Published on: 8/1/2014 8:51:56 AM Print | Font Sizes:  Normal Text Large Text

Dead man walking


By: David Robinson

David Robinson, Economist, Laurentian University, drobinson@laurentian.ca
David Robinson, Economist, Laurentian University, [email protected]

The online Urban Dictionary defines a “dead man walking” as “an employee who is certain to be fired in the near future.” The Daily Star in England used the expression in a headline about the coach of Manchester United after a loss to the much weaker Everton team. Political writer Matthew Savage called bottled water “a dead man walking.”

In politics, a dead man walking is someone still in power after public opinion has swung against him. There are signs Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada’s most determined anti-action-on-climate-change politician, is a dead man walking.

I first noticed Mr. Harper’s possible political death during on the Lang-O’Leary Exchange. It is a program aimed at the business community, which has a tremendous influence in this country. Senior business people are well informed and pay attention to what is coming down the line. It matters what business people think.

This particular July evening O’Leary was away. Amanda Lang and Rudyard Griffith were talking about former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz coming out in favour of a carbon tax. Griffith laughed and said Shultz was coming in with “too little, too late.” Griffith suggested learning to live with climate change because it is already too costly to slow it down. Lang disagreed, as do I and many other economists.

The surprise wasn’t that Lang and Griffith disagreed about what to do. It was that they took human-caused climate change for granted. They actually snickered about the few remaining climate change deniers. For Lang and Griffith the science is settled. The question is what to do.

Even more significant, they think these views are accepted by their audience. Could it be Canada’s business community is swinging toward an activist policy?

The conversation made me notice articles in the business section of the Globe and Mail that also take the need for climate action for granted. “The shocking truth about B.C.’s carbon tax,” for example, isn’t a complaint about how the policy is hurting business. It explains that B.C.’s carbon tax is a big and popular success. One of the authors was the chairman of Pan-American Silver Corp.

The pattern seems clear: business (including the oil industry) has accepted the science of climate change – not every business person, but a majority of the most influential Canadian business leaders. That doesn’t mean oil companies won’t keep spending money to protect their subsidies and promote their pipelines. It probably does mean that business people won’t look to Mr. Harper to lead them away from the climate change cliff. Harper has earned a worldwide reputation for obstructing action on climate change.

Does changing the minds of business people change the way the country votes? Probably. U.S. research shows that when the public gets contradictory messages, public opinion can swing back and forth. If an elite consensus emerges public opinion firms up. When business leaders, scientists, environmentalists and economists all sing from the same songbook, the party that wins will be the one singing the same tune. Mr. Harper is not famous for changing his tune.

At present, only voters 60 and older are more likely to support Conservatives than Liberals. If just one percent of voters shift from opposing action to supporting action, the margin between the sides decreases by two per cent per year. And public opinion can shift very quickly. Now even U.S. Republicans publically support legal marijuana and same sex marriage. A recent poll found that Canadians from coast to coast already believe climate change is real and is occurring, at least in part due to human activity. Other polls show Canadians want Canada to be a leader in dealing with climate change.

If Canadians really are moving toward wanting action to reduce emissions, Mr. Harper is a dead man walking.

And the change will affect Northern Ontario. Carbon taxes and reduced subsidies will raise the cost of gasoline and fuel. Your next car will be smaller. Government will pay a carbon-dividend that starts about $40 a month and rises over 20 years to as much as $400 a month. The dollar will fall as oil exports are cut. Forestry and manufacturing will do better. There will be more jobs. There will be programs supporting energy efficiency. And we will bury our political dead.

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