Living within your means – an interview with Preston Manning

On reconciling environment and the economy and how ‘conservation’ and ‘conservative’ come from the same root.

Interview by Lily Yumagulova, Editor, HazNet

Preston Manning, PC CC AOE is Founder and President of the Manning Centre, which he founded in 2005.

Mr. Manning served as a member of Parliament from 1993 to 2001. He founded two political parties – the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance – both of which became the Official Opposition in the Canadian Parliament, and laid the foundation for the new Conservative Party of Canada. Mr. Manning served as Leader of the Opposition from 1997 to 2000 and was also his party’s science and technology critic. In 2007, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and in 2013 was appointed to the Privy Council.

Mr. Manning graduated from the University of Alberta with a BA in Economics and provided consulting services to the energy industry for twenty years before entering the political arena. He has received honorary degrees from the University of Calgary, University of Alberta, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Tyndale University College, York University, University of Toronto, Carleton University and the University of British Columbia.
Mr. Manning resides in Calgary with his wife, Sandra. The Mannings have five grown children and eleven grandchildren.

LY: Our issue focuses on climate change and Canadian communities and values. In the past years, could you tell me what has surprised you or disturbed you with regards to global environmental change?

Preston Manning: One of the things that’s concerned me, but it hasn’t surprised me, is the difficulty in getting conservative-oriented parties and politicians to more thoroughly embrace environmental issues. I’ve argued with conservative-oriented political people that they have a unique and important contribution to make.

Conservatives profess to the principle of living within your means. Often that is followed through with financially but that is an ecological principle. You have to ultimately live within your means ecologically, the planet has to live within its means, so I’ve argued that fiscal conservatives who are interested in balancing budgets should be interested in balancing the ecological budget. Secondly, I’ve argued with conservatives that the word ‘conservation’ and ‘conservative’ come from the same root. There’s nothing philosophically incompatible with conservatives embracing or championing conservation. Thirdly, since conservatives profess to believe in markets, that market mechanisms can be harnessed towards environmental conservation, that that ought to be the particular contribution that conservatives make on environmental issues: using pricing systems and financial incentives to address an environmental problem. So I guess it’s not so much a surprise, but it concerns me that there hasn’t been a more positive and proactive uptake by conservative-oriented politicians towards environmental issues generally.

LY: Can you share a story about when it became obvious to you that the climate was an issue that we should really care about?

Preston Manning: I have three sources of my own interest in environmental issues and maybe I’ll just take a minute to explain them. First, I started out in university studying physics then switched to economics, but one of the basic principles in physics is the law of conversation of energy and mass. So I got to thinking from a very early age that when you produce energy, or when you produce a product of any kind, what happens to all the other stuff that was generated or discarded in the process of creating that product?

And one of the funny things I got into was back in 1970, the Alberta government passed its first environmental protection act and the main newspaper in Edmonton, the Edmonton Journal, sponsored a contest called ‘The Dirty Story Contest.’ They invited readers to find an irresponsible polluting industry and to write up a 250-word essay on it and whoever had the dirtiest story would win the prize. I happened to know a couple of people who worked in the production department of The Edmonton Journal so I asked them to get me two numbers (1) the amount of newsprint they use per day (in those days they used carbon ink, which has a lot of bad stuff in it) and (2) how many barrels of carbon ink did they use. Then I gave these figures to a chemist and asked him to work it back ‘into the woods.’ How much pulp and paper was used for the newsprint? How much effluent went into the river? How much biological oxygen demand on the stream? How much oxidation of the bark and all the refuse from the woods and give me the number. Then I asked to chemist to ‘work it forwards’: assuming all this newsprint and carbon ink would eventually get oxidized then how much carbon dioxide and other stuff gets released.

He worked these figures out then I wrote up a story saying there’s this innocent little factory on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, but this is the amount of junk that it is responsible for polluting the atmosphere with. We gave it to the electronic media and The Edmonton Journal cancelled the contest, but the publisher then found out that I was behind it and he summoned me to his office. He had the paper on this desk and asked: “what can I do about it? Do you know what the advertising rates in this newspaper would be if we had to clean up everything in the woods or demand cleaner, environmentally friendly paper and do you know what the subscription rates would be if we had to collect these things.” And I replied to him that that is the problem for every industry, every business. There is no such thing as a completely environmentally friendly business. So why don’t you take your readers through that? That you could fix all these problems, but of course you’d have to triple the price of the paper and quadruple your advertising rate. Then at that point I even offered to do the study for him and he found that to be too much and asked me to leave his office. But I actually came to my environmental concerns more through physics than through climate science which developed later on.

