Canadian Conservative Party’s Leadership Candidates Get Failing Grades On Climate

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In late 2019, Canada went to the polls, spending roughly six weeks to elect a new federal government. This was, of course, in the middle of the two-year long American process, so many people didn’t notice, especially as sanity prevailed and the same Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, kept showing up in the media. Among other things, the 2019 election was a referendum on climate action in Canada as I wrote in October of 2019, and Canadians chose action over inaction. The next election will be too, and possibly something else as well, which I’ll return to at the end of this piece.

Four Conservative Party of Conservative leadership candidates
Image courtesy Conservative Party of Canada website. Don’t ask me about the washed out blue.

But this was the end of another political career, that of one Andrew Scheer. He was the came-through-the-middle choice for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada after the rather stunning defeat they received at the hands of the electorate in 2015. Arguably, he was the least offensive choice to most, as the person he beat was a radical Libertarian who then left the party to form an overtly racist, climate change denying party. At least Scheer gave lip service to climate concerns occasionally, and tried to be not be overtly offensive about race, abortion, or homosexuality, which is something he and his party struggle with. Having lost what seemed like a reasonable early lead, not gained any ability to influence governance in Canada, and having helped the Conservatives turn into an Alberta-centric oil and gas industry vehicle, Scheer was cast to the side. His challenges with lying about his pre-politics career, taking money from the party to put his kids into private school, and being exposed as a dual-citizenship hypocrite didn’t help either.

And so the Conservative Party of Canada — that’s CPC, not CPP, so don’t get confused — is choosing a new leader, a process that’s been somewhat disrupted by COVID-19, as well as disorganization, interventions from the former Canadian PM, and the like. Who are the candidates, and what are their positions on climate change?

There are four. Peter Mackay is the only one who rises above a complete failing grade, but only to a D-. He’s the former leader of the Progressive Conservatives, who merged the party with the further right Reform Party and then was knifed in the back and tossed to the side in a completely unsurprising turn of affairs. He’s returning to politics after a decade-long period in the private sector. He’s the best of a bad lot.

The rest are pure fails. Conservatives didn’t learn the lesson of the last election when they were kicked to the curb by two-thirds of Canadians, in large part because of their idiocy on climate change. The candidates are leaning into the idiocy instead of building a broad conservative coalition that is electable. Strategically, these candidates aren’t going to make the Conservatives relevant again, regardless of which one ends up with the nod.

What’s a good conservative platform for climate?

Before we dig into the various failings on climate — and the really interesting additional failings of one candidate — let’s look at what a good, small-c conservative platform on climate change would look like.

