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A Conservative Grassroots Thick with Climate Crisis Deniers

Poilievre and rivals face a big crack in their base. Can they talk their way around it?

Geoff Dembicki 21 Jun 2022TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Rolling Stone and the New York Times.

Tom Harris isn’t convinced that Pierre Poilievre, the frontrunner to become the next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, thinks that the climate emergency is real.

“I don’t think Pierre Poilievre does,” Harris told The Tyee. “I’ve spoken to various people who work with him, and they implied that. But they couldn’t just say outright that he doesn’t believe it.”

The reason for this? Because Poilievre’s competitors for the leadership “would jump on him.”

Harris speaks as one who publicly disputes the fundamentals of climate science. In fact, he’s taken that stance in the Financial Post and other mainstream Canadian media not just lately but for decades.

Back in the early 2000s, he was legislative assistant to Canadian Alliance MP Bob Mills, helping write press releases where his boss claimed that “the science of climate change is immature.” Harris has since then been a frequent speaker at conferences put on by the Heartland Institute, a think tank that currently argues “most scientists do not believe human greenhouse gas emissions are a proven threat to the environment or to human well-being.”

His denialism reflects the views of many who tend to vote Conservative, Harris claims. And that schism — between Conservatives who acknowledge the climate crisis is real and those who don’t — poses a big problem for whoever is chosen to be the next leader of the party.

In saying so, Harris draws on his experience as leader of a group called the International Climate Science Coalition, whose website disputes that “‘greenhouse gases’ are a cause of dangerous climate change.” Harris said he had a booth at the recent Canada Strong & Free Network conference in Ottawa, the top networking event for the conservative movement, and there he met many grassroots Conservative party members who were amenable to his message.

Along with Harris, others are “working hard” to convince these members to reject “climate alarmism,” explained Jack Fonseca, director of political operations for Campaign Life Coalition, one of Canada’s most influential anti-abortion groups. Fonseca’s hope is that “the grassroots base of the party doesn’t buy into the fearmongering.”

These efforts are contributing to a split in the Conservative base on climate change, even as some vying for the party’s leadership take pains to reassure Canadians they care about addressing the threat.

Jean Charest argues there should be a carbon tax on industrial polluters, warning a leadership candidates’ debate in May that “We will not be elected as a political party if we’re not credible on this.”

Poilievre meanwhile acknowledges that climate change is real and said the best way to address it is by producing the “cleanest, greenest” oil and gas “anywhere on Earth.”

But the previous Conservative leader Erin O’Toole faced scathing criticism from within the party over his support for a national price on carbon emissions — and it was arguably a factor that prevented him from becoming prime minister during the 2021 federal election.

That gulf has not been closed, say skeptics from within both the fiscally and socially conservative wings of the party. In Harris’s telling, it threatens to swallow the party entirely.

“If the next Conservative Party of Canada leader does not speak strongly against the climate scare, as many in the grassroots of the party apparently want, the party can expect increasingly severe problems going forward,” Harris said. “I think the party will largely self-destruct.”

A dramatic example of this dysfunction could be seen during the Conservative party’s 2021 policy convention, when then-leader O’Toole told delegates that the debate on whether global warming is happening “is over” and that the party “cannot ignore the reality of climate change.”

“We need to boldly reclaim the environment as an area where Conservatives are leaders,” he said, or else risk being branded as “climate change deniers.”

Grassroots members were unconvinced. By a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent, they voted down a proposal that would have added language saying that “climate change is real” and the party is “willing to act” to the Conservative policy book.

“I'm not sure why it's necessary for the Conservative party to declare climate change is real," one delegate from Scarborough Centre told CBC at the time.

A climate denial and anti-abortion nexus

The strongest opposition to the policy resolution reportedly came from delegates from western provinces, where the oil and gas industry looms large as an employer and a political flashpoint. But opposition was also catalyzed by a less obvious source: an anti-abortion group.

In the lead-up to the convention, Campaign Life Coalition, an influential player in the conservative base, issued a voter’s guide instructing delegates to vote against the climate resolution, claiming that: “The science on man-made global warming theory is in dispute. Global warming is being used by global elites and the United Nations to advance population control through abortion and sterilization.”

Following that vote, supporters “contacted us for more information on this statement because they’d never heard of any connection between climate change politics and population control or abortion,” a statement on its website reads.

