Catherine McKenna on Winning the Climate Revolution
The first event in the new Columbia Climate School Speaker Series took place on March 3 and featured Catherine McKenna, former Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change and current Distinguished Visiting Fellow with Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy. During the event, McKenna shared some remarks and participated in a Q&A moderated by Climate School Founding Dean Alex Halliday. Event attendance was limited to Columbia University affiliates, but McKenna has shared her speech and slides below for all to read.
First, I want to thank you for coming out today and for inviting me to be the inaugural speaker in the Columbia Climate School’s lecture series. It’s a real honor — and I’ll confess, a bit intimidating!
I got into politics to fight for policies I believe in, like climate change, equity and justice, and I left government when I believed that the best place to take the fight for a sustainable future was to the world.
I’d like to think that when we look back from 2050 — when many of you are deep into your careers, and others, like me, have likely finished theirs — we’ll see that Columbia’s Climate School will have played a vital role in advancing this movement.
And really: There’s no place I’d rather be.
Over the next 15 minutes, I want to talk about the challenges I think we face right now.
I want to share some of the tough lessons I learned while in government — especially during the fight to put a price on carbon pollution across Canada. It’s a story that has its share of ups and downs, twists and turns, victories and heartbreaks.
But first I want to get something straight. I didn’t grow up in Ottawa or Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver — Canadian cities you might actually have heard of.
Instead, my hometown is Hamilton.
And to grow up in Hamilton is to grow up next to this — Canada’s largest steel mill.
It’s hugely carbon intensive and polluting.
ArcelorMittal Dofasco and its predecessors have been manufacturing the steel that goes into Canadian cars, buildings and industry here for generations. These are good union jobs.
It’s a working-class town. It’s not fancy and I’m not fancy.
We call it the Steeltown or the Hammer — which tells you maybe everything you need to know. It’s a proud place. And if you grow up in Hamilton, you’re a practical person. You take care of your family. Your community. You do your job. You get stuff done.
I went to law school because I was interested in how things work — and can be made to work.
I wound up working for the United Nations to help negotiate an international maritime boundary and energy treaty between East Timor and Australia that was signed on East Timor’s independence.
Then I founded a charity so that more lawyers could share their expertise with less developed countries as well as organizations that needed assistance.
And then I decided to enter politics — which was decidedly not the plan. Remember Steel Town. There were no posters of prime ministers on my bedroom wall. Just Olympic swimmers.
But I got into politics because we had a government that wasn’t facing the future and it didn’t get climate change. I had three kids and I could see — anyone could see — that it was well past time to get serious.
Being elected is one thing, being a minister is something different altogether. I was a rookie. I’d never sat in the House of Commons.
And in 2015, days after being elected, the Prime Minister called me and asked if I would be Canada’s first Minister of the Environment and Climate Change. Seventy-two hours later, I was on a plane to Paris — because COP21 was about to begin. I didn’t even know what a COP was. It’s Conference of the Parties in case you’re wondering — and yes, I immediately put a ban on the use of acronyms in my office.
Everyone in this room knows the importance of Paris and what was achieved there. It was the first time that the countries of the world agreed to an ambitious plan to tackle climate change with the goal of staying well below 2 degrees of warming, aiming for 1.5.
And every country agreed they needed to do their part.
Parenthetically, I’ll note that I am convinced that the only reason we were able to achieve such an ambitious agreement was through the leadership of women — from Christiana Figueres, to Laurence Tubiana, to Mary Robinson, to women leading environmental organizations and unions, to Indigenous and grassroots women, to the women ministers like me who were directly involved in the negotiations.
When the Paris Agreement was achieved, ministers returned home knowing that we now had to find a way to deliver.
So let’s talk a bit about Canada.
Thirty-eight million people. Second largest land mass, with 90% of our population about 100 km from the US border. It’s often cold. On energy — you probably know about flashpoints like pipelines and oil sands. But you might not know that 80% of our electricity is already clean — coming mostly from hydro and nuclear with some wind and solar, and the last coal fired generating stations shutting down within this decade. Ontario, with 40% of the population, kicked the habit a decade ago. This was the largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Canada’s history.
Delivering Canada’s carbon commitment would take heavy lifting — including putting a price on carbon pollution. Initially the price went up by $10 per year to $50 this year. It’s now on a trajectory to increase by $15 per year, reaching $170 by 2030.
None of this was an easy sell. Canada isn’t a country that pulls in the same direction. We have a tendency to elect opposing governments … so if you have Liberals in Ottawa, you have Conservatives in power most everywhere else. This creates what you might politely call a dynamic.
On any day you could read in the news about provincial premiers who were dismantling a cap-and-trade system or cancelling a carbon tax, dismantling wind farms, and actually ripping out charging stations for electric vehicles.
And at the same time, we were designing a system that would require provinces to bring in a carbon price to meet a minimum federal standard (and keep the revenues!) or else we would impose a federal backstop.
We encouraged provinces to design a system that worked for them but we also made it clear that inaction was no longer an option. Perhaps most importantly, we wanted to make sure that the money didn’t stay in Ottawa but was returned to people’s pockets — especially those who needed the money most.
We thought this made sense. We thought this was fair. And we tried to work with provinces to hammer out deals.
Enter the Resistance. Representing Ontario and several of the western provinces, these populist provincial leaders were determined to defeat our policy. They did many things to discredit it. Including trying to mobilize public opinion.
