Does Harper Really Protect The Environment? – Chris Burke

There’s no doubt about it: the Earth is warming.  According to the Fourth Report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Eleven of the twelve years in the period (1995 – 2006) rank among the top 12 warmest years in the instrumental record”.[1] An increase in greenhouse gas emissions is the cause of this warming. The most significant of these gases is carbon dioxide.   At a level of 379 parts per million in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide levels far exceed, “the natural range of the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm).[2] The IPCC’s studies indicate that “the primary source of the increase in carbon dioxide is fossil fuel use.”  But despite the indisputable evidence that the Earth is warming due to human activities, the Harper government has taken little to no serious action to address the problem.  Its policies to protect the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been regarded as ineffective.  This criticism is met by attacks from the government.  It has painted critics of its environmental policies as “radicals” and possible criminals.  Calls are being made to step-up environmental protection measures and improve plans to reduce greenhouse gas levels.  Rather than listening to the suggestions, the government fights back insisting they are protecting the environment.  They continue on a path that will not provide the environmental protection and sustainable development needed.  The current policies of the government threaten the long-term sustainability of the environment. This article will start by addressing the government’s treatment of environmental organizations and critics of its policies to further illustrate that the government is not interested in taking serious action to protect the environment. They make the claim that their policies will allow for sustainable development.  This article will demonstrate how the policies being put in place by the Harper government actually contradict the definition of sustainable development with attention being given to the development of the oil sands to illustrate this argument.

The words of the Environment Minister and Minister of Natural Resources, Peter Kent and Joe Oliver respectively, have environmentalists worried that a new McCarthyism* is underway in Canada.  Increasingly, environmental charities and critics of the government’s environmental policies find themselves on the defensive from accusations of criminal activity.

In an interview on the CBC Radio program The House, Kent stated, “There have been concerns that some Canadian charitable agencies have been used to launder offshore foreign funds for inappropriate uses against Canadian interests”.[3].

He would go on to use the term “laundering”* in another interview on the CBC’s Power & Politics.  For the Environment Minister – an elected official – to make the claim on two separate occasions that charitable organisations are engaged in a criminal activity suggests either carelessness or a calculated attack on environmental organisations critical of the government’s agenda.  Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver tried to calm concerns by stating, “No, I’m not suggesting a criminal intent at all” in an interview with Power & Politics. [4]  Yet, Oliver’s statement that he is not suggesting a criminal intent contradicts complaints he made earlier about foreign-backed “radicals” slowing down regulatory hearings on Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline.[5] Although it does not mean the same thing as “criminal” the word “radical” can still be used to conjure up an unfavourable image of a person or group.   These comments suggest that, while the Minister may not think environmental groups are involved in criminal activities, he does mistrust them.

Despite this hostility towards environmental activists, the government portrays itself as dedicated to protecting the environment. The proposed overhaul of Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act, found in Bill C-38, has critics worried that the government is taking action to fast-track projects such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline while ignoring environmental safeguards.[6]  The environmental assessment system is far from perfect.  For example, the duplication of assessments (a provincial and federal assessment) can be burdensome and time consuming for a business.  In a time of “scarce resources” the government has a valid point in stating, “it is counter-productive to have the federal and provincial governments completing separate reviews of the same project” the key is ensuring that in the move to a one-project, one-review process, the provincial legislation meets the standards of the federal legislation.[7] Nonetheless, the attitude on display from cabinet ministers towards environmental causes, suggests that concerns over the proposed changes may be valid.  The government says it is committed to improving safety measures with its proposed changes to the Environmental Assessment Act.[8]  Improving safety is always welcome, but in this case it isn’t enough.  Environmental protection calls for more than just improved safety measures.  A reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, which cannot be achieved if development of the oil sands continues, is needed to mitigate the effects of climate change though that’s exactly what the changes to the Environmental Assessment Act aim to accomplish: To speed up the development of projects such as the oil sands.

