Why Canada’s Election Means Australia Has No Excuse Not To Fight Climate Change Anymore

Time to step up.

Between getting a new Prime Minister, a win in an important baseball game for the Toronto Blue Jays and Drake dropping a new video for ‘Hotline Bling’, Canadians had a pretty huge day yesterday. Give it a rest, Canada! Do like Drake and go have a well-earned sleep on some lady’s butt.

In case you missed it, Canada’s Conservative government of nine years has been resoundingly kicked out of office, with the Canadian electorate handing an unexpected majority mandate to Liberal Party leader, son of a former Prime Minister and frighteningly attractive man Justin Trudeau yesterday. Canada’s Liberals are a centrist-to-leftist party, very different from our Liberals, and managed to come back from a dismal third-place showing in the 2011 election to seize government in their own right.

Normally, this would be Australia’s cue to nod vaguely and get back to forgetting Canada exists until the next time Justin Bieber does something. But given we’ve had a leadership change of our own recently, it’s worth thinking about how this is going to play out in a wider context. Specifically, the Paris climate change conference is only five weeks away, and until very recently Australia and Canada looked like they were going to be two massive roadblocks in the way of an effective international agreement to lower the world’s carbon emissions.

Tony Abbott’s efforts to undermine, obstruct or delay action on climate change are legendary and well-known; he stripped funding from environmental bodies and renewable energy investment, talked down Australia’s clean energy sector, appointed climate deniers to senior government advisory positions, and famously axed a working carbon tax.

But if Abbott was bad, recently ousted Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was even worse. Since taking power in 2006, the Harper government became a byword for climate denialism manifesting itself in public policy. Over nine years the Harper government silenced climate scientists, pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, removed basic protections for Canada’s waters and forests and doubled down on Canada’s economic dependency on oil exports.

Harper was named ‘World’s Worst Climate Villain’ by the New Republic in October last year for his efforts, and his hostility to tackling climate change made Canada something of a pariah among developed nations for a long time. But he found a kindred spirit when Abbott was elected in 2013; Abbott travelled to Canada last year, and while his creative pronunciation of “Canadia” made headlines, it was his and Harper’s effusive mutual praise for each other’s efforts to roll back environmental legislation that had scientists worried.

On its own, Canada could be dismissed as an outlier while major nations like China and the US got on with the difficult business of hammering out a global agreement. But between them, Australia and Canada formed a formidable climate knuckle-dragger tag team that threatened to undermine efforts to finally convince developing nations to get on board with climate change mitigation in a serious way.

A report from the Africa Progress Panel earlier this year accused Australia and Canada of having “withdrawn from the community of nations seeking to tackle dangerous climate change”, reflecting the anger felt in many developing countries at being asked to shoulder more of the burden while wealthy countries slacked off. Environment site Road to Paris described Abbott and Harper as “the Bad Boys of climate change”, which is the synopsis to the worst movie that isn’t Gigli.

Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott, post-defeat.

But in just a few months, that little club of rich nations giggling in the corner while everyone else tries to get serious work done has folded pretty drastically. There’s been rightful concern that Malcolm Turnbull’s going to kick action on climate change down the road to appease conservative members of his party displeased by his ascension — in September, former Climate Change Authority chairman Bernie Fraser said that Turnbull’s “courage has deserted him” on the issue since he became PM and accused him of “sticking to the status quo”.

But Turnbull’s at least more likely than his predecessor to accept a new global agreement on climate change in Paris next month. Foreign leaders have begun gently pressuring Australia to step up at the conference, taking Turnbull’s well-known personal views on the issue as their cue. In an address to the National Press Gallery yesterday, French ambassador Christophe Lecourtier said he expected Turnbull “will certainly be among us in terms of philosophy of action and political position” in Paris, and that France “­already knows that Australia will be fully supportive of the fight against climate change”.

That’s a big shift in rhetoric from a nation that once felt the need to prod Tony Abbott into going to Paris at all. And now that Canada’s elected a new PM in Justin Trudeau, Australia has even less of an excuse to drag its feet. Trudeau promised a national carbon pricing plan before winning office, and pledged to make Canada a serious player in Paris should he win. He’s also promised to work with the leaders of Canada’s powerful provinces, many of which have their own climate change programs in place.

Importantly, Trudeau’s win doesn’t automatically mean Canada’s suddenly going to morph from an oil-rich polluter into a clean-and-green utopia; the new PM has been decidedly vague on his positions around a number of proposed oil pipelines, and his promise to ban crude oil tanker traffic off British Columbia’s north coast still leaves vast tracts of Canada’s coastline vulnerable to oil spills.

But from the perspective of the Paris talks, Turnbull and Trudeau’s respective victories couldn’t have been better timed. Now that developed Western nations are at least on board with the idea of tackling climate change, the prospect of real change coming out of the summit just got that much more likely.

Feature image via Justin Trudeau/Facebook.