If you were old enough to vote in 2004, then you probably remember the refrain “I’m moving to Canada!” It was every disenchanted liberal’s threat after George W. Bush’s reelection. Wags even made a “United States of Canada” map, attaching the Democratic states of the coasts and Upper Midwest to their friendly northern neighbor.

The sentiment was understandable. American liberals have longingly observed for decades that most industrialized nations are consistently ahead of the U.S. in adopting their preferred policies: universal health coverage, guaranteed paid sick leave, public child-care services, gun control, mass transit, and a price on pollution.

Saying we should be more like Europe may sound faintly un-American to some, and can prompt objections that our culture is nothing like that of, say, France or Sweden. But saying we should be more like Canada? Those affable, English-speaking folks right across the border? Like us, they are a nation of immigrants, a former British colony, and when they say “football” they don’t mean soccer.

And so Canada has become the American liberal’s lodestar. “Why can’t we have a rational policy, more like Canada’s?” goes the lament, which can be applied to almost any issue. But there is one glaring, and growing, exception: energy and climate change.

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The Canadian federal government is just as uninterested in addressing the gathering catastrophe of anthropogenic climate change as our own. And it’s incredibly eager to help the process along by mining oil in the tar sands of its Alberta region, an especially dirty and energy-intensive kind of oil exploration. As Foreign Policy reported in July:

Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country’s most significant long-cherished environmental laws.

As Grist’s John Upton has noted, Canada ranks near the very bottom of the Climate Change Performance Index, below China and Russia and closer to Iran than to the U.S. It withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has even taken the unusual measure of issuing a statement praising the new Australian government‘s intention to repeal its carbon tax.

Stephen Harper

The Prime Minister’s OfficeCanadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper loves the oil industry. He’s not so interested in the climate.

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Meanwhile, Harper’s government is waging war on environmental science and advocacy. His environment minister calls the existence of Arctic warming “debatable.” The CBC reports, “In the past few years, the federal government has cut funding to hundreds of renowned research institutes and programs. Ottawa has dismissed more than 2,000 federal scientists and researchers and has drastically cut or ended programs that monitored smoke stack emissions, food inspections, oil spills, water quality and climate change.” Opponents of oil-sands development and pipeline construction are being bullied by xenophobic attacks from the government.

So when it comes to climate and energy, Canada looks not like Western Europe, but more like its bloated, backward neighbor to the south. But why?

Yes, the Harper government is both capital-C and lowercase-C conservative. But Canadian conservatives are usually moderate by U.S. standards. Just because the center-right party is in power doesn’t mean that it necessarily must adopt a retrograde climate agenda. Historically, Conservatives in Canada have supported environmental stewardship. “The environment hasn’t really been something where you could look back and say our Liberal or center-left prime ministers have been stronger on the environment than our center-right prime ministers,” says Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta. “Canada’s leadership on acid rain was under a Conservative prime minister and a massive Conservative majority in Parliament.”

In fact, the Harper government isn’t even necessarily opposed to environmental protection — as long as it doesn’t interfere with natural-resource extraction. “When it comes to conservation and traditional legacy environment issues like wetlands, shorelines and national parks, there hasn’t been a radical difference at all between this Conservative government and previous governments,” says David McLaughlin, advisor on sustainability at the University of Waterloo, and a former Conservative government official. “They are in many ways traditional Teddy Roosevelt conservationists. Where the distinction has come, it has been on climate change and energy resource extraction.”

Canadian political observers agree that if the government were to attempt a significant shift rightward on many other major issues — privatizing the Canadian national healthcare system, for example — the public outcry would be swift and severe. So why has the Harper government felt emboldened on climate?

It’s not because Canadians reject the well-established science of climate change. According to a Canada 2020/Université de Montréal national survey from October 2013, 81 percent of Canadians believe there is “solid evidence” the Earth is warming, as opposed to 61 percent of Americans. Majorities of Canadians also say global warming is caused by human activity and they are concerned about it. On every climate-related question, they are to the left of the U.S. public. And while Canada’s government has enthusiastically promoted the Keystone XL pipeline to move oil from the tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, only 56 percent of Canadians support it, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s lower than the 65 percent of Americans who favor Keystone, even though the U.S. government is the one that might block the proposal.

The Canadian government is out of step with its constituents for one main reason: money, and the current prime minister’s faith in oil to produce it. The tar sands are located in Alberta, an interior western province north of Montana. As you might expect, this is a more conservative region than the coasts, and it forms Harper’s power base. His riding (Canadian for district) is there. Harper and his cronies are believers in the economic power of natural-resource exploitation, and they are especially eager to deliver the goods to his home base.

Energy exploration has been a fixation of Harper’s throughout his career. He switched parties because he opposed the Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s energy policy, and he has been promoting drilling ever since. “Our prime minister’s dad was an oil executive for the Canadian branch of ExxonMobil,” notes Keith Stewart, an energy analyst at Greenpeace Canada. “His first big speech outside Canada was in the U.K., on how Canada is an emerging ‘energy superpower’ and the future is in the tar sands. For him this isn’t just one issue among many, it’s the core piece of his economic strategy. Oil is our largest single export, the largest recipient of direct foreign investment. It plays a larger economic role than it has in the U.S.” In 2010, energy accounted for 22.5 percent of Canada’s merchandise exports.

Until recent years, the difficulty of extracting tar-sands oil made it economically infeasible. It requires about five times as much energy to extract as conventional oil. But because global oil demand has been outstripping supply, resulting in higher oil prices, it is now profitable to process oil from the tar sands. But it is still difficult to get it to market. That’s why the Canadian government is trying to build pipelines to both its east and west coasts as well as Keystone XL. “They see themselves as very focused on the economy, and oil and gas as a driver of economic growth, and that strong environmental regulations are an impediment to that growth,” says P.J. Partington, a federal policy analyst at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental advocacy organization.

Under the Copenhagen Accord it signed onto in January 2010, Canada has a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. It is not on pace to achieve that because of rising emissions in the oil sector. “Tar sands extraction is about 8 percent of Canada’s total emissions,” says Stewart. “It is the fastest rising source of Canadian emissions and it is projected to double in eight to 10 years. With the tar sands rising so rapidly, there’s no way you can get reductions in the rest of the economy to reach the government’s own stated targets.”

One difference between Canada and the U.S. on climate change is Canadian self-image. Canada’s population is about 35 million people, one-ninth the size of the U.S. It accounts for vastly less CO2 emissions than the U.S., merely by virtue of its lower population. Consequently, Canadians, unlike Americans, can tell themselves that climate change is real, and bad, but beyond their power to stop. “From a Canadian perspective, most folks may believe in climate change, and be concerned about it, but are at a loss as to what they can do as individuals or Canada as one small country,” says McLaughlin. “There’s a general sense that it’s a problem that Canada can’t address it alone. That takes the urgency down a bit.”

Combine that sense of powerlessness with the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves, and you get a lot of people thinking there is not too much downside and plenty of upside to tar-sands development. Of course, there is no reason Canada’s economy must depend on despoiling the Earth. Most Canadian electricity comes from hydropower. Canada has wind, sun, and a world-class education system that can foster technology companies, especially if the Canadian government stops cutting back on scientific research.

“For the time being, as is probably the case in most places in the world, there is this lingering perception that there is a conflict between having a strong economy and protecting the environment, and that’s something this government has been able to bank on,” says Partington. “They’ve been able to use that dynamic over the past couple years. Whether they will continue to is an open question.”

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