“It’s quite simple, in that the climate alarmism movement is very much tied to the depopulation agenda,” Fonseca told The Tyee. “[Climate activists] want fewer human beings on the planet. The politicization of climate change being a threat to the planet is leading people to abortion.”

Fonseca explained that since the convention vote last year, social conservatives are waking up to the role they can play in opposing green policies. “It’s important for voices within the Conservative party and conservative movement to push back on the big lie of man-made global warming,” he said.

In Fonseca’s opinion the current frontrunner for the leadership, Poilievre, has so far failed that test by not stating publicly that “man-made” climate change isn’t happening. Even worse, he said, Poilievre told La Presse in 2020 that he wouldn’t support any new bill targeting abortions.

“I like watching him eviscerate Liberals on TV,” Fonseca said. “But you can’t trust him.”

Poilievre’s campaign said that it’s signing up record numbers of new members to the party. However, that apparent groundswell of support could be dampened by Campaign Life Coalition and other anti-abortion groups telling their supporters not to vote for Poilievre.

“Social conservatives make a large chunk of the Conservative base and they have been very influential in the last few leadership races… so I don’t see that changing with this race,” a spokesperson for the anti-abortion group RightNow told the National Post earlier this year.

And this will be the first Conservative leadership convention after the rise of the trucker convoy movement, the boisterous heir to the yellow-vesters who made pumping more oil and no carbon tax a rallying cry that drew right-wing extremist participants.

If appealing to such sentiments is critical to securing the leadership, the same stance might harm the Tory candidate’s chance of winning a general election, say analysts.

‘You’re going to be cut into ribbons’

Conservative celebrity professor Jordan Peterson surfaced that conundrum during a mid-May interview with Poilievre, who described how he wanted to expand oil and gas production in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“What makes you think you can take on the woke crowd in relationship to such things?” Peterson asked. “[They] could say, ‘What about the planet, what about the climate crisis, you’re going to turn back to fossil fuels, you’re going to demolish the globe in the next 30 years.’

“You’re going to be cut into ribbons by that crowd,” warned Peterson.

“Well, our resources are not the problem, they’re the solution,” Poilievre responded. “For example, if we export our natural gas we can displace foreign coal-burning electricity.” He suggested small modular nuclear reactors for decarbonizing the oilsands and carbon capture and storage technology for burying fossil fuel emissions.

But for Harris and his supporters even these minimal steps represent “ceding ground to leftists” on climate change. “There’s no point in trying to reduce CO2,” he said.

In his Financial Post op-eds, emails to supporters and private conversations with party insiders, Harris is urging Conservative leaders to reject such measures altogether. Poilievre fails his requirements. “He’s not very brave because he’s not standing up to the climate scare that is the greatest threat to Canadian energy.”

Harris adds, “I think the outcome of continuing to support the climate scare is that the Conservatives will stay weak, because their base will not be energized.”

The ‘not concerned at all’ splinter group

Most Canadians take the opposite view on the rising climate emergency. A global sustainability poll conducted earlier this year found that large majorities of likely Liberal voters (87 per cent) are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about climate change. For likely NDP voters the numbers (90 per cent) are even higher.

But only 58 per cent of potential Conservative voters agree that the climate is a cause for concern — and one-in-five say they are “not concerned at all.” That dismissive attitude is shared by nearly half of all People’s Party of Canada supporters.

Those numbers starkly portray the obstacle course Poilievre and his rivals for the Conservative leadership face as they must court their base without losing credibility with the wider public.

Flooding, heat waves and wildfires increasingly fill the headlines and the United Nations and other international bodies warn that science firmly shows that humanity has but a short time to make sweeping changes to lower the rate of greenhouse gas accumulation in our atmosphere.

Yet during the last leadership debate, candidates barely mentioned global temperature rise, causing David Moscrop to ask in the Washington Post: “when will Canada’s Conservatives take climate change seriously?”

Poilievre himself has been accused in the Toronto Star of “shrugging off” the issue. There could be sound political reasons for that. A separate Angus Reid poll suggests only 12 per cent of his supporters see the environment and climate change as the top issue facing Canada.

Yet even Poilievre feels the need to have some sort of climate plan.

Harris prefers to consider this merely theatre. The reason Poilievre and his rivals must appear to take climate change somewhat seriously is because they’ll need to pull climate-worried voters into the Conservative camp in the next federal election.

“Whether the party’s leaders actually believe it or not is a good question,” muses Harris, a skeptic to the end.  [Tyee]

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