  • Accept that climate change exists and is being caused by human action. Low bar, but many conservative politicians these days can’t step over it.
  • Have a plan. Once again, a low bar, but a lot more conservative politicians have zero plans to deal with the most pressing issue of the 21st Century, our World War on Carbon.
  • Commit to the Paris Accord. Once again, a low bar, but without a commitment to uphold it, what’s it worth? As a reminder, Harper yanked Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol, denouncing it as a “socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” so a strong commitment is required.
  • Commit to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. This should be a no-brainer for a Canadian conservative politician. A former conservative PM, Mulroney, signed it with Ronald Reagan. HFCs in refrigerants are very high global warming potential (GWP) chemicals, although on average lower than the CFCs they replaced. But HFOs and lower-GWP HFCs are better and it’s cheap.
  • Have a revenue-neutral carbon price. Pigovian taxes are a market-based mechanism that incentivizes economic behavior to avoid negative externalities. They are the definition of a conservative policy.
  • Incentivize the transition away from high-carbon economies where there are clear alternatives. Wind and solar are incredibly cheap and fit for purpose. Speeding approvals and creating incentives for them to rapidly displace coal and gas is strongly conservative, avoiding not only climate change damage to the environment, but conserving the environment from air and water pollution.
  • Invest in Canadian electric car construction capacity in Ontario. Canada’s heartland has a long history of building cars. NAFTA and USMCA both have long provisions related to the automobile industry. Canada has deep technical and manufacturing expertise that should be building components of US electric cars, vans, and trucks.
  • Invest in Canadian electric transit bus construction. We have to replace diesel and CNG buses across Canada over the next 15–20 years, and that’s going to take a lot of buses. Let’s get that construction pipeline going, and help New Flyer work closely with BYD, the global massive sales leader in electric buses.
  • Build a national energy corridor based on high voltage direct current transmission. Electricity is the energy of the future, and a grand vision for the country would be to unite it with big pipes for that fungible energy. A Golden Spike for the 2020s driven by a Conservative PM would be a fitting touchstone to a career.
  • Incentivize low-tillage agriculture. This is one of two biological pathways to longer term removal of excess CO2 from the air that works. Agriculture is rural and heart blood for conservatives, so shifting money and innovation to this space makes sense as a conservative policy.
  • Plant billions of trees. Getting technology and people back to work with a massive works project to reforest great swaths of Canada would ignite big parts of the economy and manage down climate change.
  • Get behind efficiency programs. What could be more conservative than not wasting energy? A national efficiency program for buildings and the like, one that focused on electric heat pumps for both heating and cooling for example, would be an obvious process.
  • Get behind concrete displacement in construction. Canada builds a lot of stuff with concrete, as does the world. The current 12-story engineered hardwood construction approvals from the federal government and from BC should be encouraged and extended. Getting to a low-carbon cement is one of the big unsolved challenges.

So that’s a pretty reasonable set of conservative policies for climate action. It’s fact-based, aligned with the severity of the problem, and has strong potential for Canadian economic growth. It even has a big aspirational vision, something that I haven’t seen from Conservatives since Mulroney.

So how do the candidates stack up?

Leslyn Lewis

Leslyn Lewis campaign photoe
Image courtesy Leslyn Lewis campaign

She’s the only woman, and a woman of color at that, which is progress for the Conservatives in Canada. Yes, they have a stronger tendency to white men than most other parties, which isn’t a surprise. She’s a lawyer too, which is an advantage for people who craft laws.

Unfortunately, Lewis’ policies are hard conservative: family values, anti-political correctness, pro-firearms, all oil and gas all the time, restricting access to abortions, pro-Israel including moving our embassy to Jerusalem, anti-immigration, anti-foreign aid, more faith-based organizations, and protections for the religious. In other words, unelectable in most of Canada regardless of Lewis’ position on climate change.

“Eliminate the carbon tax”

(All quotes from campaign platforms unless otherwise noted).

Fail. That’s restated at least three times in her campaign, and has its own section, full of nonsense. As noted, a Pigovian, revenue-neutral carbon tax is the definition of conservative fiscal policy on this subject.

“invest in technology that will increase energy efficiency and lower emissions alongside resource development.“

More oil and gas. But efficiency does get mentioned. Only in that context though.

“prioritizing the development of SMRS (an emerging nuclear technology).”

Dumb as a box of hammers. Next-gen nuclear has the potential to add carbon neutral electricity in the relatively distant future, but we need mainstream, massive carbon-neutral electricity in the next ten years.

“generous tax credit options for those who take the time to make their properties more environmentally friendly.”

That’s good, if lacking in any specifics such as numbers or what types of efforts will qualify.

“Fund conservationist practices: conserving and restoring our environment doesn’t have to be expensive – simple steps like tree planting”

That’s good too, but how many trees? The need is about a trillion globally, so Canada’s share is billions.

“Establish a National Strategic Oil Reserve”

Wait. What? There is no world in which a national oil reserve has anything valuable to contribute to climate action.

“Repealing Bills C-48 and C-69”

That one gets repeated at least three times in her policies. What are those bills? They are the ones that ensure that Alberta’s oil doesn’t massively befoul provinces and federal waters it transits on its way to international markets. You know, conserving nature. It’s environmental conservation that’s inconvenient to the oil sands.

