The Political Downside of Saving the Planet

Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan was ambitious and smart. So why was it so easy for Jason Kenney to kill it?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney stands with his arms open as he speaks to reporters after appearing at the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources
The Canadian Press/Justin Tang

In April, after more than two years of railing against Alberta’s NDP government, Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party were handed a decisive victory by the Alberta electorate. That win appears to have been built, in no small part, on the disdain many Albertans had for the carbon tax that the NDP introduced in 2017, one that Kenney branded as “job killing.” His government’s first piece of legislation, Kenney has promised, will officially repeal it—and set the stage for a major battle between those who believe that carbon pricing is a critical piece of an effective climate-change policy and those who believe attacking carbon pricing is the surest path to political success.

In Alberta, that path began at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton, where on November 22, 2015, the province’s first new government in over forty years announced the Climate Leadership Plan. The NDP’s ambitious package of policies was headlined by an economy-wide price on carbon dioxide (one that would start at $20 per tonne in 2017 and rise to $30 per tonne in 2018), a phase-out of coal-fired electricity, a target for 30 percent electricity from renewable sources, and a 100 megatonne emissions limit on the oil sands. Premier Rachel Notley even managed to get oil-sands CEOs like Cenovus’s Brian Ferguson, Suncor’s Steve Williams, and Shell’s Lorraine Mitchelmore to share a stage with her and some of the province’s leading environmentalists in order to formally introduce all of this to Albertans.

But, while it might have been tempting to think that the energy sector was ready to embrace the Climate Leadership Plan, the CEOs on that stage were hedging their bets, not placing them. They knew they had to work with that government for at least the next few years and that policies affecting their businesses had yet to be fully designed or implemented. “We’ve learned to listen and understand, and found there were great areas of common concern,” Suncor’s Williams was quoted as saying in the Edmonton Sun. More to the point, perhaps, they were already accustomed to living with a price on carbon, since they’d been paying it for the better part of a decade by that point. The Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, which came into effect in 2007, required large industrial emitters, like oil-sands mines, to reduce their emissions intensity by a modest amount each year or pay a $15-per-tonne carbon tax.

The real test would be with the rest of the province, and it soon became clear that wasn’t going to go nearly as well. In the summer of 2016, the NDP government launched a $4.4 million advertising campaign that introduced the climate package. The tagline described the plan as “the right thing to do for our health, environment and economy.” When Calgary pollster Janet Brown saw the ad, she knew immediately it wasn’t going to fly with the public. “This whole idea of it being the right thing to do, I think, came off to Albertans as morally self-righteous,” she said.

The problem was bigger than just the words. That same ad opened with a woman casually watering her green roof, a sight that’s about as common in Alberta as an “I ❤ Trudeau” bumper sticker. “They were just completely out of touch with the economic anxiety that was starting to simmer exactly when those ads were being rolled out,” said Brown. “Watering grass on your roof—this is supposed to represent life in Alberta?”

Asking Albertans to embrace the virtuousness of a climate plan at the very moment they were scared of collapsing oil prices and the impact on livelihoods was a recipe for failure. That failure, and the decisions that led up to it, tells a compelling story about why politicians struggle to move public opinion on environmental issues and what might be needed to break through to voters. The most important takeaway from the Climate Leadership Plan’s demise? Understand who you’re talking to first.

The Alberta Narratives Project (ANP) was an effort to learn how Albertans think and talk about the province’s energy future. It was supported by eighteen core funders, including the Pembina Institute, the University of Calgary, and Suncor. Its two-volume report, which draws on fifty-five workshops held over the spring of 2018, included a range of messages that tested well with Albertans, such as tying climate-change initiatives to a sense of gratitude towards the oil-and-gas industry’s contributions or emphasizing the importance of diversifying the provincial economy. But, unfortunately for the NDP, those weren’t the messages Notley’s government chose to rely upon.

On the question of whether Alberta should be a climate leader—an important question, given the branding of the Climate Leadership Plan—the ANP gave a thumbs down, noting that “there is insufficient acceptance of climate change for people to accept policies that, they fear, will impact the productivity of the oil industry.” The notion of a “made in Alberta” climate policy, one that the Notley government referred to in virtually every climate-change-related press release, didn’t speak to Albertans either. “Many people rejected the confrontational and anti-Canadian framing. Those who might support provincial rights did not feel sufficient ownership of the current policy (originating from one party) to lend it their support.” The ANP’s first report also revealed irritation at the use of euphemisms and slogans. “Participants generally expressed a dislike, and sometimes a disgust, with massaged slogans which people described as ‘sounding like a politician.’” In other words, referring to it as a “levy,” rather than a tax, may not have been the best idea.

