15 per tonne to $20, with a scheduled increase to $30 in 2017.)

Last of all, you may be interested in True North, Strong and Free, an advocacy project by Evidence for Democracy that has curated a series of stories which it argues shows how science and evidence have come to be undermined in Canada.

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