“Invest in research and development to help the agricultural sector continue to lead the way in environmental standards through reduction/sequestration and adaptation.”

Woot. A win, an unequivocal win. That’s one.

“lead such change by crafting policies which set boundaries for China’s activities within Canada,”

Hmm… doesn’t sound like helping China’s massive electric bus and truck industry get our transit and freight systems decarbonized, does it? Fail.

What’s missing?

The word ‘climate’ doesn’t even appear in Lewis’ campaign platform, never mind ‘climate change’. Paris Accord? Crickets. Kigali? Nada. The only place ‘carbon’ is used is in the multiple times Lewis says that they will repeal the carbon tax. Weak sauce. An actual plan is also missing. There are some vague, arm-wavey statements, but zero commitments to decarbonizing, dates or specific actions or targets.

Climate Grade for Lewis: F

Peter MacKay

Closeup of Peter Mackay's ear
Image courtesy of Peter Mackay campaign website. Don’t ask me what ear fetishist thought this picture was a good idea.

The grand old political man of the group, he was the former leader of the Progressive Conservatives who worked with Harper to merge them with the Reform Party, then was gracefully stabbed in the back and booted after Harper emasculated him. Yeah, that’s some baggage. He has planks on climate change amidst his platform.

“End the Carbon Tax”

Fail. And restated more than once, a regular feature of the Conservative candidates’ platforms.

“C-69 & C-48 Must Go”

Fail, as stated related to Lewis’ policies.

“new investments in technology to help agri-businesses maximize the potential of agricultural land to sequester carbon.”

Unstated how much, but good. And while it followed a sentence damning the carbon tax, it was nice to see ‘carbon’ by itself as a concern.

Unlike Lewis, he kind of has a section devoted to climate change and actually uses term “climate change,” which is nice. It goes downhill rapidly from there.

“Protecting our Environment and our Economy

My plan for the environment will reduce emissions in Canada and around the world. We can accomplish this goal by:

    1. Replacing coal as a source of energy for power plants at home and around the world with Canadian natural gas
    2. Making investments in carbon sequestration
    3. Achieving advances in technology
    4. Continued conservation successes in our forests and agricultural lands
    1. Meaningful consultation and cooperation with Indigenous peoples, provinces, territories and industry.”

Shipping natural gas from central Canada to China isn’t a climate change plan, it’s an absurd right-wing fantasy that’s climate hostile. China is massively decarbonizing and there is no growing market there for Canadian fossil fuels. The sooner conservatives realize that this is a pipe dream, the sooner Canada gets going on the new economy, not the old one.

Carbon sequestration is a globally failed, 50-year experiment in fossil fuel lobbying. More money wasted on this nonsense isn’t required. It’s a fig leaf for the fossil fuel industry, not a policy.

Advances in technology. Ummm… yeah? We have virtually all the solutions, we need to implement them.

Continued conservation successes. Which ones are those again?

Meaningful consultation with a host of groups, but ending in industry. That’s the only relevant word in that sentence, unless you mentally replace provinces with Alberta.

He actually does mention the Paris targets and asserts: “As Prime Minister, I will ensure Canada does more than our fair share to address what is a global challenge.” No mention of the Kigali Amendment or the Montreal Protocol, even though he lists other conservative environmental initiatives of the past.

Full marks for acknowledging that the problem is real and that we need to do something about it. Pity his plan is lacking in dates, timelines, commitments, or any sensible actions.

Climate Grade for Mackay: D-

Erin O’Toole

Erin O'Toole campaign photo
Image courtesy Erin O’Toole campaign website

Well, O’Toole actually has a climate change section in the top level of his platform. That’s nice to see. He’s a lawyer too, as well as being an air force reserve guy, hence the RCAF jacket (yeah, our military still has anachronistic fealty to the Queen). He’s also on record recently touting that the Conservatives have to have a climate change plan.

Of course, what’s in it is what counts, and all of the following quotes are from O’Toole’s climate plan, not from other parts of his site.

“A carbon tax is not an Environmental Plan, it is a Tax Plan.”

