Leaders in Canada’s environmental community are expressing optimism about the appointment of lawyer Catherine McKenna as Minister of Environment and Climate Change at a swearing in ceremony in Ottawa Wednesday morning.
“Including climate change in the environment minister’s title signals how high a priority this issue is to our new federal government,” said Merran Smith, executive director of Clean Energy Canada.
As a lawyer, McKenna focused on international trade and competition and co-founded a charity focused on advancing human rights in the developing world. She was also a legal adviser and negotiator for the United Nations peacekeeping mission in East Timor. A video on her website shows her biking around Ottawa with her three children.
Although her background isn’t heavily weighted to environment and climate change, Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute, said it’s a good appointment.
“I’m impressed with the NGO experience, which suggests a very different approach to working with environmental NGOs like Pembina,” Whittingham told DeSmog Canada. “It indicates a more engaging, communicative, collaborative approach, reading the tea leaves right now.”
McKenna pulled off an upset on Oct. 19, defeating popular NDP MP Paul Dewar to win her seat in Ottawa Centre. She will lead a Canadian delegation to Paris later this month for a critical United Nations meeting to negotiate a new agreement on cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think she has just the right kind of experience,” said Louise Comeau, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. “We’ve moved beyond the science and even the economic dimensions on climate change. This is now about the issues of justice and fairness and I think she’s well positioned to deal with that.”
Comeau is also pleased with the appointment of Stephane Dion as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Winnipeg South Centre MP Jim Carr as Minister of Natural Resources. Dion, Carr and McKenna will co-ordinate during next month’s climate negotiations.
“The minister responsible for Natural Resources Canada doesn’t have a vested interest in the oilsands or pipelines so we can expect a more open mind on transitioning to a clean energy system,” Comeau told DeSmog Canada. “I’m quite optimistic. This signals a significant attempt to move forward in a balanced way.”
The Liberals’ election platform was vague when it came to how to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, promising only to work with provinces to put a price on carbon and to end subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed that Canada will do its part to prevent the catastrophic consequences of more than a two-degree rise in global temperatures.
The Liberals have also promised to restore robust environmental assessments and to review changes to the Fisheries Act. Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo was named Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard during Wednesday’s swearing in ceremony.
Tootoo defeated Conservative MP and former minister of environment Leona Aglukkaq. Aglukkaq had to apologize in December 2014 for reading the newspaper while opposition parties asked the government about high food prices in the North during Question Period. She also once indicated that there’s still “debate” about some elements of climate science.
The Liberals will have a lot of catching up to do on the environment file. New documents obtained by CBC indicate federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will make just a small dent, in part due to many of the most effective programs — such as the ecoEnergy efficiency programs to help homes and business save energy — being cancelled by the Conservative government.
"For the last 10 years at the federal-provincial table they wouldn't even allow the word climate change to be used. That's a challenge," Ontario's Environment Minister Glen Murray told the CBC.
That means incoming McKenna faces an uphill battle — but also that there are plenty of opportunities for improvement at a time of unprecedented global momentum for action on climate change.
Last week the news broke that the International Monetary Fund will start to factor climate change into its economic forecasts. That means its well-regarded World Economic Outlook could expose how moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions will threaten growth in oil-exporting countries such as Canada.
“Canada has vast, untapped clean energy potential and developing these resources is both a key climate solution and important economic opportunity,” Smith of Clean Energy Canada said.
Trudeau also created a cabinet committee on environment, climate change and energy on Wednesday morning. The committee will be chaired by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion.
Smith says establishing that committee “sends a clear signal that the new federal government understands that environmental protection and economic prosperity must go hand-in-hand, and is committed to taking an integrated approach to managing our natural resources, fighting climate change and growing our clean energy sector.”