With this election, environmental politics have grown from infancy, when they were mostly ignored by political caretakers (think Kyoto under Paul Martin), into a somewhat troubled and as yet politically unruly childhood.
It's an impressionable phase. No matter how much or how little climate measures are seen as a key issue, October 14 will shape the mainstreaming of climate politics for years to come.
There are big reasons why we won't forget this historic time. At this writing, the election down south has gone into hyperspace because nobody has a script for what happens when democracy meets Wall Street and doesn't budge.
But whether we take it on or let it pass us by, rest assured that the carbon tax will be the forget-me-not of our own remarkable election. But that doesn't make it interesting.
This was supposed to be the election on the environment, but it has barely made it to the adult table for some obvious reasons and for some that are disturbingly underground.
A laurel goes to Stéphane Dion, who bravely thrust himself into the avant-garde of climate awareness with his courageous and complex Green Shift/carbon tax proposal that has garnered a B+ on the exacting Sierra Club election platform rating system.
Dion's weakness as a communicator combined with his strength as a policy wonk is the most obvious reason it's all gone so poorly.
However, the whole issue has a language problem that goes beyond Dion's. There's a new carbon vocabulary that we have yet to learn. Ask any kid, the basics are the hardest part.
This election is a tale of two plans that nobody understands. Sure, we all know the NDP says cap and trade. The Liberals and the Greens say carbon tax, then later cap and trade. Who doesn't glaze over at that stuff?
But buried within this policy contest are important issues that could have a surprisingly long-term impact on both climate change and the parties' long-term political fortunes.
Last Thursday, Jack Layton, sensing that he could move in for a political kill in BC, decided to join his provincial NDP counterparts in denouncing the Liberal carbon tax as a measure that's "unfair for ordinary working families."
"We've got a better climate change plan," said the New Democrat leader, pointing out that his party's plan "targets the big polluters" and "creates incentives to radically reduce carbon production."
Layton said that Liberal leader Dion "wants to triple BC Premier Gordon Campbell's carbon tax. As prime minister, I'll make sure a federal carbon tax never sees the light of day."
This is Layton using our lack of experience to score points that don't hold true.
Yes, cap and trade does target big polluters - there are 100 or so that are responsible for about 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. But the real world is more complicated than Layton is admitting.
Charging emitters doesn't mean that extra costs don't get passed along to consumers. And in a far less regulated way than does the carbon tax. Plus cap and trade requires a lengthy and convoluted process that will take years to get up and running.
BC is already part of the Western Climate Initiative, which is working on getting a cap and trade system started. The plan is to begin in 2012, with a three-year compliance period before it fully comes into effect. That's at least six years away. A tax can happen next month.
The same week as Layton's statement came out, some newly-agreed- upon rules were made public. Only the business press reports on this stuff, so Layton didn't have to answer to stories like the one in the Globe that starts off with "The smokestack industries in British Columbia have just caught a big break - one that could turn greenhouse gas emissions from a regulatory headache into a money maker."
The reason for the boon is that in the BC Liberals' plan, as of 2012, heavy industry subject to cap and trade would not have to pay the carbon tax - offering them a possible cap-and-trade savings of up to 96 per cent on their carbon tax payment.
Worse still, if Layton and his provincial party have their way, the carbon tax will be long gone by 2012. How will that help address the climate crisis?
Probe any of the country's committed environmental groups active in the non-profit world and you'll find another unsettling reason why it all still seems so hard to understand.
We get a steady diet of spin from party leaders trying to score electoral points, while in large part, our most informed citizens who work professionally in the pro-environment world and could be our bullshit detectors are barred from expressing themselves for fear of losing their charitable status.
Almost all our enviro non-profits rely on tax-receiptable fundraising, and under Revenue Canada rules they can't publicly be seen to advocate directly or indirectly for or against any political party.
Off the record, they report that the Tories are watching closely and that they punitively send in the auditors whenever the groups are critical of Conservative policy or actions.
The result is that during this election, many of the best minds in the country are effectively muzzled.
I'm on the phone with Keith Stewart of the World Wildlife Foundation, who's trying to answer my questions about the carbon tax, when I have an "am I living in China?" moment.
"Let's see," he says, as he struggles to find a way to say what he's thinking. "I have to be careful not to say anything that could be deemed to be directly or indirectly in support or against any political party."
I'm not surprised in the least. This is repeated over and over during the research for this story. This little secret arm of repression is a big reason why the environment hasn't been more of an issue in this election. Imagine a panel of savvy green commentators on the CBC chewing on the party leaders' performance on climate change. Not going to happen.
This explains why we don't know more about how cap and trade has worked in Europe or why the carbon tax has been so successful in Sweden.
But we do have two environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, that don't rely on tax-deductible donations, which is why they're the only groups to have stepped into the election fray. On Tuesday, September 30, they issued a joint release.
"If you care for the environment and want action on global warming, don't vote Conservative," said Bruce Cox, exec director of Greenpeace Canada, at a news conference on Parliament Hill.
That afforded me the chance to talk to the org's climate and energy coordinator, Dave Martin, about the carbon tax debate. Martin doesn't think Dion's plan is the be-all and end-all, by any means. "The Liberal proposal needs more programs that support renewable energy and efficiency," he says.
But he thinks it's "a strategic mistake on Jack Layton's part to oppose the carbon tax.
"He should have adopted the point of view of the environmental community - that the plan doesn't go far enough, fast enough. He has ceded the environmental turf to the Liberal party. If I was active in the NDP, I would be angry," he says.
We may be approaching a turning point in this election.
The only aspect of climate policy that's got any attention until now is how well these policies sell to voters - not whether they're needed (they are) or whether they work (depends on how they're implemented) - especially the carbon tax, which has spent the first half of the election almost in hiding, like it's embarrassed to be seen.
If the Tories and the NDP had had their way and kept Elizabeth May out of the debate tonight (Thursday, October 2), it's a sure bet that the issue wouldn't have surfaced in this last leg of the campaign either. But she is the one leader who knows how to breathe life into this issue.
Watch for how she positions income tax relief paid for by the carbon tax, instead of the other way around.
Of course, no matter what happens with the election, energy prices will continue their rise through the roof. Soon we will become so familiar with the language of carbon, we won't even remember not knowing this stuff. Think how baffling the term "sub-prime mortgage crisis" was just a few months back. The credit crisis has taught us quickly.
And whatever their differences, we are fortunate that we do have four parties that acknowledge the climate crisis and are set to do something about it. It's disappointing that a left-wing party like the NDP has decided to play into the anti-tax prejudice that's become neo-conservatism's favourite child.
But the party still does put forward many platforms worthy of its history. It certainly doesn't deserve a place as the overarching pinnacle of all our hopes and dreams, however. Nor do any of the others.
Thing is, we don't need strong leaders so much as we need strong policies. This election, the only way to go is like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace say. Vote to beat the Tories. Check out VoteforEnvironment.ca to find out how in your riding.
BREAKING IT DOWN CARBON TAXES
• Provide less certainty than cap and trade about level of emissions that will be reduced.
• Are less administratively costly than cap and trade.
• Sweden introduced carbon tax in 1991 and reduced emissions by 9 per cent, but Denmark is the most successful, reducing emissions by 15 per cent and increasing revenues through surplus wind energy.
• Introduced in BC in July 2008.
CAP AND TRADE
• Is only applied to industry.
• Government sets a legal limit on how much polluters can emit.
• Governments can create revenue through cap and trade permit auctions.
• Europe implemented cap and trade in 2005, covering 27 countries.
Sierra club's Climate change report card
Emissions target 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020
Carbon tax No amount specified
Emissions target 3 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020
Carbon tax None; industries face regs starting in 2010
Emissions target 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020
Carbon tax $50 a tonne to $100 a tonne by 2020
Emissions target 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020
Carbon tax $10 a tonne rising to $40 a tonne; will not apply to gasoline
Emissions target 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020
Carbon tax None; instead the party favours a cap on emissions reducing those from industry to 50 per cent below current levels by 2030