Fail. Apparently conservative economic policy is now dogmatically opposed on the right. It’s become a value test, and none of the candidates are challenging it, but embracing it. Fiscal idiocy.

“The world will still be using oil and natural gas for a long time. The question is whether they will come from free countries like Canada with strong environmental protections, or dictatorships with no environmental protections or respect for human rights;”

Ummm… Not a climate plan. That’s just saying that we’re going to ship a lot of fossil fuels. It does come after his first bullet point which basically says the world has to fix this because it’s a global problem, and Canada doesn’t need to.

“Domestic energy production – including oil and gas – is an important part of making our country more self-reliant and more resilient in future”

Wow. Third bullet in the climate plan is using a lot more oil and gas internally to Canada instead of getting off of our fossil fuel habit. This is a remarkable climate plan in that it’s actually a plan to increase our oil and gas industry. I wonder if O’Toole’s head is loose from the spinning.

“Pitting one part of the country against another, as Trudeau has done, is a cheap way to score political points”

Ummm.. what? And again, what does this have to do with climate change?

“Canada is a world leader in zero-emissions technologies like nuclear and hydro and in innovations like making low-emission jet fuel out of carbon waste;”

Exactly one of those things is true and meaningful. Our nuclear tech is dead. CANDU is now an SNC Lavalin nuclear decommissioning revenue stream and we have no nuclear expertise that is meaningful to the places which actually are building new nuclear, which is to say China. The nuclear market is in a long-term decline for a lot of valid reasons. It’s been massively outcompeted by renewables and leaning into it is more ideological dogma.

Making low-emission jet fuel out of carbon waste? That exactly zero carriers are using this is pertinent. And carbon waste means we’re burning fossil fuels and then cleaning up after ourselves expensively. There are bio-kerosene pathways that make sense, but this is more carbon capture after the carbon horse has left the gate, which is an economically defunct idea.

We are good on hydroelectric. A sensible solution would be linking our hydroelectric resources across Canada and into the US with HVDC and accelerating northern dam building in Manitoba, for example. Another would be building lots of closed loop pumped storage hydro. Not really what he’s saying.

“The environment is an area of shared jurisdiction, and the federal government should not be trampling on the provinces and territories.”

Fail. Basically, he’s saying climate change is a global problem, so the federal governments job is to unlock Asian markets for Canadian oil and gas and leave the provinces alone to damage the environment as they see fit. This is not a plan.

“Avoids focus on carbon only, and instead is scoped to capture ALL greenhouse gases, many of which are more powerful than carbon dioxide;”

That’s kind of suggesting that O’Tooles’ campaign is aware of the Kigali Amendment and would support the Liberal’s efforts to reduce HFCs in refrigerants, wouldn’t it?


Yeah, no. More slamming sensible climate action for partisan purposes.

“Proactively invests in mitigation programs and critical infrastructure to protect communities threatened by Climate Change on an on-going basis, such as floodplains along the Ottawa River, St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario basin; Considers how to support regions of Canada most affected by the short-term impacts of climate (floods, fires, Lyme Disease) as well as long-term economic impacts;”

That’s actually reasonable. We have allowed the climate change problem to get out of control, so will need federal dollars and programs for climate adaptation (not mitigation as he claims). How that money is spent is key. Many communities can’t be protected, they’ll have to be moved, but it’s reasonable for a campaign platform not to pick at that scab.

“We will never generate enough electricity for the world’s burgeoning demand for power using renewables like windmills and solar panels alone”

False. Dozens of studies now confirm that we’re fine with wind, water, and solar displacing all primary forms of energy including fossil fuels, and it will be at a much lower direct and indirect cost. Ideological values test. O’Toole is pro-nuclear, which is not a technology Canada has any current credibility in. You have to be an old CANDU or AECL hand — almost all aging, white, conservative men — to think that nuclear still has a play or that Canada is part of the diminishing industry except via Brookfield and SNC Lavalin owning decommissioning of Westinghouse and CANDU reactors over the next 80 years.