The second thing was when I was with the Reform Party we had about 150,000 members by 1997. A lot these members were grassroots ordinary people and they used to send me all kinds of messages, emails and letters. I did start to get a couple of notes from members who were loggers in British Columbia who would say: “Hey, we noticed it used to get cold enough to kill that pine beetle, but it’s not getting cold enough anymore to kill the pine beetle,” and they would also say: “we don’t know whether it’s climate change or whatever – all we know is it’s not cold enough to kill the pine beetle.” And then we had members that were in the oil drilling business and they would remark that they used to be able to get into the frozen muskeg in northern Alberta. The muskeg in northern Alberta would freeze and they would be able to drive in to get their work done around November 15th or so and now they can’t get in until Christmas. The muskeg isn’t freezing hard enough, early enough, like it did before. We had some members that built ice roads in northern Manitoba and they would say that “We used to be able to build our ice roads and drive our trucks right up until May and now trucks have to finish by April or March.” We had members up in Tuktoyaktuk in the Arctic and they built their buildings on pilings to compensate for the permafrost and they used to only have to drive the pilings down 6 feet and that would be sufficient and now they have to go 10 feet. So I actually picked up a lot from ordinary folks that are out there for their work in the environment and they were raising these concerns. None of the people guessed as to what the explanation was, they were just observing some kind of change in the climate that had come to their attention.

The third thing that has influenced me is our oldest son, who is quite concerned with environmental issues. He did his Master’s thesis on the Hebrew and Greek roots of Western environmentalism and then when he came back from school we used to go riding in the Cypress Hills and he wanted to help preserve some of that original buffalo grassland that’s never been broken. We have a small ranching operation where we raise organic cattle mainly on this original prairie grass and he’s a big fan of Wendall Barrie (the southern agrarian whose philosophy is you don’t just talk and write about environmental conservation: you go and do it, and this adds an authenticity to whatever you have to say or write). So our family has been trying to do that through this organic ranch in the Cypress Hills.

Those are the three things: (1) The Law of Conversation and Mass (2) Grassroots commentary on climate changes and (3) our own family endeavor in Cypress Hills.

LY: Looking forward, in what ways do you feel Canadians communities will be affected by climate change in the next decades? Could you think of other impacts that are really fundamental?

Preston Manning: Well I think about the economic impacts. I think this an area where the environmental movement has been weak. For a long time the environmental interest groups have demanded that industry do their own environmental impact assessments on what they’re doing, which is a legitimate demand, but I think the quid pro quo is that environmental groups should do economic impact assessment so that the public can know the economic impact of implementing an environmental conversation measure.

One of the major consequences of that is that if we are moving in the direction of internalizing some of these environmental externalities, which I think we are, I think we’re moving in the energy field to full cost accounting which is where if you produce energy it will be necessary to identify the economic impacts of that, what measures need to be developed to avoid or mitigate those impacts and the costs of those avoidance and mitigation measures incorporated into the price of the product. So you’re going to have increases in energy prices, in particular petroleum prices, that are due to internalizing the environmental impact. And that economic impact is going to be broader than just petroleum. I think the one legitimate – you hear more and more petroleum executives accepting that the industry is going to have to get to full cost accounting (there is still a great debate as to how do you do it best through carbon taxes, or cap and trade or some other mechanism that hasn’t been invented yet) but the legitimate point petroleum producers make is that “If you’re going to apply full cost accounting to us it is imperative that you also apply it to every other energy source.”

So where is the reservoir tax for the hydro people? Where is the radiation tax for the nuclear people? Where is the environmental levy for the wind and solar people because there is no totally environmentally neutral form of energy production? There still may be differences, I mean hydro may well in the end be cleaner than petroleum, ‘all costs in,’ but the difference will not be between zero and a thousand on some scale. It will be between five hundred and seven hundred. I think the internalizing of the environmental impacts that were once treated as externalities is going to have major effects on the prices of goods and services. And ultimately the public is going to have to come to the conviction that is environmental conversation worth paying that price?

LY: What are some of the biggest challenges moving forward with addressing climate change in Canada?

Preston Manning: Well, I think there is still a bit of skepticism out there about some of the environmental science and climate science, and one thing I worry about is the polarization of this issue. Canadians are very much influenced and our media are very much influenced by what happens in the United States and the US political culture tends to polarize on every issue here. People go from one end of the spectrum to the other end of the spectrum and they fight it out and usually come eventually to some kind of compromise, although recently in the US there seems to be a great difficulty at arriving at those compromises.

