Why Conservatives Turned against the Environment

They’re busy making accusations of “eco-radicalism” while the world burns. It wasn’t always like that

A photo illustration of Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre walking away from a photo of the Athabasca oil sands cut out in the shape of his silhouette.
Celina Gallardo / Kris Krüg / Andrew Scheer / Flickr

Conservative politicians across Canada spent the final weeks of 2023 escalating their war on the environment. They focused most of their artillery on climate—a striking denouement to the worst year of extreme weather in human history.

On November 22, with his province still recovering from a summer of record drought and wildfire, British Columbia Conservative leader John Rustad held a press conference to announce that “British Columbians are not facing an existential threat from the changing climate. It isn’t a crisis.” In the following weeks, the Conservative premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan flew to COP28 in Dubai so they could obstruct international climate negotiations in person. Then, on December 6, national Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre thrust his “Axe the tax” campaign into overdrive, declaring that his party would shut down the government’s legislative agenda for the rest of the year unless prime minister Justin Trudeau repealed the carbon levy. (The attempt fizzled after one all-night filibuster session.)

These tactics are part of a larger strategy that has come to define modern Conservatives: frame ecological protection as an assault on freedom and affordability. This goes well beyond climate policy, encompassing everything from forest protection and efforts to save endangered caribou to the federal government’s failed attempt at banning single-use plastic bags.

It hasn’t always been this way. It was Conservatives, after all, who convened a global treaty to save the ozone layer in 1987, who wrote the original Environmental Protection Act that became federal law in 1988, and who signed a historic accord with the United States to curb acid rain in 1991. It was also Conservatives who first proposed a carbon tax. As recently as 2007, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper called climate change “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity.” Almost two decades later, with ecological warning lights blinking red across the planet, Conservatives have transformed themselves into a national vessel of denial.

They’re not alone. From US Republicans to Brazil’s former president Jair Bolsonaro and India’s current government under Narendra Modi, anti-environmentalism is now a hallmark of the global right. How did we get here?

In Canada, the shift occurred during the Harper years. The prime minister, who ran as an MP in Calgary, Alberta, was always a fierce promoter of oil and gas, but during his first years in office, Harper and his party were still capable of acknowledging the climate crisis. And outside of energy policy, Harper Conservatives were initially on board with protecting ecosystems. A great example was their pivotal role in the 2006 Great Bear Rainforest agreement, a landmark accord that placed 6.4 million hectares of coastal rainforest in BC under ecosystem-based management. That agreement was an early example of Indigenous-led conservation financing and remains a globally celebrated achievement. Conservatives were rightly proud of it at the time. “We know there is a strong link between a healthy ecosystem, a healthy society, and Canada’s economic prosperity,” said then environment minister John Baird upon signing the deal. Promising to continue working with First Nations and environmental groups, he added, according to the Vancouver Sun, “I hope this is a beginning and not an end.”

Famous last words. A dramatic shift in global affairs, beginning with the financial crisis of 2007/08, triggered an equally dramatic shift in Conservative priorities. With Canada’s economy suddenly in peril, protecting oil and gas revenues became paramount. This coincided with the rise of anti-pipeline activism in the very region Harper had just helped protect: the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal sought to build a pipeline through the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, bringing Alberta’s bitumen to tidewater at the coastal town of Kitimat. The same First Nations and environmental groups Baird had praised in 2007 now became the enemy as they spent the next several years successfully hobbling one of the Conservatives’ most cherished industrial projects.

American environmentalists were busy too. In 2011, massive protests culminated in then president Barack Obama’s decision to indefinitely delay approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. That made Northern Gateway, and the access it promised to Asia, more important than ever, inspiring Harper’s natural resources minister at the time, Joe Oliver, to pen an infamous open letter to Canadians in January 2012: “There are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” Oliver wrote. “Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadians in lost jobs and economic growth. No forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams.”

Canada’s subsequent environment minister, Peter Kent, joined the attack, claiming environmental charities were being used to “launder offshore funds for inappropriate use against Canadian interest.” Groups like the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, and many more suddenly became targets of a debilitating Canada Revenue Agency audit that dragged on for years.

After Trudeau took office in 2015 and officially quashed Northern Gateway, Conservative hostility to environmental protection metastasized. In 2019, Alberta premier Jason Kenney—formerly a top Harper cabinet minister—launched his cartoonish “Public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns.” Neither Kenney’s inquiry nor Harper’s audit found any instances of illegal behaviour in the green groups they targeted. All they did was add Canada to the ranks of a growing global crackdown on environmental groups that seeks to criminalize ecological protection just when it’s most needed.

It’s no coincidence that the persecution of environmentalists should rise in lockstep with the breadth and magnitude of ecological catastrophes now unfolding across the globe. It is a textbook example of shooting the messenger. (Thankfully that’s still a figure of speech in Canada, but not elsewhere; worldwide, almost 2,000 environmental activists have been killed in the past decade, averaging one every two days.)

The Canadian Conservatives’ obsession with the carbon tax is now the most prominent example of this scapegoating. It’s also the most revealing. They portray the carbon levy as a prime cause of the catastrophic inflation that’s afflicted the entire world. Most countries don’t have a carbon tax; inflation hasn’t spared them. In Canada, the carbon price contributes 0.15 percent to inflation that topped out at 8.1 percent in 2022, according to Bank of Canada data, and is now hovering just over 3 percent. Compare that to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting spike in oil and gas prices, or to the impact of extreme weather on global harvests over the past three summers, both of which outweighed the impact on food-price inflation. Or consider the pandemic and its decimation of supply chains, which accounted for a third of global inflation at its 2022 peak.

Each of those inflationary causes outweighs the carbon tax by an order of magnitude. The first two (Ukraine and extreme weather) are directly tied to our dependence on fossil fuel—the very thing a carbon tax is designed to address. The third (supply chain disruption) was an indirect result of ecological breakdown: over the past century, habitat destruction has driven a dramatic increase in the emergence of zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19.

Of course, there are also many non-environmental contributors to inflation. But there are just as many non-economic consequences of ecological collapse. The rise of a warped conservativism is apparently one of them.

A basic requirement of anyone seeking to lead society through this harrowing moment in history should be to acknowledge that our biosphere is at a breaking point. The fact that every other major party in Canada has met this low bar shouldn’t be interpreted as a ringing endorsement. Far from it: Canadians need a responsible alternative to the federal Liberals. Instead, we have an official opposition that is busy making accusations of “eco-radicalism” and “Justinflation” while the world around them burns.

They say those things for a reason, of course. There are plenty of voters who will reward any party willing to shoot the messenger. In terms of politics, that’s an effective strategy. In terms of survival, not so much.

With thanks to the Trottier Foundation for helping The Walrus publish writing on climate change and the environment.

Arno Kopecky
Arno Kopecky is a contributing writer for The Walrus.