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One of Canada’s top climate officials is trying to save the planet — by leaving government

Catherine McKenna spent the last six years working on climate change in Canada’s government.

Catherine McKenna, Canada’s infrastructure and communities minister, speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, October 1, 2020. She is speaking in front of a sign that reads “Creating jobs and taking climate action” in English and in French. Two red-and-white Canadian flags stand behind her.
Catherine McKenna, Canada’s infrastructure and communities minister, speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.
David Kawai/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In late June, Canada’s minister of infrastructure and former minister of environment and climate change, Catherine McKenna, raised eyebrows when she announced she’d be leaving politics to spend more time with her family — and work on ending the climate emergency.

“This is a critical year for climate action in the most important decade that will decide whether we can save the only planet we have. I want to spend my working hours helping to make sure that we do,” McKenna, a member of parliament (MP) in the Liberal Party, announced at a press conference.

But McKenna’s supporters might argue she was already doing exactly that.

Since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed her minister of environment and climate change in 2015 and then minister of infrastructure and communities in 2019, McKenna has represented Canada in negotiations on the Paris climate agreement, launched a Just Transition Task Force to help coal communities switch to renewable energy, and helped establish Canada’s climate plan, including a price on carbon pollution.

Which raises an interesting question: What does it say about the politics of climate change that McKenna, who spent the past six years in government working on climate change, doesn’t think she was doing enough to address climate change?

While McKenna achieved a lot during her time in office, she has also faced misogynistic attacks. In 2017, Conservative MP Gerry Ritz called her “climate Barbie” on Twitter, which McKenna called “sexist.” (Ritz later apologized.) She’s also had to put up with her office being defaced with a vulgar slur and men shouting abuse at her office.

But McKenna has dismissed this. “I have had my share of attacks, but that’s just noise. People want you to stop what you’re doing, and they want you to back down. We doubled down,” McKenna told reporters at the press conference in late June announcing her decision not to seek reelection.

McKenna’s record has also been criticized. Since signing the Paris Agreement, Canada’s emissions have grown — the only G7 nations to do so. McKenna has also faced tough questions about Canada’s expansion of carbon-intensive tar sands oil projects.

I called McKenna to learn more about her decision to move on from politics, her outlook on Canada’s future on climate, and how other young women can rise above the noise to lead.

Our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Jariel Arvin

You said you’re leaving because you want to spend your working hours making sure that we save the planet. Why do you think you can be more effective on climate as a private citizen than as minister of infrastructure and communities?

Catherine McKenna

Because Canada has a climate plan, we raised ambition and announced our new target at President Biden’s Climate Summit. We’re moving forward.

Jariel Arvin

But what do you say to people who think that you’d be best suited to help implement the plan?

Catherine McKenna

There’s never just one person. Lots of people play a role, and there’s a lot of opportunities for new people, too. Right now, internationally, supporting developing countries and supporting international momentum on climate is critically important. We have to look globally because pollution doesn’t know any borders. Some of the lessons we have learned here in Canada include how to land a price on pollution and phase out coal while thinking about workers in communities; those are important things that can be shared.

Canada is one part of the puzzle, but we’re not tackling climate change alone. It has to be everyone. It’s tough out there now. It’s not 2015 where we got the Paris Agreement, where you had countries working together and momentum. I think about how climate change impacts Indigenous people or small island developing states that could one day be underwater. There’s no end of ways to contribute.

Jariel Arvin

How have your colleagues, and Prime Minister Trudeau, responded to your decision to quit?

Catherine McKenna

Quitting makes it seem very dramatic. I’m staying on as long as the prime minister wants. I’m a Liberal, and I will always support and be proud of what we’ve done and keep pushing us to do more.

But, you know, it’s time to move on in life. There are other things I want to do, and there are different angles on climate. But I’m always going to be there; I’m not leaving my party, nor am I leaving climate action in Canada. I’m just looking at the other ways that I can contribute. Some of the lessons from Canada could be useful for the rest of the world.

Jariel Arvin

So is it incorrect to say you’re quitting politics? How would you describe what you’re doing?

Catherine McKenna

People say I’m retired, and I’m not even 50 yet! I’m just looking at other ways to serve. I also want to spend time with my kids. When I started, they were 4, 6, and 8. Now they’re teenagers. I want to do things with them, too.

Jariel Arvin

I hope you get the time with them. But you didn’t answer my original question — how are your colleagues reacting?

Catherine McKenna

People have been very gracious.

Jariel Arvin

By people, do you mean those within your party, or is it also people from across the political spectrum?

Catherine McKenna

In my party, and Canadians. I think people in my community know that I worked hard. Some people were not very happy about the misogynistic treatment I got from opponents of climate action. I’m not leaving because of that. We’ve got to fight it, and it’s not okay, and I see it everywhere. Katharine Hayhoe, the climate scientist who’s Canadian but working in the US, also gets it. Politicians, in particular those working in climate, get it.

Jariel Arvin

In the past, you’ve dismissed these attacks as ”noise.” What advice do you have for how women considering politics can rise above such attacks?

Catherine McKenna

Get into politics. It matters. We will change things if we have more women in politics, and I will support you.

I am working on a personal project called Running Like a Girl to support women and girls in politics at all levels. One of the girls said, “I’m going to run for my student council.” She just announced it because she felt solidarity with the group, and guess what? She won. Another woman announced she was going to run for mayor. She regretted it because it can be difficult for women to decide to get into politics. You have to be asked many times. She decided to do it even though she denounced it to the world by tweet and wanted to take it back. But she won.

I’m all for vigorous debate, I’m no shrinking violet, but it’s not okay to have to put up with some of the garbage women and other marginalized groups put up with. So I’m going to work to stop that and empower new voices in politics. That’s the only way it’s going to change, and it’s also how we’re going to tackle big issues from climate to social justice issues.

Jariel Arvin

On a scale of one to 10, how optimistic are you that Canada will achieve its nationally determined contribution under the Paris Agreement?

Catherine McKenna

I would say a nine. The government is all-in. The only reason I don’t say 10 is because we’re a federation in Canada. That requires the provinces to be all-in, too. We still have some provinces with politicians who don’t seem to understand the urgency of climate action or the economic opportunity it presents. We went to the Supreme Court, and we won in terms of the federal government being able to put a price on carbon pollution across the country. Even the Conservative Party now has said there should be a price on pollution, and it can’t be free to pollute. So we’re making some progress.

But most of all, I believe in Canadians. The last election was tough, but most Canadians supported a party that believes in ambitious climate action, including a price on pollution. I don’t think it’s possible anymore to have a government that isn’t committed to climate action.

Just this summer, the town of Lytton burned to the ground. We’re going to have forest fires across the country, especially in the west. Climate change is becoming an air quality and a safety issue for many of these communities. And so I think Canadians understand that climate change is real, and we don’t have time to waste.

Jariel Arvin

What about Canada’s powerful oil and gas industry? You’ve faced criticism because Canada is the only G7 nation whose emissions have grown since the Paris Agreement. Do you have faith that the country will be able to cut its oil production?

Catherine McKenna

That’s why we have a climate plan that is based on science and evidence. The oil and gas sector has to get with the program. The world is changing. And it’s about energy — not just oil and gas, but how we are powering our homes, schools, and cars and in our businesses. There are different opportunities to cut emissions.

Jariel Arvin

But what do you think will make Canada’s oil and gas companies finally get with the program?

Catherine McKenna

First of all, you have to regulate. We now have major pieces in place, from a price on pollution to a clean fuel standard to phasing out coal. Those policies must be in place.

But also, to do good business, you have to see where the future is going or you will not exist. That’s just the reality. When you have a major investor like BlackRock pouring trillions of dollars moving to a cleaner future, that is the signal. There’s been substantial work done on climate risk and climate disclosure and the risk to shareholders. I think that is really up to the government, but it’s partly up to business and oil and gas to understand that.

We need to drive all infrastructure investments from the climate lens of resilience, adaptation, and mitigation. When I talked to my American friends, including US climate envoy John Kerry, I realized how challenging it was internationally.

I don’t know what I’m going to do. I haven’t figured out whether I want to start something to build on things going on, but I think we must all get into the space of being very practical. And so that’s what I’m trying to figure out: How can I do something practical, probably on the international front?

Jariel Arvin

You said climate work has to be practical. Does that mean Canada’s climate politics are impractical?

Catherine McKenna

I think we’ve been super practical.

Jariel Arvin

So why not keep going?

Catherine McKenna

Internationally, I don’t think we’re as practical as we need to be. For example, figuring out a way to get Asia or Africa off of coal.

Jariel Arvin

But why not take care of Canada’s emissions first? Why work internationally? As one of the world’s top emitters, many might argue that you have enough on your plate at home.

Catherine McKenna

Canada has a plan and now needs to grind away at implementing it. And that’s what’s happening.

Jariel Arvin

So are you leaving in the toughest moment?

Catherine McKenna

The toughest moment was when we didn’t have a plan, and we had to fight for a plan, and I was getting attacked on all sides, including by premiers. Then, finally, we were able to land a price on pollution.

I faced something called “the resistance” — five or six white men who resisted the prime minister, our climate plan, and carbon pricing. It became a meme. It was a thing.

I wish we didn’t have to fight, but you have to fight on climate. But you also have to realize that people will support you if you are reasonable. We had a former prime minister, Jean Chrétien, who’s been a mentor to me. He said to me, “Canadians are reasonable, so be reasonable.”

I think that is the thing. People who care about climate have to be reasonable and practical. We have to focus on people, jobs, economic opportunity. Focus on reducing emissions.

I look at what’s going on in the United States and the Biden administration. It’s so nice that they’re back on climate because it was extremely hard, including internationally, with the Trump administration, to keep the momentum going and prevent everyone from giving up on climate action. And huge kudos to American states and cities, and the private sector, because they never stopped.

Jariel Arvin

But even though Biden has a climate plan, environmental advocates are having a tough time passing it and are now wondering if the infrastructure package will include climate at all.

Catherine McKenna

Now you have to do the hard work.

Jariel Arvin

But that’s what I was saying, that implementing the plan is the hardest part!

Catherine McKenna

But in Canada, we’re already implementing it. We’re beyond that — we’re moving forward. We got the policies. We got the investment dollars.

I don’t think the work is ever going to stop. By your logic, I should be working in politics on climate change until 2050. We’ve got a plan and a solution. People need to grind away. We need to increase climate ambition — that’s the whole point of the Paris Agreement every five years, increasing ambition. Now I can help other countries in other ways. And that’s always been my view. How do you contribute? The only thing that matters now is climate. But we need the whole world to have a plan. Lots of people have targets, but we need serious plans.

I did my part here. I’ve done what I came to do, and that’s just the truth. I wanted Canada to be in a much more positive place on climate. I wanted to be very practical. Some people think you should be in politics forever, but that’s never been my view.