I just returned from a preliminary research trip to Australia. This whistle-stop tour of four major cities was meant to provide some initial connections with academics and research institutions for my dissertation. On the way back to Toronto, I had an extended layover in Alberta to celebrate Christmas with my fellow Albertans. Friends and family know of my incessant interest in climate and energy politics and freely offered their take on the sparkling new climate policy that was announced a few months ago in Edmonton. Most indicated that they are glad Premier Notley is taking stronger action on climate change—as confirmed by a recent poll of Albertans—but are skeptical if they can actually hold power beyond one mandate.
If there is one common theme among the dozens of Australian political scientists I spoke with on my trip, it is how to make ambitious climate policies durable. How can government initiatives last beyond the tenure of the leader that established the policies?
Australia provides a cautionary tale for Alberta. The antipodal nation has arguably had the most volatile national climate policy among all industrialized countries. In no particular order, this is a function of their parliamentary peculiarities (e.g., party leaders, including the Prime Minister, are elected by party MPs and not by party members—allowing for party in-fighting to very quickly oust their chief, which happened four times in the last three years), poor political decisions, and, among other things, the pervasive political and economic power of emissions-intensive industries.
The good news for Notley’s New Democrats is that Alberta is not known for political volatility. To the extent that history matters in this case, Albertans have a tendency of clearing house every few decades. That said, any Albertan—regardless of political allegiance—would argue that poor political decisions and a powerful oil and gas industry are not new to the provincial legislature. This makes the shelf life of the new climate policy anything but certain.
As the federal Conservatives are currently learning, all it takes is a different majority government to erase changes made during their rule.
In the meantime, Alberta New Democrats and other fans of doing something about climate change should be looking to do three things before the next election to ensure the new climate policy sticks beyond their first mandate: 1) build coalitions, 2) grow capacity, and 3) normalize climate action. Two professors that I am working with at the University of Toronto, Steven Bernstein and Matt Hoffmann, are examining how these three actions can lead to major and durable wins for the climate (or in academicspeak: how these three political mechanisms can help create transformative decarbonization pathways).
In Australia, a few key coalitions are being built around climate and energy policy. Solar Citizens is a coalition of 80,000 Aussies, mostly from the vote- and money-rich mortgage-belt, that want to lower power bills and generate clean power in their own backyard. Lock the Gate is a movement in Australia (with more than 250 local groups) that unites farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, and urbanites across the political spectrum against unsustainable coal and coalbed methane extraction. Closer to home, the Cowboy Indian Alliance brought together ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States.
Capacity to take serious action on climate change can be built through government leadership. Australian PM Julia Gillard knew this well. Her Labour government in 2011 and 2012 created a constellation of financing mechanisms, educational programs, and research initiatives that strived to create a stable, informed, and profitable environment. While most of these initiatives did not last, it did give a glimpse of the breadth of capacity that is needed to transition away from fossil fuels.
Beyond building coalitions and capacity, durable climate policy also needs to be taken for granted. We can’t look to Australia for wisdom on this one. Education, policy certainty, and vocal leadership from the public, private, and non-profit sector are just some of the magic ingredients needed to make climate action seem normal.
So will Alberta’s new climate policy stand the test of time? I suspect you would get the same answer these days from an oil trader in the commodities pit at the New York Stock Exchange: all bets are off. It is certain that climate action from Alberta will not last if there is not serious coalition and capacity building and efforts to normalize climate action in the next few years. The policy package put together by the blue-ribbon advisory panel and accepted in full by the Alberta New Democrats must only be the beginning.