I think the concern in Canada is that you don’t want to get polarized on this issue. It shouldn’t be conceptualized as either you are for the economy or you are for the environment, but you can’t be committed to both. I think the real answers to some of these problems arise in trying to reconcile economic interests and environmental interests rather than just get them polarized into two warring camps. And you see that illustrated in respect to the pipelines in British Columbia. On one hand you’ve got this insatiable demand for energy which keeps (even if you practiced every conceivable conservation measure, still the world demand for petroleum by 2020 is still huge) and on the other hand you’ve got the very legitimate concerns about the environmental impacts of meeting that demand. The challenge is to reconcile those interests and not just choose one over the other. It’s easy for the interest groups to be on one side or the other but if you’re a government, ultimately politics at its highest level involves reconciliation of conflicting interests, and the hardest ones to reconcile are never the ones where all the good is on one side and all the evil is on the other. The hardest ones to reconcile are where there’s pluses and minuses on both sides.

LY: Given your experience have you seen any major shifts regarding perceptions and attitudes towards climate change in the past, say, ten years? Just to address that skepticism point.

Preston Manning: I think attitudes are, to some degree, affected by the ups and downs in the economy. When the economy is going well the public interest and concern on environmental interests can be high and people don’t object too much if that’s going to increase prices and costs in order to deal with those effects. When the economy gets tight then people are much more reluctant to accept or pay the price of environmental conservation. I think the public attitudes are still very much tied to how confident they feel in the economy.

LY: In terms of moving forward, are there communication challenges in relation to climate change? Given that you speak to many across the country on a regular basis, have you found effective ways of communicating this issue?

Preston Manning: One of the huge mistakes, which was made on the communications side in particular in relation to petroleum, was labeling the environmental levy to deal with carbon as a “carbon tax.” The public’s understanding of a tax is that it’s a charge on a financial transaction that produces revenue for government, which the government can use to finance its operations and services. While the economists may think the use of a tax is that its a mechanism for internalizing an externality, that’s not what the public’s conception of a tax is. And secondly, the public perception of a tax is negative. They don’t like taxes. They don’t trust the government when the government says a tax will be revenue neutral because there have been so many promises like that in the past which have been broken. So I think getting the word “tax” attached to carbon pricing was a huge communications mistake and it is now into the language that such even if you tried to change it people would say “Well, you’re still talking about a tax.”

One of the things that scientists have to watch, and some interest groups, [is they] tend to work out their position and conclusion and then once that is all done, decide on how they’re going to communicate this to the public. I find it is a lot more helpful to involve communications people at the very beginning of the project. They may not have much to contribute, but they might say early on like “I wouldn’t use that word if six months down that road we have to communicate this.” By giving a lot more attention to the communication dimension of these issues, you may have a great idea but if you communicate it improperly it is very hard to change downstream.

LY: Has your community seen any direct impacts of climate change in recent years?

Preston Manning: Well I live in Calgary, and Calgary is the energy capital of Canada, especially from a petroleum standpoint. At least at the intellectual and the decision making level, the concern about environmental issues and attention to environmental issues, especially in relation to the petroleum industry, is quite prominent in Calgary. Also, at the more practical level we do this ranching operation in the Cypress Hills. It is one of the most delicate prairie environments in Western Canada. It’s high plateau – that’s the highest point of land between the Rockies and Labrador in Canada – and it has some of the last unbroken grasslands in the country and it is an area that has bird populations that fly through. Just recently there has been a proposal to build a huge industrial windfarm in that area and I personally think they’re making the same mistakes on wind and solar that they made on oil sands. We think it’s advancement but we don’t think through all the environmental consequences of that development. It is true that wind farms don’t produce the same emissions that thermal does, and that was the justification for this wind farm, but they carry other environmental implications that I don’t think we take into account. That’s a practical illustration. In Calgary, what I see is more the issue of environmental impacts receiving a lot more of attention than it would have 10 or 15 years ago.

LY: When the floods happened was there any talk of climate change on a general public level or was this considered as a single event not connected to any global phenomena?

Preston Manning: There may have been some commentators that ventured to make that connection but I don’t feel it was in the public mind. There was a sense that just a combination of heavy snowmelt from the mountains which occurs every now and then combined with heavy rainstorms at the same time. The accumulative affect was to create more flooding than has occurred in the past but I don’t think in the minds of everyday Calgarians that it was connected to climate change.

LY: How does the city cope with floods in general?

Preston Manning: Well, Calgary is a very “can do” city, and it was just enormous, the outpouring of volunteer help to help with the aftermath. It raised issues regarding what extent should you build in a floodplain. There has been city planning activity that would tend to want to focus on building and densification downtown, but downtown is in the Bow River Valley so the flooding caused a lot of discussion around what constitutes planning that takes into account the broader environmental issues.

LY: What did they come up with, moving forward?

Preston Manning: I don’t think there are any conclusions yet. The Province is still looking at it. There’s the question of the insurability of buildings that are built in floodplains but I don’t think there has been any real final conclusion.

LY: What do you think would be an effective symbol for climate change in Canada? Something that people can understand.

Preston Manning: The dollar sign. Ultimately things cost money. If you’re prepared to pay the price you can do a lot. If you’re not prepared to pay the price of achieving an objective you substitute for it. You have discussions, you produce papers, you have seminars, you have conferences, but at the end of the day if you value something whether it is an environment or anything else you are going to have to pay a price. I think coming to grips with that reality is part of the challenge of getting people to move beyond just talk and nodding their head in the direction of environmental protection as long as it doesn’t cost anything.

One of the interesting phenomena – you know, BC did experiment and does have a carbon tax; when it was originally proposed it was quite a political liability or danger to the Campbell government at the time because it would add to the price of the gasoline at the pump. During that time immediately after it was announced the price of oil went down, which (and I’m not 100% certain of this one, I’d have to look at the numbers) I think the decline in the commodity price masked the impacts of the imposition of the environmental levy or carbon tax in this case. Whether that suggests a strategy that when timing the introduction of an environmental levy if it were to coincide with a decline in the commodity price it might make the imposition of that levy more politically acceptable and feasible.

LY: How do you negotiate the short term politic cycles with this big global long-term challenge?

Preston Manning: I think you have to perceive it incrementally, and with the public you have to perceive it from the most tangible to the less tangible. For example, if I was trying to convince a public audience say 20 years ago of the need to look at the negative effects of burning hydrocarbons, I would not start with CO2, which people can’t see and they got to believe the chemist or scientist that is talking to them that it is there and that it’s a big problem. I would start more with smog that you can see, so you can’t deny (even in Calgary, you can go up on Signal Hill here in the morning and look out over the city and you can see a browny grey cloud, not that big sometimes, but it is still there). I would start with what people can see, burning hydrocarbons is an important source of energy but it does have its negative affects so let’s see what has to be done to clean up SO2 and the particles that constitute smog. A lot of what has to be done to clean that up has other broader implications, but I think to make progress dealing with the public you have to proceed incrementally. Canadians will not go from A to C unless they see B and you start with what they can see and taste and smell and proceed to the more abstract (less obvious) and intangible.

LY: On a personal level, have you changed your behaviour in any way to address this climate change issue?

Preston Manning: In our family home my wife is very conscious of these issues. She’s been a recycler for years and this had spread to our grown children, so she crusades on recycling. Secondly our involvement with this organic ranching operation, which is a tangible activity, those have probably been the two major things. Even when we used to live on an acreage outside of Edmonton, we had to haul our garbage to a dump where they weighed your vehicle when you came in and then weighed it when you came out and I used to use it as a chance to illustrate to the children on the Law of Conversation and Energy and Mass. Whatever we carried into the front door of the house would eventually go out in some form or another: it might go out as sewage or garbage but a lot of it went out to the dump. There was a connection between if we took 200 pounds of garbage to dump, there was a connection between it coming in the front door the week before. So if you wanted to reduce what went to the dump you first had to reduce what came through the front door. We had discussions on that.

LY: In terms of your future career if you were to choose one issue that you would follow up and you feel would be most useful for addressing climate change in Canada what would it be?

Preston Manning: It would be the reconciliation of conflicting interests between the environment and the economy. I would deliberately choose not to be just on one end or the other. I’m not saying people that do choose that are making a mistake. Until the interests are vigorously represented and championed you don’t know what you’re trying to reconcile so there is a place for advocacy on one end or the other. But I think the more missing ingredient, this is the more political role, is to try and reconcile these interests to the extent that they can be. Sometimes there are hard choices that have to be made. We can’t do both, although Canadians are very hard to convince on that. Give Canadians an option and they say why don’t we do both, that’s how we got English and French, that’s how we got the American Federal System and the British Parliamentary system. We very much try to do both. The thing that I would be most committed to would be to try to find a reconciliation of those two interests.

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