Turning the Manning Networking Conference green

CBC commentator Rex Murphy addresses the crowd at 2015 Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa.

The Manning Networking Conference (MNC) is the beating heart of the conservative movement in Canada. Every year, hundreds of their best and brightest gather, share ideas and, this year, fan the flames of election fervour.

After years of hearing Stephen Harper, his Ministers and MPs talk about “a job-killing carbon tax,” this year’s conference was a surprising venue in which to witness an adult discussion on carbon pricing.

I’ve long been passionate about climate change and I keep throwing curveballs, trying to accelerate the discussion; in 2011, for instance, I asked 186 Canadian companies for their opinion on carbon pricing at the national level (covered by Corporate Knights here). I host a quarterly luncheon meeting in downtown Calgary with people from the oil sands, academia, civil society and former bureaucrats with years of experience on the climate change file. With the support of one of these individuals, I met last summer with staff at the Manning Centre and found them willing to host a panel at MNC2015. I was delighted when they later agreed with my top choice for a speaker: former six-term Republican Congressman Bob Inglis from South Carolina.

The conference’s keynote address was by CBC commentator Rex Murphy, who urged the audience to think of themselves not as conservatives, but as Canadians, and to neither sanitize nor shy away from conversations of substance on the challenges and opportunities we face as a nation. Murphy spent a few minutes passionately arguing this broad, cross-sectoral, non-partisan call to the table. But within the first 60 seconds of his remarks, he was referencing his “carbon hoof-print” and making jokes about Al Gore and David Suzuki, all to laughter and applause from the audience.

Half an hour later, some 70 of those individuals joined me to hear Inglis speak in the room next door.

“I hope you’re not armed except with ideas, because I’m here to talk about climate change,” said Inglis. “For my first six years in Congress, I said that global warming was a bunch of hooey – Al Gore’s fantasy. I didn’t understand it, I hadn’t done the research; all I knew was that if Al Gore was for it, then I was against it,” he said.

This champion of the free market, now convinced by the vast weight of scientific evidence on human-caused climate change, has become a powerful advocate for putting a price on carbon. Inglis’ tale of his conversion is a fascinating one; it is also genuine, heartfelt, and took years.

“When a country decides they want action on a particular issue, they’ll only choose from the options presented to them. We Republicans opposed Social Security, but we didn’t have an alternative. We opposed Medicare and ObamaCare but we didn’t have alternatives. But we do have the best solution to climate change; use the power and practicality of the free market. Remove all subsidies from all fuels, internalize the hidden externalities, and let the market work its magic faster than you can imagine.”

Inglis calls this economic approach “bedrock conservatism.” Indeed, the free market was lauded in almost every room and hallway of the MNC2015.

Inglis went beyond the economic value of tackling climate change and focused on the political reasons to take action. “I don’t claim to understand Canadian politics but in America, Conservatives won’t win young people and independents without having strong policy on climate change,” he said.

The first responder on the panel, columnist Monte Solberg, spoke of his deep roots in hunting and rafting as a young boy and quoted Russell Kirk, a giant among 20th century conservative writers, who said “nothing is more conservative than conservation.” As for climate change, however, Monte referred to “the so-called scientific consensus,” and warned there would be little support for any environmental policy that endangers jobs. He also affirmed that wetlands naturally sequester carbon, and added that because of decades of draining the wetlands in Manitoba, Red River floods now cause billions of dollars of damage almost every spring in Winnipeg.

Kristyn Annis, from Canadians for Clean Prosperity, rounded out the panel. “Putting a price on carbon gives a triple dividend; a strong economy, lower taxes, and less pollution. Heavy-handed government intervention is not always the best way. Companies only meet the requirement, there is no incentive to excel. It also takes an army of bureaucrats to create, and an army of lawyers to enforce.” Annis expanded on her remarks in a video interview with Maclean’s.

I wanted to have a word with Inglis but even 20 minutes after the panel ended and the other speakers had left, he was still holding court with a half-dozen of the suit-and-tie crowd, most of whom were in their early twenties. Hours later, I ran into two of these people at coat check and asked what they thought of him.

“He was amazing!” they said. “It’s so rare in Canada to hear Conservatives willing to talk about climate change, and he did a great job building the case for putting a price on carbon. It was definitely one of our favorite talks of the day.”

While all of this was encouraging, the only real reason for me to travel from Calgary to attend the conference in Ottawa was to host a roundtable luncheon on climate change. However, I was disappointed to be joined by only four people, who further illustrated the challenge of convincing Canadians to act on climate change. In this small grounp, there were at least two who agreed with each of the points that climate change is debatable, Germany's energy revolution was an expensive mistake and it's appropriate that scientists be muzzled.

Three Provincial Premiers spoke after lunch on energy, the environment and the economy. Before leaving the stage, British Columbia's Premier Christy Clark invited Alberta’s Jim Prentice to visit her, but may have alluded to climate change when she warned “Terrible ski season Jim, sorry!”

Prentice talked about market-driven solutions as the quickest, most effective means to address climate change. He also lauded Alberta’s “world-leading carbon price” and “transparent and publicly accessible” robust scientific monitoring system. Significantly increasing the timid $1.80/tonne carbon fee, however, doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

“Like the federal government, we are eager to take part in a continental discussion on climate change. This hasn’t happened yet, and so we wait,” he added.

Mother Nature, however, does not wait. And so, climate change continues to accelerate.

(Ed Note: Back in February 2012, Corporate Knights ran a story about Gagne, an investor from Alberta concerned about climate change and on a one-man mission to get some of Canada's biggest companies to declare their support – or not – for a price on carbon. Still at it three years later, Gagne is encouraged to see some conservatives beginning to have an honest and open discussion about carbon pricing).

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