Campaigning for the environment just got a lot harder for federal candidates in BC’s greenest riding of Vancouver Centre.
The Dow Jones plunged more than 360 points on October 6, reinforcing fears that the U.S. credit crisis could damage the Canadian economy.
Before the latest falls, the environment had already slipped to a distant third in polls of issues most important to Canadians. This means that the race for Vancouver Centre, which has garnered national media attention for its high-profile candidates and ‘green’ credentials, may hinge on more traditional electoral issues.
Kathryn Harrison, UBC political science professor, calls the recent crisis on Wall Street “a nail in the coffin” in a public shift away from environmental issues. Since the beginning of the campaign, Harrison says that climate change has increasingly become “a hard sell.”
Candidates defended tough measures on climate change at an Oct. 5 debate at Christ Church Cathedral. They were asked how much environmental platforms should be compromised to address the financial crisis. However, two candidates argued for caution in light of the new financial climate.
Liberal incumbent Dr. Hedy Fry said that any moves on climate change must be made carefully, so “that we do not create a crisis for all of these people in Canada who are going to lose jobs.”
Conservative candidate Lorne Mayencourt was more direct. “We cannot afford to plunge Canada into a depression,” he said.
Both statements are a significant departure in a riding where candidates have stressed their ‘green’ credentials. Fry’s Liberals want to tax carbon emissions and redirect proceeds to families and business. Mayencourt champions his green record as the two-term Liberal MLA for the Vancouver-Burrard riding. The NDP’s Michael Byers not only brings expertise as a public policy academic, but claims to be “greener than the greens.” Adriane Carr is the current deputy leader and former provincial leader of the Green Party.
Harrison says that the shift is understandable. People are concerned about climate change but find it difficult to keep it in mind when only one issue dominates public discussion. “It’s not that people don’t care,” Harrison said, “it’s that they don’t pay attention.”
Historically, public awareness of the environment has been cyclical. Spikes in attention come after periods of sustained economic growth. When the economy takes a turn for the worse, people are drawn to more immediate financial concerns. “It’s easier to worry about the future when your present is secure,” said Harrison.
The decline of climate change on the campaign trail has been frustrating for environmental organizations. On September, the Sierra Club of Canada released a joint statement with Greenpeace urging voters concerned about climate change to support anyone except for the Conservatives.
Colin Campbell, science advisor at the Sierra Club of BC, sees the recent shift from the environment as showing the fundamental disconnect in the public mind: “If everything’s perception then everything’s changed,” he says, “but if there’s a reality beyond our perceptions, then nothing’s changed.”
As an expert in earth science, Campbell says “it’s not a scientific challenge anymore, it’s a sociological challenge about behaviour and motivation.” Yet he remains philosophical when it comes to the possibility of less than ideal election results, since “you can only work with the government you’ve got.”
Despite the polls, there are signs that the environment has not been completely eclipsed. A poll released last week by Angus Reid Strategies suggests that 58 percent of Canadians from across the political spectrum want the Green party represented in Parliament. With the prevalence of strategic voting and voter fragmentation on climate change, there is also growing sympathy to the possibility of electoral reform. As Harrison says, “the parties are all competing for that middle vote, and those people don’t get represented.”
Harrison identifies two other potential factors that might galvanize political action on climate change: catastrophe or leadership. According to Harrison, however, leadership is “a tough thing to pull off” due to the risk of alienating voters: “If I were a politician right now and I wanted to get elected,” she says, a carbon tax is “not the card I’d be leading with.”
The shift has been challenging for the candidates in Vancouver Centre. As Carr says; “It’s frustrating because it’s hard to get the message out.” Beyond stressing the underlying connections between environment and economy, her strategy is to appeal to the conscience of voters. “I actually believe people in their hearts know,” she says, “so that’s why one of my messages is just search inside.”