“Helping the world stop burning coal by transitioning to natural gas:”

This is the big play in conservative circles. It’s also bogus. The world is transitioning already, and it’s not to natural gas, it’s to wind and solar. Natural gas in central Canada is a very long way from markets and LNG shipping makes Canada’s LNG potential price out of the market, just as Alberta’s crude is price out of global markets. Waving a magic wishing wand doesn’t change economic reality, but conservative parties are no longer in the business of economic reality.

“increase research and development funding and provide incentives -such as accelerated capital cost allowance – to continue Canadian leadership in Carbon Capture and Storage technology”

Fail. Mechanical CCS is a dead end because physics.

“Working with industry on a plan to get to net zero emissions in the oil and gas industry”

Amusingly, O’Toole does think that wind energy has a play here. But getting to zero in that industry is impossible. It will never get close to zero in extraction, refinement and shipping, and when burned it will massively overwhelm any minimization of burning of fossil fuels on Canadian soil.

Climate Grade for O’Toole: F

Derek Sloan

Derek Sloan campaign photo
Image courtesy Derek Sloan campaign website. Someone should apologize.

I have to admit, Sloan is the candidate I have absolutely no memory of ever having heard of, so I assume he’s at the back of the pack. Zero name recognition or differentiation. Or is there? Maybe, like Scheer, he’ll be left holding the bag of flaming dog poo after the convention though, so it’s worth looking at his plan. I’m not optimistic.

“repeal Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax cash grab”

Fail. That it’s a completely predictable and undifferentiated fail is apparently a feature.

“Canada supports its energy industry and wants the industry to bring back private investment. He will fight for all aspects of the energy sector and allow all Canadians to benefit from oil and gas while we transition to other, renewable forms of energy.”

Yeah, lots more oil and gas support is just what will help the climate.

“repeal Bill C-69 […] repeal Bill C-48.”

Fail. again.

“Derek will take Canada out of the Paris Agreement”

No, he won’t, unless Conservatives have lost their minds completely, and this isn’t the United States, so probably not.

And… that’s it. I knew that there would be a hard-right, social conservative flake in the mix, and Sloan is it. Blatantly pro-life, Seventh Day Adventist, etc.. He’s going to allow physicians not to perform treatments or refer people for treatments for medical operations which conflict with their consciences. He’s all over racist immigration policies, and wants to keep Canada both white and dwindling. He’ll walk away from United Nations policies he doesn’t like, like ones that protect indigenous people. He’ll rescind a whole bunch of really innocuous gun control legislation. He’s so anti-transgender it’s painful to read the sentences in his policy. He’s for conversion therapy. He’s anti-vaxx. He wants to follow in Trump’s shuffling, bewildered footprints and defund the World Health Organization.

But this rural Ontario lawyer is trying to be more Albertan than the Albertans, which is amusing.

He’s the Maxime Bernier of this campaign. For those of you who missed it, he’s the Ayn Rand-loving jawline who left confidential briefing documents in the apartment of his mobster-linked girlfriend while a federal member of Parliament in the last conservative government’s time in office.

Climate Grade for Sloan: F for climate and Run Away for the rest

The wrap-up

Mackay: D- and the best of the bunch. At best a remedial school opportunity to improve after winning over the base.

O’Toole: F but at least he mentions climate change and pretends it’s important. So what if his climate action plan is a love song for oil and gas executives in Alberta?

Lewis: F and frightening on social values, but interesting and differentiated. If she won the leadership, which she won’t in a million years, she’d represent progress for the Conservatives, while also being devoted to devolution. Such a weird mix.

Sloan: F and shouldn’t be allowed near political power of any type.

The Conservative Party of Canada took the wrong message from their failure in late 2019. They think that doubling down on things that the majority of Canada is uninterested in is the right strategy, despite all evidence to the contrary. And so, they’ll be in the wilderness for several more years until another Mulroney or Harper emerges.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 729 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard