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NDP Takes Heat on Global Warming

Stance against carbon tax steams BC enviros.

By Tom Barrett 4 Jun 2008 |

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee with a focus on global warming policy and politics. You can reach him here.

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NDP leader James: Playing politics?

[Editor's note: Yesterday, The Tyee looked at what environmentalists think about the B.C. government's record on climate change during the recent sitting of the legislature. Today, we focus a similar lens on the Opposition.]

A couple of weeks ago, the B.C. New Democrats sent out an e-mail to supporters that gleefully quoted the Canadian Taxpayers Federation's attacks on the carbon tax.

The normally pro-Liberal federation's fury was a sign of the Apocalypse, the NDP chortled.

What may be even more apocalyptic is the way the NDP has lined up with the federation against the carbon tax.

Say what you want about strange bedfellows, but you wouldn't normally expect to see the NDP standing shoulder-to-shoulder against a government "tax grab" with a group that's not sold on the idea that global warming is bad.

The media often make too much of the supposed natural affiliation between the NDP and the environmental movement -- after all, the two were at war during most of the '90s.

But the NDP's apparent determination to use the carbon tax as a key issue in an election campaign based on class and regional grievances has upset many B.C. eco-types.

'Cheap political points'

The NDP's war against the tax appears to be a way to score "cheap political points," said Andrea Reimer, of the Wilderness Committee.

"The NDP, in their approach to the carbon tax, have politicized something," she said. "To paraphrase [David] Suzuki's line, the atmosphere could not give a shit about which party is in power.

"It's not a political issue. It's a global survival issue."

Reimer became the first Green Party representative to be elected to public office in Canada when she won a seat on the Vancouver School Board in 2002. She was once the communications director of the Green Party of B.C., but is no longer involved in federal or provincial politics.

She said experts agree that putting a price on carbon through some kind of carbon tax is necessary to reduce climate change causing emissions.

To hear NDP leader Carole James describe the carbon tax as a "gas tax" is "really disappointing," Reimer said.

"Burning fuel is in large part what causes the emissions, so of course it's going to be a tax on fuel and gas," she said.

Despite her disappointment, Reimer said the NDP did improve during the sitting, which ended last week.

"I would have given them an 'F' a month ago, but they've come a long ways," she said.

Following a slow start on climate issues, the NDP has consulted with its core constituency, she said. The party met with the Wilderness Committee and was receptive to its suggestions, said Reimer.

Confusion about CO2 policy

A number of environmentalists complained that they don't know what, exactly, is the NDP policy on climate change.

Ian Bruce, of the David Suzuki Foundation, noted that James spoke in favour of the principle of a carbon tax last November, in a speech to the Take the Lead conference.

He said he's not sure if James still supports the principle and, if so, what she thinks a tax should look like.

Matt Horne, of the Pembina Institute, echoed Bruce's comments.

"I'd much rather see them putting forward a clear solution to how they would rather see things being done," he said. "Just being opposed to it I don't see as being particularly constructive."

Like the Liberals, he said, the NDP has yet to put forward a plan that matches the ambition of the government's targets.

A carbon tax is not the only tool to reduce emissions and if the NDP has a better method it should raise it for debate, he said.

Horne added that the NDP has raised some important concerns around the government's climate change legislation. The party, he said, made some significant points about freedom of information provisions in the cap and trade legislation, which critics said created "a wall of secrecy" around corporate greenhouse gas emissions.

The government eventually backed down and amended the legislation.

'Playing politics'

Susan Howatt, of Sierra Club B.C., called for more environmental leadership from the NDP.

"I'm not sure if there's a misperception among the caucus, but their active blocking of cap and trade and the carbon tax is just highly disappointing from an environmental policy perspective," she said.

The NDP has criticized the carbon tax as unfair, but the government's scheme contains significant support for low-income families, she said. And Statistics Canada census data suggest that northerners have much shorter commutes than people in the Lower Mainland.

If the NDP's concerned about fairness, then there are "all sorts of opportunities" to improve the tax, Howatt said.

"But simply blocking quite necessary pieces of legislation to curry political favour is not on.... I think they're playing politics instead of playing common sense."

'Constructive discussion' urged

Kevin Washbrook, of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, described the NDP's record on climate change during the recent sitting as "overall, frustratingly reactionary."

"The carbon tax is the big thing -- they were just really disappointingly partisan on that front. When Carole James comes out swinging, saying 'the premier from Point Grey's gas tax,' she's not leaving a lot of room for constructive discussion about how to do things better."

Imagine, Washbrook said, if James had instead said, "This is great, we need a carbon tax, B.C.'s at the front. Here's see how we can make it better."

Washbrook also criticized the lack of a comprehensive NDP climate change policy.

"All I've heard from her so far is, 'We'll go and consult around the province.'

"Consultation is good, but so is leadership and it sounds like her approach could end up with a policy that is full of loopholes and exemptions and breaks for this group and that group and so on."

Worries of a 'break down' in debate

Washbrook said the NDP has done a good job in some areas. He said it was right to criticize the secrecy provisions of the cap and trade legislation, and to question the government's clean fuels legislation, which requires an increase in the use of ethanol just as the drawbacks of ethanol are becoming apparent.

"But I would say overall, what is the NDP's alternative vision for emissions reductions? If they don't like what the province is doing, what would they do instead? And I haven't heard them come out with a real vision in that way."

He said he is worried that "the whole debate in B.C is going to break down."

If the government doesn't get its act together and show that it is going to make big corporate emitters pay for emissions to the same extent as ordinary people, the climate change issue could split the province, Washbrook said.

"We could see this thing break down along party lines in B.C. with the Liberals talking about personal responsibility and the carbon tax and the NDP talking about getting a break for the little guy and nailing the big polluters."

Said Washbrook:

"I just think we need to move beyond that kind of partisan politics, you know. The problem's too big and we need to be doing all of these things at once and not dividing into two camps that line up behind the NDP and the Liberals."

Tomorrow: How the NDP plans to handle the carbon debate in its election campaign.

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