But the Notley government’s biggest mistake might be that it shied away from any kind of broader conversation about its climate plan once the carbon tax came into effect on January 1, 2017. After spending $9 million in 2016 on two separate advertising campaigns that introduced the Climate Leadership Plan to Albertans, the government spent far less over the next two years telling them about the actual benefits the plan was creating. Those benefits included funding the Green Line LRT project in Calgary, founding Energy Efficiency Alberta (which, through subsidies and rebate programs for energy-efficient devices and appliances, reportedly resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings for Albertans), or leading the hugely successful results of the first three rounds of the Renewable Electricity Program (which included record low prices for wind power in Canada).

Instead, the party pivoted to pipelines, with Notley fashioning herself as the champion of the province’s energy sector. This decision was almost certainly a response to some pretty lousy poll numbers from early 2017, which showed that nearly two-thirds of Albertans opposed the carbon tax. But, as a poll conducted for the Parkland Institute at the same time revealed, those negative opinions turned more positive if revenues from the carbon tax were said to fund an array of public programs, policies, and initiatives. According to Parkland’s poll, 64 percent of people in Calgary—where the NDP got shellacked in the 2019 election—supported a carbon tax that was used to invest in public transit and renewable energy, while 50 percent of self-identified PCs and 39 percent of Wildrose supporters (the two parties that would later merge to form the UCP) were in favour of it.

The Climate Leadership Plan was always going to be a tough sell. But the Parkland poll confirms that by sidelining discussion of its climate plan, the NDP made the task much harder than it needed to be. In 2015, Clare Demerse—today a senior policy advisor for federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna—wrote a report on British Columbia’s effective rollout of its economy-wide carbon tax in 2008, and she attributed that success, in part, to the government staying on message. “You can’t just announce it and one day, put up a couple of people to speak to it and then go away,” Demerse told the CBC. “You are going to be explaining this and defending this for a long time.”

Katharine Hayhoe is a Canadian climate researcher who lives and works in Texas and has attracted international acclaim for her insights into how we can escape the seemingly endless back and forth between those who believe in the science behind climate change and those who don’t. “What can we do to break this vicious cycle?” she asked in a 2018 TEDWomen talk. “The number one thing we can do is the exact thing that we’re not doing: talk about it.” Hayhoe believes that getting people talking about climate change is the necessary first step towards getting them to think about it more constructively. Case in point: the Alberta Narratives Project found that its workshops were the first time that many of the people in attendance had spoken about the issue in public.

Instead of talking about facts or science, however, Hayhoe says those conversations have to address shared values. And perhaps the most commonly shared value in Alberta is scorn for taxes of any kind. “We like to think of Alberta as this conservative place,” says Brown. “But Albertans aren’t so much conservative as they are tax averse. Beyond the fact that we don’t like paying taxes, we’re not fiscally conservative in any other way. We love our social programs, and we love when government spends money—we just don’t like paying the money.”

The NDP’s inability to design a communications strategy that took Alberta’s hatred for taxes into account revealed that the party didn’t entirely understand the narratives shaping the province’s mindset. Another narrative Notley’s climate plan underestimated, for example, was that much of the population still actively questions the science behind climate change and the role of human activity in it. According to a 2018 survey conducted for Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, 46 percent of Albertans attribute climate change to “natural patterns in the Earth’s environment,” while 16 percent deny that the earth is even warming at all.

To recap: no one in Notley’s party seemed to appreciate the political perils of introducing a tax in Alberta that was justified on the basis of its ability to fight a problem many residents didn’t think existed. If you want your climate plan to have a fighting chance at success, in other words, you might want to consider who you’re trying to persuade.

It also didn’t help that the NDP asked Albertans to swallow the bitter pill of a new tax without giving everyone a sweetener to chase it with. Pricing carbon in a way that helps offset its financial impact on taxpayers—and that encourages political acceptance—requires a rebate program of some kind. But the rebate program that Alberta brought in, while generous, wasn’t universal. According to NDP’s own estimates, the Climate Leadership Plan included rebates for more than half the population (individuals earning less than $47,500 a year and families that brought home less than $95,000), but the plan also left out hundreds of thousands of people. “Because it’s income tested, it opened up the critique of it just being a wealth-redistribution program,” says University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe. “I think that’s ridiculous and silly, but you hear it a lot.”

In 2019, after more than two years of the carbon tax and with the provincial election in the offing, Albertans began to see some tangible benefits from the Climate Leadership Plan’s policies. The coal phase-out was putting a meaningful dent in Alberta’s overall emissions, and Energy Efficiency Alberta was supporting job creation and economic activity across the province. The Renewable Electricity Program was delivering wind and solar power at less than five cents per kilowatt hour, and Emissions Reduction Alberta was investing in all sorts of low-carbon technologies that will help the province’s energy sector reduce its emissions and improve its competitiveness for years to come.

