With the deadline for a federal carbon tax drawing ever closer — and promised provincial legislation looming — an interesting document hit the legislative table recently in Ottawa.
Julie Gelfand, the federal environmental commissioner, has tabled a series of five reports on various topics, ranging from funding for clean technologies to the federal government’s readiness to reduce greenhouse gases.
Of particular interest is her report entitled Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change, which looks at the federal government’s own actions, through its various departments, in rising to this challenge.
It’s important to note this is a long-standing issue that has developed through the lifetime of the past several federal governments, beginning with 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and running through until today.
In political terms, that covers the last days of the Mulroney government, and the entirety of the Campbell, Chrétien, Martin and Harper governments, as well as the term of the current Trudeau government.
The picture she paints isn’t pretty. Despite a quarter-century of public policy and pronouncements, it appears there’s been little leadership in Ottawa at the departmental level, where the business of government actually happens.
It looks like, according to Gelfand’s report, words are easy and actions are hard.
She and her staff assessed the response of 19 federal departments and found them woefully lacking. Only five have “fully assessed” risks and taken any steps to address climate change issues within their area of responsibility, the report read. The other 14 have taken “little or no action” to address these risks.
In a bluntly worded document, she pulled few punches. Gelfand noted that while the government has $66 billion tied up in land, buildings, infrastructure such as bridges, and machinery, it has done little to assess the risks due to climate change or mitigate those risks.
The report was particularly scathing on the actions — or perhaps more accurately, the inactions — of the department of Environment and Climate Change Canada.
“Overall, we found that Environment and Climate Change Canada did not provide adequate leadership and guidance to other federal organizations to achieve adaptation objectives,” the report reads.
It went on to state the department didn’t fulfil its mandate to develop an action plan and “advance the framework across the federal government” and did not provide the tools and resources necessary to enable other government departments and agencies to understand and implement the policy goals of adapting to climate change risks.
She further noted the federal bureaucracy hasn’t attempted to meet 2020 reduction targets contained in the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, endorsed in December 2016 by all provinces and territories except Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Instead the feds have now chosen to focus on a new 2030 target.
Manitoba’s own provincial government now seems, if not wholeheartedly, at least fully, committed to provincial action. It is promising the details of a “made-in-Manitoba” carbon policy in the coming weeks, ahead of the federal government’s 2018 deadline.
- Read more: Manitobans will see carbon price plan soon
Gelfand has made a number of specific recommendations in her report. Of particular note is a call for Environment and Climate Change Canada to assume its expected leadership role on the policy and the practical implementation within the federal government. This should include concrete and prioritized actions with accompanying timelines, clearly identified roles and responsibilities and regularly measuring and reporting progress on the plan, the report states.
She also called on departments including Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Parks Canada, just to name a few, to get on board and analyze the risks within their areas and implement solutions.
One of the most important roles governments can perform is showing leadership and here the federal government’s very machinery seems to be failing.
Faced with an energy crisis in the late 1970s, for example, then U.S. president Jimmy Carter very publicly donned a sweater and turned down the thermostat in the White House.
Keeping a few rooms a few degrees cooler wasn’t going to solve the problem, but Carter understood that if he wanted his fellow citizens to take the issue seriously, he and his administration had to lead by example.
If the federal government expects Canadians to make the necessary sacrifices — and there will be some sacrifices — to address climate change, it needs to set a similar standard of leadership.