Political Commentators on Obama’s Second Term Environmental Plan



Remember the first days of the Harper government when we heard – over and over again – that Canada was in “lock-step” with the United States on climate policy?

After seven years of inaction north of the border, we don’t hear that anymore -and we likely won’t unless the Conservatives alter their vision for Canada’s carbon-intensive economic growth.

Obama’s Climate Action Plan is substantive. It regulates in a meaningful way and begins to reduce America’s GHG emissions; it fosters investment in alternative energy and supports the development of good green jobs; it strengthens badly needed adaptation capacity; and it promises to propel the United States into a leadership role in floundering international climate policy efforts.

The plan may well be a turning point in global efforts to avert catastrophic temperature increases. That’s good news for everyone.

For Canada, it exposes the Conservative government’s woefully inadequate policy of promoting our oil resources for export without a carbon emissions regime in place.
It also emphasizes the growing distance between Harper and our closest ally on the imperative to act.

WhitehouseLeaking letters to Obama with promises of action isn’t a substitute for real regulations to reduce carbon emissions. Nor is threatening to “not take no for an answer.”

Obama has made clear to Canada that a decision to approve the Keystone XL pipeline hinges on whether or not the project will significantly increase emissions, and despite recent U.S. State Department findings, the White House has signaled it will not be rushed into a decision. Unlike Harper, Obama believes that society has a moral duty to combat climate change.

He has good reason to be skeptical that Harper shares that conviction.

The Conservatives have repeatedly failed to deliver on emissions reduction regulations for the oil and gas sector since their much vaunted “Turning the Corner” plan in 2007.
Those regulations are needed if Canada is to have any hope of meeting its modest reduction commitments under the Copenhagen agreement – commitments the United States is now on track to meet.

And there is little to indicate that those regulations will be rigorous when finally introduced. On coal, the one sector where regulations have been introduced, emissions targets were weakened extensively after industry push-back and won’t be fully implemented until 2062.
Canada’s troublesome track record on other aspects of climate action can’t sit well with Obama, either: the muzzling of climate scientists; funding cuts for climate research; and our obstructionist approach at global climate talks.

Dismissive comments from our Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver (that border on climate change denial) don’t help either.

“Oil will continue to be a large part of our economy for some time to come, so the need to reduce our missions by putting a price on carbon is paramount.”

Ironically, Canada’s credibility gap on the climate file is what stands between Harper and the access to the oil export markets he’s billed as fundamental to Canada’s long-term economic interests.

Rather than dig our heels in, we should be strengthening environmental laws, not rolling them back. And we ought to be leading at climate talks, not seeking to undermine them.

Oil will continue to be a large part of our economy for some time to come, so the need to reduce our emissions by putting a price on carbon is paramount. But the future of good jobs and sustainable economic growth, as Obama understands, lies in embracing de-carbonization and fostering dynamic green industry, manufacturing and technology.

Kathleen Monk was the Broadbent Institute’s founding Executive Director and continues to serve as Senior Advisor. Prior to this, Ms. Monk worked as Director of Strategic Communications for Jack Layton. She is a frequent media commentator and was hailed the “The New Voice of Canada’s Political Left” by the Hill Times. Before entering politics, Ms. Monk worked in newsrooms in Toronto, Ottawa and Washington. She’s a graduate of the London School of Economics, volunteers with Equal Voice, and spends an enormous amount of time with her two boys.



President Barack Obama is a masterful communicator who projects an authenticity and passion. While he may possess an intellectual commitment to climate change conveyed with the right amount of emotional engagement to be believable his actions have yet to meet his rhetoric. As a recent headline in Britain’s Guardian newspaper screamed, “Barack Obama should practice what he preaches about climate change.”

The Guardian was chastising the American President for using the influence of the US to have the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization restrict Europe’s efforts to make airlines pay for their emissions under its carbon trading scheme and stall global efforts to charge airlines for pollution. These seemingly aren’t the actions that reflect the lofty language Obama used in his 2nd inaugural address:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change…”

“Canada will be paying close attention to what happens in the United States to President Obama’s Climate Plan.”

In fairness Obama is not alone in talking tough and boldly about embracing climate change. Former American Vice-President Al Gore made a whack of money and won an Academy Award for sharing “An Inconvenient Truth” about the plight of planet earth. Yet the real truth remains that it is much easier to talk about dealing with climate change than it is to tackle it.

