Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Is He Lying Or Merely Incompetent?

Let's recap the Harper government's record on climate change, shall we?

In the beginning, the Conservatives said nothing. Climate change wasn't even mentioned in the 2006 election platform.

In 2007, though, climate change became a top public priority and Stephen Harper became very concerned. Climate change is "perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today," the Prime Minister declared. And yes, the Conservatives had plans. Big plans. Unlike the Liberals, who talked lots, but accomplished little, the Conservatives were going to get the job done.

In early 2008, the government promised to work with the United States to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions by creating a North American cap-and-trade system. When St├ęphane Dion's Liberals also promised to put a price on carbon emissions, but with a carbon tax instead, the Conservatives savaged it as a "tax on everything" and vilified Dion as the man who would destroy the economy.

When the global economy melted down, public concern about climate change plunged. At the same time, and to the same extent, the prominence of climate change in government communications also plunged.

In December 2009, in Copenhagen, the government met with others from around the world and agreed to cut Canada's emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. It later formally scrapped Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, which had committed this country to much steeper reductions. The government said Canada couldn't possibly meet the Kyoto targets without damaging the economy, which was probably true since it, and its predecessors, had spent so many years doing nothing. But, anyway, Peter Kent said when he became environment minister, the government was fiercely committed to the Copenhagen targets.

In 2011, after the Conservatives won their long-desired majority, the government delivered a Throne Speech. Climate change wasn't mentioned. Same for the 2012 budget.

The budget did, however, scrap the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a body created by the Mulroney government to provide expert policy advice to the government. It's not needed any more, Kent said. There's lots of policy advice out there. Just Google it.

Last week, the environment commissioner, who works within the auditor general's office, reported on the government's climate change plan. There isn't one, he said. Or rather, there isn't anything sufficiently coherent and developed to be worthy of the name. Rather than putting a price on carbon emissions - either by a cap-and-trade system or by a carbon tax - the government went with command-and-control regulations and the commissioner's report noted that the government doesn't know what the costs of its regulations will be, or whether they will do any good. The commissioner also reported that, if current trends persist, Canada's emissions in 2020 will be 7.5 per cent higher than they were in 2005, not 17 per cent lower, as the government had committed.

That takes us to Monday, when John Baird - foreign affairs minister and former environment minister - defended the government's decision to scrap the NR-TEE in the House of Commons.

"Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something that the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected?" Baird fumed. "That is a message the Liberal party just will not accept. It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government to no discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families."

Presumably, Baird meant "kill jobs," not Canadian families, however, given the government's penchant for rhetorical excess we can't be sure. But let's leave that aside.

Baird confirmed that the government scrapped NRTEE because it didn't like the advice its (Conservative-appointed) members were giving. This is the Soviet approach to research: Politics and ideology determine the correct answer, and it is the researchers' job to prove that the correct answer is correct. Failure means Siberia.

Baird's references to "a carbon tax" are also misleading. The NR-TEE insisted that putting a price on carbon emissions was by far the most effective way to reduce emissions (as virtually all experts in this field agree). But that could be done with a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, like the one the Conservatives promised to set up back in 2008.

But that was 2008. This is now. Back then, public support for action was at an all-time high, and now it's low: Goodbye, price on emissions. Farewell, NRTEE.

So what can we make of all this? There are two possibilities.

First, Stephen Harper and Company may be sincere about tackling climate change. In that case, they are grossly incompetent. Their policy is a mess. They have accomplished little or nothing. And there's no reason to think they will do any better in the future.

The other possibility is that Stephen Harper and Company are lying. They do not have any intention of tackling climate change. They never did. Their only real goal is to manage the file so it doesn't become a political liability, which they have done with considerable success.

When I've raised these possible explanations in the past, the response has been curious.

Unsurprisingly, critics of the prime minister write to say, in effect, "hell yeah he's lying!" But so do many conservatives. Climate change is a fraud, they say, but the government has to pretend it believes in it, and is doing something about it, to satisfy the gullible. It's a lie, they say. But it's a noble lie. Hooray for the prime minister.

That strange argument has even made the august pages of Policy Options, where Michael Hart - a Carleton University professor who apparently believes anthropogenic climate change is some sort of socialist plot - praised the Prime Minister. "Harper has successfully ridden the climate change juggernaut to its inevitable end," Hart wrote.

"By not directly confronting an inherited policy that he found distasteful, he has been able to manage it to a conclusion that has alienated fewer and satisfied more Canadians. In the years to come, as the international climate change file gradually fades into obscurity, similar to many other such utopian initiatives, he can look back with satisfaction at a job well done."

That's how professors say, "Hell yeah he's lying!"