In my previous column, I suggested that you participate in the ongoing federal election campaign by choosing an issue that you feel is important and following how the parties are dealing with that issue. I haven’t made my decision about my most important issue yet, but this week I want to present one potential candidate and explain why I think it’s important—but first a few words about what we mean by this oft-used word “policy.”
Thomas Dye is an eminent political scientist who has written extensively about public policy. He developed what has come to be the standard definition of public policy: a policy is whatever governments do, or don’t do. It’s short, but it covers the topic well. First, it refers to what government actually DO; you get no points with Dye for good intentions. You should look at what parties have done in the past on your issue, and you should assess their plans if they are successful in the election. Is the party’s stated plan really attainable? Or does it have so many moving parts involving so many other actors that implementing it successfully will be very difficult?
The second lesson to take from Dye’s definition is that not doing something is just as much of a policy as doing something. When governments choose to ignore an issue like poverty or homelessness, that constitutes a policy. The government’s policy is to accept the status quo with regard to poverty or homelessness.
The policy of most political parties with regard to climate change has been to express the best of intentions while not really taking any positive steps to deal with it. Remember that according to Dye, you get no points for good intentions, so that means that the climate change policy of most governments has been to ignore it.
It is tempting to ignore climate change because it is a complicated issue, and it is a somewhat invisible issue in the sense that we do not see day-to-day changes. It is also an inconvenient issue, as Al Gore put it, because the main way to solve it is by adjusting our behaviour in inconvenient ways—driving less, getting more protein from plant rather than animal sources. However, the truth is that by ignoring it we are accumulating a significant environmental deficit which we are passing on to our children and grandchildren.
We worry a great deal about budget deficits because we feel guilty about passing the responsibility to pay off the deficit to future generations. By the way, we don’t often mention that we are also passing along to our progeny the roads, bridges, utilities, and other infrastructure assets that we built using those budget deficits, but that can be the topic of another discussion.
The truth is that we are passing on to our children a significant environmental deficit in the form of the melting icecaps, changing ocean currents, and volatile weather patterns. This environmental deficit does not have the same high profile as the budget deficit because it is virtually impossible to quantify the dollar figure of this very real deficit. The fact that we do not attach a dollar figure to it does not make it any less real. We are passing along a very serious problem to our children and grandchildren, probably a much worse problem than the budget deficit that we fret about so much.
Climate change has not attracted a great deal of attention on the campaign trail at this point, but the campaign is still young
Climate change has not attracted a great deal of attention on the campaign trail at this point, but the campaign is still young. My reading of the platforms of the three major parties provided some interesting points.
The federal Liberals have adopted a carbon tax, which is a step in the right direction, while at the same time advocating for the construction of a pipeline. Instead of ignoring the issue, the Liberals have adopted contradictory approaches.
The Conservatives have devoted eight pages (not including pictures) in their 160-page policy document to climate change. Much of their approach is fairly complicated. Every Canadian will have a Personal Low Carbon Savings Account, which will be credited every time you spend money at the gas pump. This will be handled through Interac, so it will provide a nice subsidy to Interac and leave curmudgeons like me who pay for gas with cash out of luck. You will be able to spend the accumulated funds in this account on things like a bicycle or energy-efficient windows.
The NDP has devoted a major section of its “Ready for Better” document to climate action. In this section it has seven “Commitments to Canadians.” The NDP seems to be saying the right thing, but there is not much detail. We will have to listen to what is said during the campaign to assess where climate action fits on the NDP’s agenda.
So, I’m still thinking about what my major issue should be. Given the long-term implications of climate change, I am leaning toward it rather than other very important, but shorter-term issues such as Afghanistan or the role of private health care clinics. I will certainly be listening closely to what candidates say on the campaign trail about climate change. ◆
David Siegel is Brock University emeritus professor of Political Science.