Canada’s Environment Ministers: A Short History

Peter Kent, Canada's Environment Minister

(Note: this blog isn’t short, but neither is the list of climate crimes committed by Canada)

Saudi Arabia has no minister responsible for protecting the environment, but instead has a Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. I had incredible envy for a country that can so blatantly show that its priorities lie in the single-minded pursuit of oil extraction, not in the preservation of nature or the control of climate change. Then I remembered that in Canada we too have a Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources ― except here we call him the Environment Minister.

Canada has had four different Environment Ministers in the past five years, yet a common purpose set by the Prime Minister’s Office has united every minister: a mandate to monkey-wrench international progress on climate change and to negotiate on behalf of the Tar Sands.

Canada’s first in our latest series of environment ministers was Rona Ambrose. She entered the May 2006 climate talks in Bonn as the President of the Conference of Parties — Canada having hosted COP 11 in Montreal. Only a month previous to this, Ambrose announced that Canada would ignore Kyoto because her government felt that these targets were simply unattainable. Ambrose justified the abandonment of Kyoto by stating that “we would have to pull every truck and car off the street, shut down every train and ground every plane to reach the Kyoto target.” This logic makes perfect sense- if we can’t reduce our emissions enough for our Kyoto targets then why even bother? Just open a bag of chips, sit back and watch Canada’s carbon footprint balloon. Her alternative to Kyoto was a “Made in Canada” solution. From now on whenever I want to avoid something, I’ll take a page out of Minister Ambrose’s playbook. I don’t feel like cleaning up right now, so I’ll come up with a “Made in Canada” solution to washing the dishes. Problem solved.

Ambrose was succeeded by John Baird as Environment Minister, who was in turn replaced by Jim Prentice. Canada entered the Copenhagen negotiations with an emissions reduction target equivalent to a 3 percent reduction from 1990 levels. I didn’t think it would be even possible to weaken that target — 3 percent was already rock bottom… but then Canada started to dig. On February 1st 2010 Minster Prentice unveiled Canada’s new target: a 17 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, or when put to 1990 levels: a 2.5 percent increase in emissions.

Prentice continued his predecessors’ hands-off relationship with the Tar Sands. He suggested that the industry regulate itself, but came through with no binding legislation.

Canada’s new policy became no policy, or at least not before the United States passed legislation. “We will only adopt a cap-and-trade regime if the United States signals that it wants to do the same. Our position on harmonization applies equally to regulation,” Prentice told Calgary businesspeople. “Canada can go down either road — cap-and-trade or regulation — but we will go down neither road alone.” Canada fell perfectly in step with the United States when it came to not implementing climate change legislation, yet that synchronicity ended when it came to actual investments in a clean energy future.  In 2009 the United States outspent Canada 14:1 per capita on clean energy sources.

A month before COP 16 in Cancun Jim Prentice left politics to take a lucrative job with the CIBC, and John Baird became the interim Environment Minister. During the Cancun climate negotiations Canada was singled out again and again for its embarrassing lack of action on climate change, eventually winning the shameful “Colossal Fossil” award for the fifth consecutive year.

Peter Kent took over the permanent role as Environment Minister in early 2011. One of Kent’s first acts as Environment Minister was to inform the people behind the Maxim Power coal plant of a loophole to circumvent federal coal power regulations. Kent explained that if the company could have the plant operational before July 1st 2015 they wouldn’t be subject to the upcoming regulations.

Canada’s climate change team is little more than the international lobbying arm of the Canadian oil industry. Canada has lobbied to weaken the European Fuel Quality Directive in the hopes of opening EU markets to Tar Sands oil, and has aggressively pushed the US State Department to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. Canada has come to Durban to continue the same strategy — this time attempting to obstruct the climate talks to prevent any legally binding agreement from limiting Tar Sands expansion.

Minister Kent arrived in Durban yesterday, and has made it explicitly clear that he has come to negotiate on behalf of the Tar Sands, not Canadians. Kent has called the Tar Sands “ethical” and “a legitimate resource” and recently said Canada needs to be “aggressive in ensuring international friends and neighbours and customers recognize Alberta’s heavy oil is no different from heavy oil produced in any number of other countries which don’t receive nearly the negative attention or criticism.”

In a press conference yesterday Minister Kent gave lip service about the need to respect aboriginal rights, yet denied that the Tar Sands are poisoning people Indigenous communities downstream. He stated that activists misunderstood the statement from universally respected climate scientist James Hansen’s that continued development of the Tar Sands would be “game over for the climate.” Kent continually defends his Government’s record by calling critics “uninformed” — ironic considering that last month Kent was unable to explain what ozone was when asked during Question Period.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that toxins from the Tar Sands are causing extreme rates of cancer in Indigenous communities downstream and the fact that the industry is the single most polluting industry on the planet the Canadian government is determined to protect the Tar Sands even if it means money wrenching the international climate change process.

Not only is Canada rejecting an extension of the Kyoto Protocol in favour of a voluntary agreement, our government is lobbying other countries to do the same. Minister Kent also says he plans to play hardball with developing countries during the Durban climate talks, and continues to demand that a legally binding agreement must include all major emitters, namely India and China. Kent criticized poorer countries for “wielding the historic guilty card” suggesting that the onus should be on emerging economies to tackle climate change, rather than countries like Canada owe their wealth to historical carbon-burning industrialization.

Peter Kent and his predecessors always used China as an excuse for not taking on climate change, stating that Canada would not sign off on a legally binding agreement unless China did the same. However this week China announced it would be willing to make binding emissions reduction targets, contingent on industrialized countries agreeing as well. When asked if Canada would change its stance due to this news, Kent answered “no” ― in complete contradiction to Canada’s previous position.
The stakes could not be higher in Durban. Every passing year without an ambitious agreement on climate change brings us closer to the climatic tipping points that threaten runaway climate change. I’ve met dozens and dozens of youth, activists and delegates from the Global South, people who are giving it all to achieve a resolution to the climate crisis. A failure to come to grips with the climate crisis would be devastating for developing countries and a victory for Peter Kent and the Tar Sands negotiating team.

The Environment portfolio has swapped hands four times in five years, yet we’re still waiting for our first real Environment Minister — someone who will put people before polluters. If our “Environment Minister” continues to obstruct progress on climate change and put the Tar Sands ahead of people then I suggest our government takes a page from Saudi Arabia’s book, and renames the position “Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources.”

Canada’s Environme
Comments
2 Responses to “Canada’s Environment Ministers: A Short History”
  1. 88steph says:

    Malkolm,

    This is a very informative article about Canada’s Environment Ministers.

    Thanks for so clearly explaining that Canada uses China as a scapegoat for its own inaction on international climate change agreements. China-the world’s largest energy consumer- has been taking a leadership role in the creation of renewable energy and reduction of GHG. Canada is one of the world’s largest energy producers and should contribute energy from more sustainable sources. So many such sources exist in this country!

  2. paulfdavis says:

    Thanks so much! I’m arguing for the environment in grad school at NYU.

    Please send me more docs on this!

    paulfdavis @ NYU.edu

    4 environmental ministers in 5 years…. something is up! What? Tell me more!

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