John Horgan Andrew Weaver

Six reasons electoral reform in B.C. would be good for the climate

If we want more climate action, we're going to need more collaborative politics

It’s been a rough summer for B.C.

The worst — actually — in recorded history for wildfires, which are made worse by climate change.

And while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited B.C. last month to hold cabinet meetings and discuss climate change, the high-level talks shrouded in smoke were a poignant reminder that climate policy in this country is only as stable as the next election cycle.

In our current “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, there is nothing stopping reactionary parties from capturing majorities and reversing the hard-fought and sensible climate policies that represent the will of the vast majority of Canadians.

Indeed, North Americans have witnessed wild policy swings on climate in both the Trump administration and in Doug Ford’s Ontario. The U.S. has made the disastrous decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and Ford is busily undoing policies that support a low-carbon economy. His government has, rather awkwardly, even instructed civil servants to stop using the term “climate change.”

Both leaders rule majority governments with broad powers over climate policy, and yet neither received more than half of the vote: 40.5 per cent, in the case of Ford, and 46.1 per cent of the popular vote in the U.S. presidential election, in the case of Trump.

First Past The Post is a winner-takes-all system that creates the possibility for a minority of the electorate to empower leaders who disregard existing climate policy, public will, and the burning reality of “Hot House Earth.”

Lost in the haze of the ongoing fires is the upcoming electoral reform referendum in B.C., which will run from October 22 to November 30 by mail-in ballot.

It will ask voters two questions: Whether they prefer an electoral system based on proportional representation (ProRep), and what type of proportional voting system should be used if ProRep is chosen.

The referendum is an extremely rare opportunity to advance our democracy by making it fairer, less prone to special interests and more representative.

A more democratic electoral system, in the shape of ProRep, is likely to have positive benefits for climate policy. Let us count the ways.

Limit policy whiplash

First, it would greatly reduce the likelihood of wild policy lurches that are the hallmark of majority governments. Anyone in Ontario considering the purchase of an electric vehicle will know what I mean.

Reflect voters’ values

Second, it would reflect the views of the average citizen, who clearly wants strong climate leadership in government, and ideally it would reduce the chance of politicians apathetic and ineffective on climate ever making it to government.

According to Abacus Data, more than 85 per cent of Canadians agree that the consequences of taking no action on climate change will be severe, very severe or catastrophic.

De-polarize our politics

Third, it would remove the logic of polarized politics and negative election campaigns, which tend to adversely impact low-carbon initiatives.

The mistaken political assumption that “we’re opposed to it because our adversaries are in favour of it” spells disaster for stabilizing the climate system in which all human beings live.

As John Ivison has shown in the National Post, the differences between Canadian federal parties on climate policy are relatively small: “But [even though the] political polarization on climate change is less than might have been supposed, […] the political parties in the U.S. and Canada are exaggerating the problem for their own gain, a classic case of the narcissism of small differences at work.”

Creating collaborative politics

Fourth, ProRep contributes to the kinds of compromises and collaborative politics that fosters long-term planning – and climate policy, by definition, requires multi-decadal plans.

In New Zealand, for example, the Green MP Gareth Hughes makes it clear that ProRep favours stability.

“When we moved to MMP [mixed-member proportional representation] in the 90s I remember the argument that New Zealand would become politically unstable if we adopted it. The reverse has been true. Our politicians learnt to talk, negotiate, and compromise,” Hughes said.  

Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, recently told the CBC that ProRep made her country’s politicians more collaborative: “[It] required a lot more dialogue, a lot more give and take, a lot more transparency and a lot more consultation between the parties and with the public.”

Increase sustainability

In terms of environmental sustainability, countries such as New Zealand that have moved to ProRep score significantly higher on Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, “which measures how well human health and ecosystems are protected.”

Academic research has shown that countries with ProRep are more willing to “pay the price of strong environmental policies, more likely to use renewable energy, and therefore produced a lower share of carbon emissions.”

As an added bonus, countries with ProRep typically elect more women and minorities to government.

Create bold action to meet B.C’s climate targets 

If B.C. votes in favour of ProRep, it could be the first jurisdiction in Canada to implement such a system.

It’s not guaranteed. The switch to Pro-Rep on Prince Edward Island, which passed in a 2016 referendum, has been tabled due to low voter turnout, and of course, Justin Trudeau abandoned his promise of ProRep after the last federal election. Also, Quebec might beat us to the punch.

A switch to ProRep would almost undoubtedly maintain and strengthen the current government’s climate leadership, which this province, and our planet, desperately needs.

Although Canada has committed to the Paris Climate Accord, our progress has been rather slow in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Even though Canada is supposed to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, our nationwide emissions have fallen by only 0.9 per cent in the past five years, and Canada still emits 3.2 times the wold average of GHGs per capita — more than twice that of China.

In B.C., things look only slightly better, where emissions have dropped a mere 2 per cent since 2007.

The B.C. government created new intermediate reductions targets — 40 per cent by 2030 and 60 per cent by 2040 — in order to achieve the 80 per cent reductions by 2050, but few existing policy decisions are likely to result in such drastic emissions cuts.

By 2050, B.C. will be allowed to emit only 13 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, which means that emissions need to drop by 4.22 per cent per year starting in 2019.

Making the kinds of changes that give our province a realistic chance of 80 per cent emissions reductions — 100 per cent renewables by 2040, banning of new gas and diesel vehicles by 2030 (not 2040), zero carbon buildings by 2024, and so on — will require bold climate leadership and stable, collaborative politics.

ProRep gives our province hope on the climate front, and would greatly reduce anxieties about a Ford-style reversal on climate progress.

Dr. Jeremy L. Caradonna holds a PhD in history and teaches Environmental Studies and Human Dimensions of Climate Change at…

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