But Albertans only saw these benefits if they were willing to look for them. Many in the province had already made up their minds. “Their first impressions were that [the NDP government] was out of touch with the concerns of Albertans,” said Brown, “and that they were pushing an agenda that didn’t match those concerns.” And even if people had been paying attention, the Notley government’s decision to make its political stand on the issue of pipelines meant most people weren’t able to draw the necessary correlations between the NDP’s climate plan and its benefits. As the Edmonton Journal’s Emma Graney and Janet French noted in a two-part story in March about the Climate Leadership Plan’s impact on Alberta, the gulf between the good the policies were doing and the damage they were perceived to be causing was as wide as ever. “More than two years into the tax,” they wrote, “many just don’t see the link between paying more for gas and the new solar panels on their farm or local recreation centre.”

This isn’t entirely surprising. After all, as Niccolò Machiavelli noted a few centuries ago, politicians are rarely rewarded for trying to do something new that conflicts with the old. “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things,” he wrote. “Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”

That said, the failure of the Climate Leadership Plan also reflected the fact that it effectively asked Albertans to make an investment in a future they might not be a part of. The biggest benefits of the plan would accrue to future generations, and in a province where saving for the future has long been a struggle—look no further than the pitiful balance left in the province’s Heritage Fund, the savings account for its oil-and-gas tax revenues that was established back in 1976—this was always going to be a difficult political pitch to make.

Alberta isn’t alone there. The challenge of implementing policies in the present to avoid disaster in the future has bedeviled many democratically elected governments. In Australia, blowback from efforts to introduce a carbon tax cost two different Labour Party prime ministers their posts. In Ontario, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government’s approach to phasing out coal-fired electricity ended up badly damaging the Kathleen Wynne Liberal government’s chances at reelection.

Chris Turner, a Calgary-based journalist who has written a great deal about climate issues, says the Notley government could have stood to be a bit more deliberate in how it presented the Climate Leadership Plan. “It seems, from the cheap seats, like they were very caught up in making it work and didn’t think about selling it until it was already out there,” he says. “Every second word out of their mouths should have been, ‘Lowest rates anyone’s ever seen for renewable energy.’ It felt like they were wonky about it when they should have been a lot more sales oriented.”

Turner readily concedes that there may have been no communications strategy savvy enough to overcome the forces working against Notley’s climate plan. “It’s understandable that some things fell through the cracks,” he says. “But there some easy wins they didn’t take. I would’ve liked to have seen them take more victory laps.”

Newly elected premier Jason Kenney won’t make that same mistake. His first victory lap, it seems, is going to be focused on dismantling many of the policies that made up the Climate Leadership Plan, first among them the economy-wide price on carbon. He can undo the policies, but he may not be able to completely reverse their impact on Alberta. The industrial carbon price will get rebranded and made less stringent, but its basic structure should remain the same—and it’s a structure that, according to a December 2018 blog post by environmental economist Andrew Leach, has largely been copied at the federal level. “That large-emitter system is the blueprint for similar programs throughout the country,” the University of Calgary’s Trevor Tombe says. “And it’s here to stay.”

And while Kenney has said in the past that he “digs coal,” the recent experience south of the border suggests there’s no way a politician can turn back the clock on the coal phase-out portion of the Climate Leadership Plan. “I’d be shocked if it’s reversed,” says Tim Weis, a professor at the University of Alberta and former policy adviser to former environment minister Shannon Phillips, “because I’d be shocked if any of the companies are interested in actually having those assets around long term. They’re seen as a liability now that they have an exit strategy for them.”

The Renewable Electricity Program, meanwhile, has ended up clearly establishing that Alberta’s wind and solar resources can stand on their own. “That wouldn’t have happened—or it would have been a very hard conversation—without the price discovery that the Renewable Energy Program gave us,” says Sara Hastings-Simon, a research fellow at the University of Calgary. “Now it’s a totally different conversation.”

If the federal carbon price can survive October’s federal election, Tombe says the Climate Leadership Plan will have played an important role there as well. “Just having Alberta bite the bullet first, I think, did provide the space to the feds to announce their backstop program.” It also taught them some lessons about how best to manage the inevitable political backlash. Unlike Alberta’s carbon-levy rebate, which was means-tested and delivered in quarterly instalments—something that may have diminished its perceived impact—the federal rebate program applies to everyone in the provinces, like Ontario and Saskatchewan, where it’s being applied. Better yet, for many people, the rebates arrived (in the form of a federal-income-tax credit) before they’d ever paid a nickel in carbon taxes.

Still, the stakes for the fall election are clear—and the battle is far from won. “If carbon pricing doesn’t survive in October, then I don’t see that it would ever be brought back any time soon,” Tombe says. “And it might be a defeat even larger than the one we saw under Stéphane Dion, where that only lasted for about a decade.” If the carbon tax does survive, the rest of the country may have Alberta—and its Climate Leadership Plan—to thank for the lessons we learned along the way.

Max Fawcett
Max Fawcett (@maxfawcett) is a former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines.