Mr. President, Canada Needs You

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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When President Barack Obama said this week that Canada could increase the Keystone XL pipeline's chances by improving its broader record on carbon emissions, he was interfering with another country's domestic policy choices. When it comes to addressing climate change, some outside interference may be exactly what Canada needs.

It's hard to understand the debate over Keystone without also understanding Canada's conflicted view on climate change writ large. Environmentalism, in the broad sense of respect for the natural landscape, is something Canadians see as fundamental to our culture. The trouble starts when that view clashes with the realities of the country's resource-based economy.

The expansion of Alberta's oil sands is an emotional issue for Canadians because it turns that abstract tension into a forced choice between values and interests. The Conservative government, its power base in Alberta, has pushed the latter, with the result that Canada is now unlikely to meet its target of cutting emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

But other parties have wrestled with the same dilemma. The centrist Liberal Party failed to slow greenhouse-gas emissions when it was in power, and there's no reason to believe it would behave differently given another chance. Sometimes, as both countries can attest, your core values are the hardest to live up to.

Enter Obama, hectoring that Canada "could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release." Being scolded by the U.S. is disorienting for Canadians: Our belief in our environmental bona fides is exceeded only by our perceived moral superiority over Americans. That both conceits are increasingly questionable doesn't much matter; when two countries are as similar as ours, the smallest differences take on outsize importance.

Yet those differences matter. Canada's commitment to the environment isn't just deluded self-regard or the romantic pining of an urbanized liberal elite. In a country challenged by regional schisms and divided histories, the stories we tell ourselves about what makes Canada special carry extra significance. If those stories get overtaken by reality, and Canadians turn out to be just like everyone else -- self-interested, with a tendency toward bad decisions if the money's good -- then the country becomes an unwieldy amalgamation of competing demands, with little holding us together.

If Obama approves Keystone in return for stronger climate change policies in Canada, environmentalists may complain that he has abandoned their cause. But he'll be delivering Canadians a larger prize: another chance to embrace the values we claim to hold, but can't quite seem to get our hands around.

And by rejuvenating our commitment to the environment, maybe Obama can help us shed the obnoxious moral posturing that also defines the Canadian identity, which we should have discarded years ago.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net