Editorial: Environment is toughest issue

This is the fourth of six editorials we will publish prior to the provincial election on May 9. Each deals with an issue that is expected to play a role in deciding the outcome.

The first three focused on the province’s finances, housing and proposals for managing the economy. Today’s editorial looks at environmental protection.

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Environmental protection is perhaps the most difficult of all the campaign issues. On one hand, we have clear requirements for environmental protection in specific circumstances.

These detail how dangerous waste is to be treated, how air quality is to be protected, how tailings ponds should be engineered and so forth.

But on the other hand, there is no agreement about an overarching scale of values that enables us to navigate controversies as they arise.

For example, how do we weigh the benefits of providing 20 years of employment for a logging town against the loss of old-growth forests and the endangerment of wildlife? What is the calculus we should use?

In other policy fields, long-established principles offer guidance. The responsibilities of our public-education system can be stated in plain English: To ensure that every child between the ages of five and 19 receives an education. This is an unambiguous commitment from which all else flows.

However, when it comes to environmental protection, no one has laid out, with the same clarity of language, where the responsibilities of public- and private-sector agencies begin and end.

Instead, individual projects are seized on as proxies in ever-more-heated disputes. Forestry operations, mines, tanker ports, etc. become flash points, with opposing sides digging in to hold as much ground as they can.

One option could be to articulate trade-offs that might represent a fair balance between competing interests.

There have been steps in this direction. Corporations proposing projects that affect the environment usually offer some form of compensation or redress.

But because we lack an established currency for designing and accepting such offsets, distrust leads to conflicts that often end up in the courts. This is no way to arrive at a middle ground. Indeed, it almost ensures continuing hostility.

Then again, the stakes on both sides are sky-high. Environmentalism is more than a series of policy prescriptions. It is an all-encompassing philosophy for protecting the planet.

Job creation and economic growth are about more than wealth creation. They are about protecting the livelihoods of working-class families.

That is one reason the environmental arena is so politically volatile. Suggest a compromise, and you might be accused of betraying your beliefs.

This need not be quite such a concern for the Greens or the Conservatives. Both appeal to target groups that tend to hold fairly settled views.

But for the Liberals and the NDP, which must win the support of undecided voters, it could become the defining challenge of the election. Get this wrong, and nothing else might matter.

Arguably, that’s what happened to former NDP leader Adrian Dix in 2013, when he came out against the Kinder Morgan pipeline in mid-campaign. His 20-point lead disappeared overnight, and the Liberals were handed a come-from-behind victory.

Ideally, the parties will take this opportunity to move the debate forward. There has already been far too much rancour on a subject of such central importance.

Of course, that will require courage and leadership. More than that, it will require hard thinking and a willingness to acknowledge both sides of the issue.

We will see, over the remainder of the campaign, whether that kind of leadership is on offer. For if an acceptable accommodation cannot be reached, we are in for more years of strife that will make the “war in the woods” look tame by comparison.

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