O'Toole declares 'the debate is over' on climate change, but his party's grassroots disagree

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole

OTTAWA — Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole has made it clear he wants to move past debates about the existence of climate change, but the party’s national policy convention this weekend has shown it’s not so simple with his party’s base.

On Friday night, O’Toole gave a keynote speech to the convention promising his party will put forward a serious environment plan. “We cannot ignore the reality of climate change,” O’Toole said. “The debate is over.”

But the next day, it was announced that the 3,100 voting delegates at the convention had narrowly rejected a resolution to add language into the party’s policy book saying that: “We recognize that climate change is real. The Conservative Party is willing to act.”

The resolution would have also added in language calling on “highly polluting” businesses to do more to reduce their emissions and “be accountable for the results,” and said the Conservatives would support “innovation in green technologies.”

Fred DeLorey, who ran O’Toole’s leadership campaign and is now running the Conservative Party’s election effort, pointed out after the resolution failed that the party’s policy book already has language accepting climate change.

For example, the policy book says the Conservative Party believes “that an effective international emissions reduction regime on climate change must be truly global and must include binding targets for all the world’s major emitters, including China and the United States.”

But the rejection of the environment resolution shows the challenge O’Toole faces from within as he promises to change the party’s messaging and broaden its appeal beyond its power base in Western Canada and rural Ontario. O’Toole’s speech called on the party to have “the courage to change,” saying it can’t just rely on Liberal scandals to bring down Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The regional breakdown of the vote shows it was a majority of delegates in every province and territory west of Quebec who voted against the resolution, which was put forward by the Quebec riding association of Portneuf—Jacques-Cartier. A majority of delegates in Quebec and every Atlantic province voted in favour of the resolution. Overall, the resolution failed with 54 per cent opposing it.

During a question-and-answer session with delegates on Saturday afternoon, O’Toole was asked to respond to the resolution failing.

“It’s an important question,” O’Toole said. “The debate is over, climate change is real. And the Conservatives, we will have a serious and comprehensive plan on climate change to reduce emissions in the next election. It’s important to me as a father of young children, as a Member of Parliament. Climate change and fighting it is important to the Conservative Party of Canada.”

O’Toole has not said what exactly his environmental plan will be, though he has promised to scrap the federal carbon tax put in place by Trudeau. In his leadership platform, O’Toole pledged to target large industrial emitters, saying he would make “industry pay rather than taxing ordinary Canadians by forging a national industrial regulatory and pricing regime across the country.”

During the debate on the environment motion at the convention, there weren’t any delegates who declared climate change is false. Some, however, argued the Conservatives should be focused on other types of polluting than greenhouse gas emissions.

“Not sure why the Conservative Party needs to specify the climate change is real, or why that is necessary to mention when talking about pollution, since many types of pollution have nothing to do with any notion of climate change, like dumping raw sewage into the Saint Lawrence River,” said one delegate from the Toronto-area riding of Scarborough Centre.

“I’m opposed to this amendment because it unfairly centres greenhouse gases as the major pollutant that we have to be worried about, which is not true,” said a delegate from rural Ontario. “We can have clean air with carbon dioxide in the air. We should be focused on clean land, clean water.”

But a delegate from northern B.C. argued in favour of the motion, noting that he comes from an area dependent on the oil and gas industry.

“Canada is the best at resource extraction, but we still need to recognize that there is an impact on the environment,” the delegate said. “To say that we are in support of making technology better and recognizing that climate change is there is not to say we’re killing our industry, it’s to say that we are going to continue being the best at resource extraction.”

The policy convention wrapped up on Saturday afternoon. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held virtually with all speeches and debates being conducting over video streaming.

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O'Toole declares 'the debate is over' on climate change, but his party's grassroots disagree