I wish I made this up but Ontario’s premier even ordered totally misleading stickers placed on every gas pump in the province. Hilariously they didn’t stick.
And they took us to court. And then another court. And then another. For years.
In the end, the battle for Canada’s carbon price was settled by our Supreme Court. The majority of the court found that the law was constitutional because climate change is a “threat to the future of humanity” and therefore the federal government had the authority to impose a minimum price on greenhouse gas emissions across the country. Chief Justice Wagner writing for the majority was clear: “A provincial failure to act directly threatens Canada as a whole.” The provinces would have to comply.
I looked for allies to help sell carbon pricing wherever I could find them.
I found myself calling the Guvernator, asking Arnold Schwarzenegger to endorse our plan, hoping that as a Republican he could reach Conservative-leaning voters … and, well, Terminator fans. He did a great video for me that you can find by searching my social media.
And while the question of carbon pricing quickly became accepted wisdom on the left, despite its free market appeal, it became something of a purity test for the federal conservatives who continued to oppose our government’s policies.
So what can we take away from this…
First, climate politics is messy. It can break your heart and there will never be any shortage of set-backs and detours.
It took time. And our government had to figure out how to talk to real people like real people talk and not, frankly, like an environmentalist or a card-carrying member of an out-of-touch elite. (Sorry, this is just true.) The short-hand for our policy was to put a “price on pollution.” This frame works because regular people understand that pollution has a cost and that it can’t be free to pollute.
Second, we had to lessen the pain of our policies on real people.
Though we could have spent the billions of new revenues from pricing on any number of priorities including those that could accelerate the transition, it wouldn’t matter if we lost public support.
This is why we have to remember that for most people, it isn’t that climate change is an abstraction. People see it and they feel it. But politicians who are pushing an ambitious climate agenda need to remember that it is normal for regular people to care about the cost of living while also wanting to do right by the planet.
Our decision to return all the revenues of carbon pricing disarmed critics who feared a hidden motive — bigger government. And, our plan made most Canadians better off — especially lower income Canadians, while also allowing them to support a policy that would do the right thing.
Third: I learned that you don’t fight people. Save your fight for your opponents — the mostly right-wing politicians and their surrogates in the media. It sucks and it is exhausting. They will go after you personally. They will lie shamelessly and distort everything you say. But you need to get the facts out.
Fourth: This is politics and you need a ground game. This means organizing and working with allies who can command and mobilize their networks. We drummed up support from all corners: kids (and their parents and grandparents), NGOs, faith leaders, Indigenous leaders, academics, physicians, economists, and yes, industry and business leaders. And we enlisted faith leaders as well.
So now what?
I think our job is two-fold. We have to hold the gains we’ve made while continuing to move forward. And that means a transition that is fair for workers and communities and one that ensures equity for those most impacted by climate change, especially Indigenous peoples and historically marginalized groups.
The latest IPCC report released this past Monday makes it clear that climate justice is intrinsic to climate action. And as we transition, we need to prioritize a just transition globally if we are going to bring people onside. We cannot leave people behind — otherwise the transition won’t be successful.
And we need to fight disinformation spread by conservative politicians, right-wing media, and as has become startling clear, the influence of state actors including Russia who are keen to sow discord and confusion and increase polarization.
A 2021 study from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 10 publishers are responsible for more than two-thirds of digital climate change denial content on Facebook — which includes several right-wing websites in the US, as well as Russian state media.
I saw examples of disinformation first-hand throughout my time as minister, but especially when we introduced a price on pollution in Canada.
An analysis by the Climate Lab at the University of Toronto found that replies to my tweets intensified significantly as of April 1, 2019, the day the federal carbon price took effect. That day the largest volume of tweets were sent at me in my four years as minister. These tweets argued that climate change was not a global emergency and falsely claimed that it isn’t caused by people or carbon emissions but rather the sun. Annoyingly, the content was not only on climate disinformation but also included hateful attacks on me personally.
Tragically, it’s taken the crisis in Ukraine to jolt us into recognizing how malign foreign actors like Russia exploit issues like climate change precisely because they can be used to sow division and heighten polarization in order to destabilize democracies.
The Aspen Institute has named this condition ab “information disorder” — which seems apt. Democratic societies die without quality information and institutional trust. Defending our institutions, dramatically enhancing access to quality information, making social media platforms accountable, actively rooting out malign actors, and restoring trust must be job one — it will save our societies and is a prerequisite to achieving our climate goals.
These are dark times — but the choices and solutions have never been clearer. This is when I remember my hometown.
Because we need to be practical. We have to fight the real enemies. We have to prove our case with real people. And we have to do the hard work.
Change can happen — and looking around the world today, that change is happening.
Remember ArcelorMittal Dofasco, where I grew up, and those piles of coal? Last month, the federal and provincial government announced they would retrofit the coal blast furnaces, making them electric. So not only will the car of the future be electric, the steel it’s made with will be electric, too. One change, which will reduce Dofasco’s greenhouse gas emissions by half — a reduction of three million tonnes per year by 2030. This will transform the city and province to be a world-leading producer of low carbon steel.
Hamilton is practical and proud. It took time, but they are finding their way to a cleaner future which includes good union jobs, economic growth, and competitiveness. And I know we will too.
That’s why I guess you could call me a stubborn climate optimist — like Columbia Climate School students.