New research indicates that the environment has surged into a top-ranking concern for Canadian voters ahead of the federal election this fall.

Photo illustration: Michael Lobsinger/D1Zi

The environment has not been so front and center in Canadian politics since the early 1990s. October’s federal election suddenly has three parties (Greens, Liberals and NDP) looking to outdo each other on environmental concerns. It has been a long time since government in Ottawa made our glaringly obvious environmental problems a leading priority. What happened?

Increasing visibility happened: starved whales washing ashore with stomachs full of plastic, mass puffin deaths likely a result of climate change, above normal scale and frequency of wild fires and flooding and the recent devastating IPCC climate report. But also, crucially: Trump, Ford and Kenney determined to ignore our urgent environmental problems and, worse, to aggressively erase long-established protections and, perhaps most important to the green shift in priorities, the stunning worldwide political interventions of savvy young people.

Work to get young people thinking about their futures and older people thinking about their grandchildren’s futures. If we can do that, most Canadians will figure out the right thing to do in the voting booth."

As in the 1970s, new environmental organizations are proliferating: the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion to name three. They take to the streets peacefully and playfully and are quickly changing global public consciousness. American Presidential candidates are endorsing the Green New Deal and green parties recently made big gains in the European Parliament and elsewhere.

Canada’s Green Party is also surging: electing provincial leader Mike Schreiner as Guelph MPP, winning a federal by-election in British Columbia, electing three members in New Brunswick and becoming the official opposition in PEI. Federally, Greens are now polling at 10-11% and, importantly I think, Elizabeth May will participate in this autumn’s televised leader debates. The Canadian political landscape could be moving toward a system with four major parties.

Regardless, a three-way competition for pro-environment voters is underway. The Liberals, doubtless reading opinion polls carefully, are 1) pushing hard on a carbon tax, 2) eliminating the captivity of whales and dolphins and 3) proposing elimination of single-use plastics by 2021. All are very positive steps. The NDP, also losing ground to the Greens, has offered bold proposals in the spirit of the Green New Deal advanced in the US and elsewhere. The NDP has included energy efficiency renovations of virtually every building in Canada by 2050. The Green Party, of course, has had broad and bold plans on climate in its platform for years and, of late, had pushed for the parliamentary initiative on whales and dolphins. The question remaining now is what do environmental voters do in the federal election to maintain this new momentum?

Absent electoral reform our decision as voters is not easy, all the options involve complications and unknowns. My own first choice in terms of outcome is for a minority government that includes any combination of the three parties that do not more or less exclude environmental action (other than cutting Environment Canada budgets). A ‘Minority government comprised of only the pro-environment parties’ is not, alas, a single ballot circle where one can put an ‘X’.

There are things to learn or decide before making one’s choice. Has the incumbent in one’s riding demonstrated environmental concern through past actions? What is in each party platform? Which candidates and parties emphasize aggressive initiatives on climate change? For those considering strategic voting, what is the prior voting history in your riding (does the best party have any chance)? Is the worst party competitive in the riding (if not, vote freely for your first choice)? What do current polls show about this time (how much have things shifted)? And, importantly, is it time to consider just putting aside strategic voting considerations?

These are all tough questions, but here are some suggestions. Work out a personal plan soon enough to participate on behalf of your choice early on so that you can help with a campaign. Even without a plan, go to all-candidates meetings and ask environmental questions. Talk to friends and family about why this election, and environmental issues, are urgent this time around. Work to get young people thinking about their futures and older people thinking about their grandchildren’s futures. If we can do that, most Canadians will figure out the right thing to do in the voting booth.

Robert Paehlke is a professor emeritus at Trent University where he taught environmental policy and politics for 35 years. About 40 years ago, he envisioned a magazine that was both scientifically sound and journalistically interesting, and Alternatives was born. “Bob P,” as we call him, sits on the magazine’s editorial board and he contributes articles and blog posts as often as we can trick him into it.

He is the author of Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics (1989), Democracy's Dilemma: Environment, Social Equity and the Global Economy (2004), Some Like It Cold: The Politics of Climate Change in Canada (2008) and Hegemony and Global Citizenship (2014).  

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