Ask former federal Liberal leader Stephan Dion what happens when you advance a “green shift” policy. It is a great way to become a historical footnote.

“Canada, like any other sovereign nation, should develop a climate change policy that reflects the realities of our economy, fulfills our international responsibility and most importantly can actually work in achieving what is intended.”

Canada will be paying close attention to what happens in the United States to President Obama’s Climate Plan. Of course, Canada’s immediate interests will remain in determining how about Obama’s climate intentions will impact major resource development projects like the Keystone XL Project. Canada, like any other sovereign nation, should develop a climate change policy that reflects the realities of our economy, fulfills our international responsibility and most importantly can actually work in achieving what is intended.

Perhaps Obama prior to the completion of his term will have a working model that Canada or other countries can emulate. Hoping for change is not changing behavior no matter how good the orator. Politicians, policy makers and other interested participants will be watching to see if the actualization of green policy south of the border will occur and whether it can sustain positive public opinion.

Right now for many decision makers the pocket book issue driven policy still trumps the greenhouse gas emission. This is the current truism of our time. The United States and Canada have not broken free of it despite the millions of words emitted imploring transformation; it has mostly just been hot air.

Tim Powers is the Vice Chairman of Summa Strategies Canada and the Chairman of Abacus Data both are headquartered in Ottawa. Originally from St. John’s, NL Tim can be found commenting frequently on political and public policy issues on CBC’s Power and Politics or on VOCM Radio in his home province.



Since he was a simple candidate for the Presidency, Barack Obama has aspired to not only be President, but to be a transformative President. He explicitly said during the epic primary battle that he admires Presidents like Ronald Reagan and FDR who moved the United States in dramatically different directions rather than caretaker Presidents who were competent administrators.

“politics, just like history, is as much about symbols as substance”

You can’t read President Obama’s second inaugural address and conclude that he sees taking action on climate change as anything other than a key component of how he aspires to be remembered in the history books, namely as a liberal Reagan.

jigsawUnfortunately for President Obama’s historic goals, short of a dramatic shift in the 2014 mid-term elections, the likelihood of him passing comprehensive climate change legislation during his Presidency is limited at best. While he has long argued that he can take strong action through Presidential authority and the EPA – and we have seen certain measures enacted via that route – there are serious limitations to what can be achieved via that course.

But politics, just like history, is as much about symbols as substance. This brings us to Keystone. To the environmental movement in the United States – a key component of his electoral coalition and the arbitrator of his environmental bona fides, Keystone is now THE decision on whether President Obama will be remembered as a green President.

So where does that leave Canada and those of us who support Keystone? Forget whether you think Canada should take action on climate change because it is important or a moral imperative. Ignore that. Assume our number one priority, as it is for PM Harper, is to get Keystone approved and that is driving all other decisions.

One option is to continue doing the same thing that Harper has been doing. Sectoral regulations here, fuel efficiency standards there, heavy doses of rhetoric all over the place. This is about jobs and energy security goes the argument.

Except, of course, it isn’t working. Not even a bit. President Obama has explicitly rejected the Keystone jobs and energy security arguments. Just repeating them more often could, I guess, change his mind. Maybe. President Obama has also expressed serious concerns about Canada’s climate change policies. So ramp up the rhetoric even further. New regulations are on their way, any day now. Seriously this time. But at this point, the notion that continuing with the same approach is magically going to get a different result doesn’t seem like an actual strategy. It’s just a hope and a prayer.

“Canada should obviously only enact policies that are in our national interest”

There is a different option. Prime Minister Harper could engage in actual diplomacy and negotiation at the highest level with the President. He can ask him explicitly what environmental approach does the President need to see from Canada in order for him to not only approve Keystone, but to have an integrated North American climate strategy. Everything should be on the table in the negotiations including Harper’s much maligned carbon tax or other mechanisms that put a price on carbon.

Ultimately, Canada should obviously only enact policies that are in our national interest but if the Harper government has decided that Keystone is a key component of our future prosperity, then the corollary is almost certainly that Canada will need to enact a more aggressive climate policy than anything the current government has contemplated.

That second path is still available to the government. If they choose to ignore it and simply continue with the current approach out of stubbornness, intransience or misreading the President then Stephen Harper will have done as much to kill Keystone as President Obama.