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Virtue or Vice

When faced with one of the most ambitious environmental policies in history, Canadians will probably choose the latter.

The luxury of Canadian elections is that they don’t matter too much. We are embroiled in only one unpopular foreign war, our financial institutions are not yet shattering under the weight of mass greed, our health care system isn’t on the brink of collapse, and none of our hockey moms will be given the launch codes for a nuclear armory. But the upcoming election, called for October 14th of this year, has put one of the boldest and most important policy initiatives in global politics on the table: the Liberal Party’s “green shift.” The policy would make carbon taxation the principal source of government revenue. And though Stéphane Dion, the Liberal party leader, claims the new tax would be revenue neutral--involving deep cuts to corporate and personal income tax--the shift would completely restructure the Canadian economy around its environmental policy. Al Gore could ask for no more.

What makes such a profound change possible is that the Liberals would only need a minority government to make it a reality--the Greens and the New Democrats, the parties to its left, have even more radical environmental policies on their platforms. Dion’s opponent on the right, however, is the current Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Stephen Harper, whose most important environment policy initiative so far has been to propose reducing the tax on diesel. Elizabeth May, the leader of the Greens, has called his ideas proactively destructive: “It’s not a climate change plan; it’s a climate disaster plan.” The Prime Minister’s environmental troglodytism can in part be attributed to the fact that he’s from Alberta, Canada’s answer to Texas, which has been booming during the recent rise in oil prices due to huge resources in its tar sands and its proximity to insatiable American markets. He also clearly believes that, in the end, Canadians will choose doing nothing over fundamentally altering their way of life.

But environmentalism is chic in Canada--with lush wilderness close by even major cities--and it frequently ranks as the most important political issue in surveys. In a recent study by Canada Post, our mail service up here, 75 percent of Canadians “consider environmental conservation and preservation as a matter of personal importance.” Unfortunately, Canada also has wide spaces between towns which require a great deal of carbon-based energy to cross. The huge resources in the Albertan tar sands--somewhere between 1.7 and 2.5 trillion barrels of oil, much greater than Saudi Arabia--require immense amounts of heat and water to refine. So despite our desire for virtue, we actually live dirty. The central question of the election is whether our virtue or our dirtiness will triumph.

Harper thinks it’s good politics to bet on dirtiness, largely because he sees Dion for what he is: a huge liability to his party. Dion may be an interesting and bold political thinker, but he is a terrible politician, only barely fluent in English--a deficiency he attributes to a hearing disorder--and despised in French Canada for his history of aggressive anti-nationalism.

There are other, deeper problems with selling the Green Shift. The basic idea is excellent, possibly even necessary to our survival: a way to lower our national carbon footprint significantly without altering the peculiarly Canadian amalgam of capitalism and socialism which is cherished by an overwhelming majority of Canadians. “Our plan is as powerful as it simple,” reads the Green Shift manifesto. “We will cut taxes on those things we all want more of … and we will shift those taxes to things we all want less of.” The document goes on to promise that, within four years, a middle class family (earning $60,000 a year with two kids) will pay $1,300 dollars less in taxes. But such figures are beyond useless--empty projections within campaign promises. Nobody knows what, exactly, would happen if instead of taxing income we started taxing carbon emissions; predicting the future behavior of 34 million people to a completely different way of life is impossible. The specifics are wooly exactly because no one has ever attempted such a thing before. And given the current economic crisis, a dive into fiscal uncertainty may have less appeal that it might otherwise.

No doubt the larger question of the environment will continue to be a major division within Canadian politics; it may even replace the bitter Constitutional struggles of the 1980s and ’90s as the Big Issue. Dion, however, has probably miscalculated how much of their cherished security and stability Canadians are willing to sacrifice for even their loftiest hopes and ideals.

And even if he hasn’t miscalculated, a plan as complicated and transformational as the Green Shift may just need a better a salesman. Over the course of the campaign, Dion has become a byword for poor political organization. The Liberals were caught so much by surprise when the election was called that the only campaign plane they could find was a 30 year old Boeing 737, the aeronautical equivalent of a gas-guzzling old Dodge, while the Conservatives managed to snag an Airbus 319, much cleaner and more modern. To make matters worse, on their first trip from Quebec to Ontario, one of the generators on the Liberal aircraft failed, and they had to make an emergency landing in Montreal. The symbolism couldn’t have been more painfully obvious--a group of environmental idealists sitting in the dark, on the tarmac, powerless.

Stephen Marche is a culture columnist for Esquire, and the author, most recently, of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.

By Stephen Marche