As Canada turns 'green,' its Conservatives follow

Canada's Conservative Party has taken on a new shade of green.

Once hostile to the idea that man-made greenhouse gases can cause global warming, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is now eagerly trying to prove its green credentials.

In recent months, the Conservatives have introduced a new environmental bill, and replaced a controversial environment minister who hails from oil-producing Alberta. The prime minister now says he will respect the Kyoto Accord, which Canada signed under the former Liberal government.

Critics say that Harper Conservatives underestimated the environment as a political issue when they first came to power in January 2006. Now, Harper and new Environment Minister John Baird are more conciliatory and talk about climate change and greenhouse gases, shifting in policy to a stance in tune with the Canadian public.

According to the latest polls from the Environics Research Group of Toronto, Canadians are more concerned about the environment than unemployment, the economy, or war and terrorism. "The sense of public concern is being spurred both by unnerving temperatures – in our case a balmy winter rather than a hot summer," says Amy Langstaff, a researcher at Environics. "It does seem as though public opinion in Canada has turned a corner."

Mr. Baird acknowledges that Canadians want the government to do more in regard to the environment. "We've announced major policies from industrial pollution, action on greenhouse gases, and the Hydrogen Highway in British Columbia," he says.

And, he says, the Conservatives will be able to overcome the skepticism that is meeting the Conservatives new, greener tack. "I understand people are cynical. We'll be judged by our actions, not our talk. The Liberals under Stephane Dion [then environment minister, now Liberal leader] did nothing on Kyoto."

Environmentalists and the prime minister's political opponents in Ottawa, however, are reaching into the recent past to try to discredit Harper's new environmentalism as political opportunism. In a fundraising letter in 2002, Harper railed against Kyoto calling it a "socialist scheme."

"It's a ruse. Their only environmental promise [in the election last year] was to make bus passes tax deductible," says Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.

Green initiatives will probably be part of the government's new budget, which is to be released Monday, and could result in spring elections if Conservatives cannot gain enough support to pass the document.

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