Ep45: Catherine McKenna 'Powering Canada Past Coal'

“Clarity and moral purpose… We need to talk like real people about real things”: Catherine McKenna on the need to communicate to new audiences in powerful ways.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Catherine McKenna, Minister of Communities and Infrastructure in the Canadian government.

Despite all the speeches made by politicians and the mounting scientific evidence, what turned the tide of public opinion on climate change was Greta Thunberg, Catherine argues. “The ambition that we see now is directly related to Greta and the girls and boys in the streets.” In turn, Catherine believes that politicians need to talk more directly to voters if the message of government on climate change is to be effective.

Michael and Catherine also discuss Canada’s carbon price,women leaders in climate policy, COPs, and being a female politician on social media.  


This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: Minister Catherine, welcome to Cleaning Up. I want to go back to Paris 2015. At the time, you were a relative newcomer to the ministerial brief. What are your memories of getting the Paris Climate Accords deal across the line?


Catherine McKenna: My favorite memory was when I got to make Canada's first statement. I threw out what the public servants had written, which was a kind of boring statement. Instead, I just said, ‘Canada really believes in the science behind climate change, Canada knows we need to be supporting those developing countries, and Canada knows that we need an ambitious agreement, Canada's back.’ Then, everyone cheered. And then I thought, okay, I should just retire now. Because it was great.


ML: We’ve had many climate leaders on Cleaning Up who are women. These are the leaders; these are the people who got it done.


CM: I called it women kicking on climate, and I brought a bunch of them to Canada. I will tell you; we wouldn't have got well below 2 degrees striving for 1.5 if it wasn't for women, I'm just going to tell you that and that's women who were running the show, that's women that were ministers, environmentalists working for the not-for-profit sector, indigenous women. We're taking credit.

And then Greta came along, and the youth, and young women who were fearless. You must give them credit to keep the ambition that we see now is directly related to Greta and the girls and boys in the streets. My dad, he's Irish, said to me, ‘How can anyone be against climate change? My grandchildren yell at me all the time. I am supporting more ambitious climate action, a price on pollution for my grandkids.’ It's the power of young people.


ML: There is one learning from that though, which is for all the think tanks for all the policy papers for all the political careers, for all the theories of change expounded in the universities, nobody forecast Greta. Nobody really had their finger on what would turn this thing around.


CM: It’s the clarity and moral purpose. This is a serious lesson that I think we all need to take to heart. We need to talk like real people about real things. When I came into COP-land, I said, ‘Okay, there's no dumb questions, right? What's a COP?’ We use all this language like Article Six, carbon markets, but no one knows what we're talking about.

So, carbon tax.  Let me tell you, that's not a good sales pitch. Carbon tax isn't a good sales pitch. So, when we were about to introduce it in Canada started really thinking hard about how we communicate to Canadians. It matters how you talk to regular people, because we're not trying to convince environmentalists here. Sometimes we get into our jargon, and we think we're all very smart. But we realized that what really resonated was putting a price on pollution, because it shouldn't be free to pollute. If you ask a grade four student whether it should be free to pollute, they’ll say no. I think that Greta, beyond that, had a clarity of purpose. She was willing to call people out and didn't try to mince her words.

In 2015 we ran on a platform that we're going to put a price on pollution. I had to negotiate a climate plan with provinces and territories – it was very hard and very political. But one thing that was very important to me in the design is that every dollar had to go back. So, what we did is we said, it can no longer be free to pollute, we're putting a price on pollution. But all the money will go directly back to people, 10% was back to businesses and not for profits. But it was all going back. We were not keeping a dollar. Now we had to impose it. We said to provinces: as long as you meet the benchmark of our price, you can do a direct price, like a tax, or you could do cap and trade.


ML: At the same time as fighting climate change, Canada is also building a pipeline. What's the politics behind that? What's the thinking there?


CM: How we take climate action is going to be messy. We have hugely ambitious climate action plans. But, people are still using oil and gas. We turned down many pipelines, but this one was seen as an incredibly important part of the transition. Also, as you know, moving forward on figuring out how we're going to pay for some of the massive investments we're making.

I've learned that in climate policy you must be focused on regular people. During the phasing out of coal, we sent folks out to communities that were phasing out coal, and you would go to these town halls and community centers, and school gyms, and people would show up, and they'd be angry, sad, and scared. But they still cared about the environment, clean air, and clean water. But reasonably, they also cared about jobs. We need to navigate that, because we've seen how challenging it is for folks to get behind policy changes if they don't believe they're going to be part of it. I'm ambitious on climate change, but sometimes people say you're not doing it fast enough. But we also need to figure out how we bring people together. So, we looked at what were the jobs of the future? How could we do retraining? How could we do infrastructure investments in those communities? And how could we show that it wasn't just for people who it wasn't going to impact that it was easy to just say we're phasing out coal. Obviously, we need to transition off fossil fuels. But we also recognize that people's lives and futures are at stake, because it's very hard to land climate policy.



ML: How do we get that done? Because there are countries that have got coal in the ground, and they see it as their right to develop it. Of course, we all know that if they did become wealthy by using coal, the next thing they would have is an air quality issue, a health issue, probably a cost issue and so on. But how do you support the developing countries? Bangladesh and Vietnam, for example, how do you support them to leapfrog beyond coal?


CM: You've got to go deeper on jobs. Part of the reason countries want to do this is for jobs, people need jobs and are entitled to them. Let me be very clear as a politician, jobs are an issue. If you show you're cutting jobs as opposed to enhancing jobs, it's going to be very hard to stay elected, even if you're doing the right thing for the planet.

Then you also need the financing. How do we know we need trillions? How do you make sure the investments go there? So, part of it is my good friend Mark Carney, who has come back to Canada, which is great. He's been working on climate disclosure, and I think that's important. But I think the other side of this is figuring out how do you get the dollars to be invested in the clean side.


ML:  I've interacted with you a little bit on Twitter, around the Powering Past Coal, sometimes I'll tweet and you might respond, sometimes you've tweeted and I've responded. I have never seen such virulent pushback. It is the sexism that greets almost you're every post. Does that get you down? How do you deal with that?


CM: Some people have done studies about my social media. The day we announced we were putting a price on pollution was the day that the heat really increased, like it was significant, and it was organized campaigns for sure. I'd love to know exactly who's behind it. We do know some of the folks behind it, and there's a whole industry of bots. But there are also folks who fuel the fire. And look, does it get me down? Is it annoying how they call me Climate Barbie? I didn't say anything for a long time. And then one day, I called out one of the media organizations who asked a question at a press conference, and it went viral. I called it out because I was fed up and I thought to myself, ‘screw it. I'm done.’  And I said, it's not just because of me, it's because I have daughters, and there are a lot of women who want to get into politics, and this is not okay. And I just realized that it's important because I'm in a privileged position.