By all accounts, Guilbeault knows his stuff

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Alberta believes the best way to tackle climate change is to appoint a minister who knows nothing about it. How else to explain the chorus of criticism levelled at the prime minister for appointing Steven Guilbeault to the post?

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 1, 2021.

OTTAWA—Alberta believes the best way to tackle climate change is to appoint a minister who knows nothing about it.

How else to explain the chorus of criticism levelled at the prime minister for appointing Steven Guilbeault to the post?

By all accounts, the minister knows his stuff.

Prior to joining the Liberal government in 2019, Guilbeault founded Quebec environmental organization Equiterre in the aftermath of the 1993 Rio Earth Summit.

Rio was meant to be a political and populist call to arms, encouraging governments and citizens to begin the enormous work of saving the planet from self-imposed destruction.

Guilbeault, along with five other Quebecers, took the call to heart and founded an organization rebranded as Equiterre three years after receiving status as a not-for profit organization dedicated to sustainable and socially equitable living.

Guilbeault remained as a director after joining Greenpeace Canada in 1997. A quick study, he became Greenpeace’s Quebec bureau chief in 2000 and three years later organized their international climate campaign.

When all is said and done, Guilbeault has devoted most of his adult life to tackling climate change so it is certainly disingenuous for both Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and NDP Leader Rachel Notley to claim he is unsuited for the job, with the premier accusing him of a “radical agenda that would lead to mass unemployment.”

The electorate certainly gave the Liberals a mandate for radical action, with more than two-thirds voting for parties which promised major action on climate change.

Trudeau reinforced his intention to move aggressively on the climate file with Guilbeault’s appointment, and that of Jonathan Wilkinson to the energy portfolio. By naming Wilkinson as natural resources minister, Trudeau is creating a powerful duo to lead the way on Canada’s commitment to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets.

It is not going to be an easy task. If anything, the one risk Guilbeault faces is trying to do too much too soon with the possibility of losing cabinet support.

Guilbeault came into politics because of his commitment to environmental change, but governments never move as quickly as activists would like them to.

In the end, Guilbeault will have to swallow some of his ambition if he is to move on the agenda.

The fact that he has a committed environmentalist in the Natural Resources portfolio will be a huge asset. Historically, these energy and environment priorities have always clashed in the federal government.

But with the support of the prime minister as well, the trio will be able to chart the legacy piece that Trudeau is looking for.

The focus for Wilkinson will be on moving his department toward cleaner and more sustainable energies. That will be no small task, as NRCan has always seen itself as an oil and gas supporter.

I can speak from personal experience that the biggest block to our climate change commitments in preparation for the Kyoto Protocol did not come from other governments. They came from other ministries, with the natural resources minister lining up with the former finance minister to block any calls for a simple single digit reduction in greenhouse gases.

That was more than 25 years ago, and the political climate has changed dramatically.

With the exception of a few recalcitrant premiers, most Canadians are itching for real change to meet our climate change obligations.

So, Justin Trudeau can safely tell the world at COP 26 in Glasgow that Canada actually has a domestic plan to meet our reduction targets.

And with two committed ministers in the right portfolios, the chances of achieving those targets are possible.

Already scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are calling on governments to do more.

A commitment to keep the hike in world temperature to l.5 degrees is only a starting point, and there will be pressure to do more.

However, it is still unclear whether China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia will even attend the conference. All three, and Australia, have refused thus far to increase their commitments to accelerate fossil fuel reduction targets.

Another anti-climate politician, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, continues to aggressively log the country’s rainforest, even though it is acting as a natural carbon sink, swallowing up global carbon dioxide emissions.

Even if Canada does its part, the chance for the world to come to grips with climate change really depends on many other major emitters.

Negotiators in Glasgow have two weeks to conclude a renewed set of global targets.

With Guilbeault and Wilkinson, the planet’s chances look brighter.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.