Leveraging subnational climate action in an age of populism: What the world can learn from Canada

2 May 2017

Those working to step up climate action in countries where governments are hostile to their message should take note of the Canadian example, explains the author of this post. They should feel optimistic about the progress seen in job creation and economic affordability in the renewables sector and understand that a future federal climate plan will work best when it is built upon a foundation of subnational support structures.


"Canada is back, my friends," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boldly declared at the Paris Climate Summit back in November 2015. The quote went viral on social media, as progressive Canadians collectively exhaled after nine years of conservative leadership and inaction on climate change under Stephen Harper.

As a Canadian and a regular at UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiation meetings, the shift was remarkable. For years, I endured questions from colleagues and friends from other countries: “We’re making progress here this week, why is Canada blocking? I thought you were the good guys!”

Then, quite suddenly, we were seeing re-engagement with the climate negotiation process, funding for renewable energy initiatives, and rebranding the federal environment department from “Environment Canada” to “Environment and Climate Change Canada.” Naturally, some were dubious and wanted to know if this was just good public relations or a real commitment to take action. While things generally do look good in Canada, with the current tide of populism washing across much of the world, it may be interesting to look at where Canada went for those nine years.  

While firmly right of centre by Canadian standards, Stephen Harper was not of the ilk of the populist demagogues we’ve seen embraced in many countries of late. But modern conservative doctrine tends to be overwhelmingly coupled to the idea that climate action is something to be sceptical of. This partisan polarisation when it comes to climate change is something many in the climate community are trying to bring an end to — and we’re seeing progress in some circles.

In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change does not hold as much sway among angry populist voters as once believed. Early in the 2016 US presidential race, it was thought that Donald Trump was going to make his presidential bid at least partly a referendum on climate change. From his threats to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement to his infamous tweet claiming that climate change was a concept “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive,” climate action was framed as an obstacle to economic progress.

At some point, however, Republican strategists must have calculated that climate change was not an issue that was going to win them the election. In fact, it was hardly brought up as an issue in the later stages of the campaign trail. As most observers expected, climate change has not been ignored as an issue in the first 100 days of the Trump administration. The appointment of Scott Pruitt, a vocal climate denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency leaves nothing to the imagination as to what Trump thinks about climate specifically and the environment more broadly. But Trump appears to be softening his stance on the Paris Agreement, with a final decision tentatively expected in time for this month’s G7 summit in Taormina, Italy. Whether this is the result of recommendations from advisors, a recognition of the economic potential of the green jobs sector, or fear of China cementing itself as the global leader on climate action remains to be seen.  

Canada wrestled with similar issues under the Harper Government and still managed to maintain strong grassroots support for tackling climate change — even if this was not expressed officially at the global level. Early in his tenure, Harper spoke the language of diplomacy on climate change, once calling it “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today” and even calling for less talk and more action.  

Such strong words slowly disappeared during his time in office and were replaced by noticeable silence at the highest level, strategic political manoeuvring to silence government-employed scientists and researchers, and the appointment of key people with an agenda to block progress on climate change. The most memorable appointment, perhaps, was Joe Oliver as Natural Resources Minister, who claimed in an interview that “scientists have recently told us that our fears (on climate change) are exaggerated” and that groups who oppose Canada’s often criticised oilsands industry were foreign funded radicals.

Sound familiar?

With virtually no opportunities to influence federal policy on climate change and few sources of funding to undertake research, several NGOs closed up shop in Ottawa. “These are dark days,” one Ottawa-based climate researcher whispered to me at COP17 in Durban in 2011.  

But the fight for climate action in Canada didn’t end with a hostile government. It simply changed venues. Think tanks and NGOs intensified their efforts on influencing provincial and municipal governments to adopt strong policies that would ensure that greenhouse gas emissions would be reined in – despite federal policies.

Action by Canadian provinces through those “dark days” was remarkable. Hard work from NGOs, aboriginal groups, and other civil society organisations managed to even lay the groundwork for a remarkably ambitious Climate Leadership Plan in Alberta, home to Canada’s oilsands. All of this set the stage for the Trudeau government’s historic Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change — a bold agenda with a range of ambitious climate change policies, including a requirement that all Canadian provinces implement a carbon pricing mechanism.

Canada, of course, was not the first to wade in to leveraging subnational governments for climate action. Perhaps the best-known example came when the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington — looking to make progress under the climate hostile George W. Bush Administration — banded together to create the Western Climate Initiative.

While all states but California have since dropped out of the initiative (and several Canadian provinces have joined), recent years have seen a fundamental shift in the way the economics of climate change is understood. And that shift could be a game changer.

Renewable energy is generating jobs and becoming more and more affordable. And the shift in this direction is gaining momentum by the week, it seems. Renewable energy sectors are expanding quickly in jurisdictions previously known for their oil and gas production, including the Canadian province of Alberta as well as the US state of Texas, which has added more wind-based capacity than any other state.

Meanwhile, Trump’s bluster on re-invigorating the coal sector — a major contributor to climate change and air pollution — may have resonated with out-of-work coal workers who are increasingly worried over lost income, healthcare, and pensions. However, industry is finding it increasingly difficult to turn a profit, which may prompt a closer look at transitioning to more sustainable energy sources, while finding ways to boost employment in coal mining communities.

Those working to step up climate action in countries where governments are hostile to their message should take note of the Canadian example, feel optimistic about the progress we’ve seen in job creation and economic affordability in the renewables sector, and understand that a future federal climate plan will work best when it is built upon a foundation of subnational support structures.

Cross-regional and cross-national collaboration will be crucial to moving the planet to the next level on climate action. Alliances such as those seen between Canadian provinces and California on carbon pricing are ideal as they can drive ambition and encourage jurisdictions to lock in progress. This may be particularly important in Europe, where possible exits from the European Union may leave the Emissions Trading System on questionable ground.

On the wider international stage, the upcoming G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, this July could send a powerful signal that the world’s major economies remain committed to tackling the climate challenge. Representing some 80 percent of energy-related carbon emissions and around 75 percent of international trade, a collaboration among this group would go a long way in helping to secure a clean energy future for the world.


Andrew Aziz is Communications Director at the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank based in Calgary, Canada.

ICTSD gratefully acknowledges funding from the KR Foundation—Denmark, for this project.