Furthermore, a sustainable development plan is needed as part of the overall effort to protect the environment.  Sustainable development means meeting the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of future generations.[9]  Non-renewable energy sources, such as the oil sands, do not meet the criteria for sustainable development.  Therefore, the plan to increase their development with no consideration for what happens when the source is depleted cannot be presented as protecting the environment.  Yet this is exactly what the government is doing.  It argues that economic growth and environmental development can go hand-in-hand.  The argument itself is not wrong.  It’s how they are approaching economic growth that is problematic.  A suitable plan would focus on phasing-out oil sands development and investing more heavily in renewable energy sources. A concrete plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must also be presented by any government that is serious about environmental protection.  The plan presented by the Harper government will be examined next.

The government plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.[10]  In 2011, Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan criticized the government over its lowering targets for greenhouse gas emissions which, “have dropped from 282 million tonnes in its first plan to 28 million tonnes in its most recent one, a drop of about 90%.[11]  Even with these lowered targets, the government is not on track to meeting its goal.  Vaughan denounced the government in a report, saying, “Although the federal government has begun to lower greenhouse gas emissions, right now the reductions are not happening fast enough to meet the 2020 target”.[12]  Environment Minister Peter Kent responded:

His government has done far better than previous administrations in producing concrete plans to reduce emissions…Our government is committed to ensuring an environment that is clean, safe, and sustainable for all Canadians, while creating jobs and promoting economic growth,” Mr.  Kent said in his statement.[13]

It is a dismal commentary on the state of environmental protection in Canada that Kent’s claim holds some truth: this government is doing better than previous ones to protect the environment. But the Harper government is still failing.  It is failing to acknowledge the clear link between continuing the development of fossil fuels and increasing environmental damage.  It has committed itself to combating rather than listening to organizations stating, with the support of scientific evidence, that a reduction in fossil fuels is needed.  It thinks it is being sustainable when it is not.  If the government is serious about environmental protection, it needs to work harder to show it.  Commit to a reduction in fossil fuel development and use and an increase in renewable energy investment.  Work with environmental organizations not against them.  Do this for the long-term sustainability of future generations.

*Definitions:

McCarthyism: the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.

Laundering: to disguise the source of (illegal or secret funds or profits), usually by transmittal through a foreign bank or a complex network of intermediaries.


[1]              Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change. The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Accessed July 5, 2012, http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/contents.html

[2]              Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Accessed July 5, 2012, http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg1/en/contents.html

[3]    Michelle Lalonde, “’Laundering’ Claim Irks Green Groups”, Montreal Gazette, May 7, 2012

[4]    Max Paris, “Charities urge Peter Kent to retract ‘laundering’ accusation”, CBC News, May 4, 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/05/04/pol-kent-charities-laundering-foreign-funds.html

[5]    Mark Kennedy, “Tories spent first year in power surprising Canadians over pensions, health care and environment”, Postmedia News, April 30, 2012. http://www.canada.com/news/Tories+spent+first+year+power+surprising+Canadians+over+pensions+health+care+environment/6543095/story.html

[7]    Andrew Davidson, “Ottawa to slash environmental review role”, CBC News, April 17, 2012.  http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/04/17/environmental-reviews.html

[8]    Press Release, “Minister Oliver Outlines Canada’s Plan for Responsible Resource Development at the World Forum on Energy Regulation”, MarketWire, May 14, 2012. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/minister-oliver-outlines-canadas-plan-for-responsible-resource-development-at-the-world-forum-on-energy-regulation-2012-05-14

[9]    Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future Ch.2

[10]  “ecoAction – Canada’s Action on Climate Change”, last modified December 13, 2011, http://www.ecoaction.gc.ca/climatechange-changementsclimatiques/index-eng.cfm

[11]  Meagan Fitzpatrick, “Canada’s climate change goals falling short”, CBC News, October 4, 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/10/04/pol-enviro-commissioner-report.html

[12]  Heather Scoffield, “Auditor slams Ottawa for coming up short on greenhouse-gas targets”, The Globe and Mail, June 18, 2012. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/auditor-slams-ottawa-for-coming-up-short-on-greenhouse-gas-targets/article2426136/?service=mobile

[13]  Heather Scoffield, “Auditor slams Ottawa for coming up short on greenhouse-gas targets”, The Globe and Mail, June 18, 2012. http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/auditor-slams-ottawa-for-coming-up-short-on-greenhouse-gas-targets/article2426136/?service=mobile

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