Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.
Imagine, for a moment, if Greta Thunberg was running to be prime minister of Canada. She has galvanized a movement in a way that none of Canada’s prime ministerial candidates have managed to achieve during this election. She has risen above the fray of disinformation and apathy and become a symbol of the climate revolution, and a voice of criticism unafraid to confront the leaders of the most powerful countries on earth.
The media, between bouts of frenzied focus on the latest Canadian and American scandals regarding the misconduct of prominent political figures, has done its part to give some limelight to this furious new form of an old movement. Social media is ablaze with messages about climate chaos, raising the alarm at a time when many acknowledge that it may already be too late for real action to begin soon enough to save our planet from the tangible effects of climate change.
But the focus of political leaders is not, it seems, on climate change. With the exception of a marked rise in the profile of the Green party, which brings with it plenty of focus on climate change and environmental issues, the majority of policy announcements have been tailored to concerns about the affordability of living. So why, despite all of its public attention, are climate concerns playing second fiddle to other issues in this election?
One possible concern from the major party leaders is that climate-focused voters may not be an overly convertible group of voters. For many, the choice to vote for the Green party is an ideological one which will remain constant regardless of that party’s hopes of winning. This concern is especially true for the Conservatives, who have little to win from appealing to a group that is unlikely to support them in the first place, but plenty to lose from a base that expects to be negatively affected by impositions on the fossil fuel industry. That said, Mr. Scheer doesn’t claim not to care about climate change, and he continues to address the issue with policy announcements widely reviled as ‘not enough’.
But Mr. Scheer may simply be pragmatic. A recent Ipsos poll found that while Canadians want to take action on climate change, they don’t want to do so on their own dime, or even their own penny. Without a visible public movement of its own, concerns about the cost of living in Canada have outpaced very-visible climate justice and become the mantra of the major political parties.
But climate change refuses to be forgotten, and so the leaders make their statements and their small adjustments on the side. Justin Trudeau was eager to meet with Greta Thunberg (who wouldn’t be?) and possibly try to associate himself with the movement she has invigorated. While he surely would have preferred to hear her say, “Congratulations, you are doing enough,” he has been readying himself for reality, too, with ads that address how his government isn’t doing enough, and promises to do more. Unfortunate, of course, that none of this ‘more’ could have happened during the last four years. Some climate activists are prone to pointing out that he could have found the time and money for such an endeavor by not buying the Trans Mountain pipeline, a decision which he has repeatedly been forced to defend.
But from that meeting with Greta Thunberg and from the passion of her speech and the fervor of the marches that took place across Canada on Friday the 27th, a rare weapon has emerged onto the battle field of this election: elements of a new climate policy that might actually be a major step in the right direction.
Using the profits from the Trans Mountain pipeline, Justin Trudeau has now promised to plant two billion trees. Climate experts are touting this as a reasonable part of the climate solution. But there remains plenty of room for Justin Trudeau to expand his policies, with choices as simple as eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.
Is this a turning point in the campaign? Will political leaders, lured in by the promise of the power and influence they could derive from association with a figure as powerful as Greta Thunberg, now be forced to act in response to public pressure?
It may be that for all its ability to distract from policy and dilute the political discourse, the power of image will now be the driver of policy, too. Perhaps our politicians are not so alone. We too may find solace in directing our prayers to the politics of image – can anything else give us the results we need?