Climate Conversation: Catherine McKenna

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Bluedot’s student reporter Cleo Carney speaks with Catherine McKenna, who served as a cabinet minister and MP for Canada’s Ottawa Centre from 2015 to 2021 under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. During her time as a politician, she was the Minister of Environment and Climate Change and the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. As the Environmental Minister, Catherine was integral to the negotiations at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. She currently works as the Chair of the UN group on Net Zero Emissions Commitment of Non-State Entities.

Cleo Carney: Hello, Catherine, thank you so much for being with me, as I know you’re very busy. 

Catherine McKenna: Hello, Cleo, it’s great to see you and you can see I’m wearing a hoodie because it’s Sunday.

Cleo: Thanks for meeting me on a Sunday. So I think the best place to begin would be where you started: What first engaged you on climate issues?

Catherine: You know, I, just like everyone else, started getting really worried. I kind of thought other people were working on climate issues because there were definitely a lot of people. But, you know, it just seems that we’re seeing so many changes that were really worrying in terms of warming, but also extreme weather events, and not a lot of action by governments. And I was really lucky. Because, you know, it’s one thing to kind of notice that, to try to do your part. But even then it was kind of complicated, like you weren’t entirely sure — how can I, one person, make a difference? — which I know people think about. But then I was thrust into this role — I got elected — and then three days later, I was off to Paris to help negotiate the Paris agreement. And that’s when I really got engaged. And I really understood the magnitude of the problem. And that’s really where my commitment came from. I’m still working on climate change, even though I’m outside of politics, because, for me, it’s the thing, the thing in life, and the thing for me is climate change.

Cleo: Well, that’s wonderful. And in kind of a similar stream, I want to know, since you’ve worked in both private and public sectors, if you feel that you are more influential in the climate sphere working outside the government, or inside, or [if] it’s just hard to quantify?

Catherine: So that’s a really good question. I think I was really fortunate to come in with a government under Justin Trudeau where he was really committed to climate action. And so in my role, we’ve had a previous government, that was not a priority for them. And so we were going in the wrong direction. So, we were able to do a lot. We not only, I mean, obviously, internationally with the Paris Agreement and getting an ambitious Paris agreement, but then coming home and doing the work, getting a climate plan, getting a price on pollution, but all sorts of other elements, like getting rid of coal, we need to get out of coal, obviously. We need to invest in nature with Indigenous peoples. And, that was really important. But there’s a limit in a way to politics. I’ve, you know, now I really think that the focus has to be on implementing all of these commitments and really getting the reductions.

But internationally, there’s a huge challenge. And it’s complicated because countries are at different levels of development. And some of the countries that are facing the worst impacts of climate change did the least to cause it. And so I decided that working outside of government would be where I felt I could make the most difference at this point. And so, I know we’re going to talk about it. But now working with the, you know, on the UN Secretary General’s Commission, it’s really looking at greenwashing by companies, financial institutions, cities, and regions. I feel like I can make a big difference. But I want to emphasize this because I know there’s probably, you know, young people who are thinking, well, how can I make a difference? We all have to be part of this. There are big things we do. There are small things we do. And when you can vote, make sure you vote for parties who care about climate change and are serious with acting.

Cleo: Well, I agree with all of that. And I actually remember the video that you got Arnold Schwarzenegger to do on [the] price on carbon tax and promote it, which was wonderful and very amusing and made a difference.

Catherine: Terminate, to terminate climate change, I think I actually used that phrase, which was a bit lame, but he was a Republican, so he was more on the conservative side, but he put a price on pollution. So I thought maybe because he’s a movie star, but also maybe because he’s someone who’s on the right side of the spectrum who put a price on pollution, I can convince people. It’s hard in politics — do whatever you can to convince people.

Cleo: And following on convincing people and trying to ensure that companies are trying [and] are actually committing to their goals, which is what your work at UN focuses on. I’m sure our readers and our viewers would love to know, what are some of the ways companies can be held accountable not only to make credible climate pledges but actually follow through on their commitment in a timely fashion?

Catherine: Well, you know, the way I describe it is to folks, it’s easy to say, Yeah, I’m going to be net zero by 2050. And my son likes to point out all those people are gonna be dead by then, and they are certainly not gonna be CEOs. A bit morbid to think, but he is certainly right about not being CEOs, that you’re not gonna be a CEO for that long. And so it’s really about doing the work in the short term; it’s like doing your homework, like, if you just say, I’m gonna get an A, and you don’t do any work in the short [term], you know, to get the A, then it’s not going to, it’s not going to happen. And so it’s the same thing with climate, you need to have a plan, you need to do the work in the short term, [and] you need to be held accountable. So you need to show, really, that your emissions are going down. Also, that the money you’re investing is going to clean, as opposed to dirty, those are really critical elements. And they’re measurable. And I really believe that you need to measure things, you also need to have transparency. And we’ve seen environmentalists working really hard to hold companies and financial institutions accountable. But often, it’s hard to actually know what they’re doing, because it’s maybe not disclosed in a comparable transparent way. So I think that is really important. 

But government also has a role. So a lot of these initiatives are voluntary. And you have the good companies and financial institutions, I mean, most of them are good. They might not be doing enough, but they’ve stepped up. But the reality is, there’s a whole bunch that are doing things, and the ones that have made voluntary commitments; [however] it’s very hard to hold them accountable globally. So governments actually saying: ’Okay, you have to have a target, you have to have a plan to get there, and you have to disclose what you’re doing’, is going to be really important. So, there are a number of different elements — we’re going to look at this report that I’m doing with 17 other members from around the world, including in less developed countries, which is really important. They’ve often a different perspective than people might think. And we’re coming up with our recommendations to the Secretary General, and he, I believe, will announce the report at COP 27 in Egypt.

Cleo: Okay, well, I’m looking forward to hearing about the report. I want to link back to something you said earlier about the importance of voting. And, so, what are some of the ways voters can ensure that they’re supporting politicians who not only believe in climate science but actually understand it, and will actually make it a priority?

Catherine: Well, I mean, as I’ve said, actually, in good news, I think that most parties, if you’re talking about at the federal and provincial level, where we have a party system, most of them understand that you need to talk about climate change because that’s what voters want. That they expect that, [but] the reality is: Do they have a serious plan? And it, once again, just goes to showing ‘how are you going to reduce emissions?’ And you have to do a whole bunch of things, including things that are really hard, but emissions come from, you know, pretty obvious areas, they come from energy. So if their whole focus is expanding, or focused on oil and gas as opposed to renewables, then you’ve got a problem. You also need to deal with the transportation sector because a lot of our emissions, over 20%, come from cars, trucks, [and] planes. And so you really need to have serious plans, or, how are you going to deal with those sectors? Then there’s industry — a lot of emissions are coming from industry. How do you deal with that? How do we electrify everything? So, you know, and of course, nature’s really important, so it’s really actually just asking them, okay, you said you really care about climate change? How are you going to do it? And in what timeframe? And that’s the other thing, I mean, goes back to the city, it goes back to the work of this task force I’m doing, where you have to show the work in the short term. And you can’t just say, oh, yeah, I care about climate change 2050, because that’s far too late. The science shows that we need to peak emissions by 2025 and reduce [them] by half by 2030. So it’s a humongous job. And so, I think you really need to push folks.

And I think, you know, the good news is I see young people, they’re very committed, they’re actually pretty smart about what is good climate policy. And they’re the ones who often call folks out. And what makes me sad, is that young people, including my kids, have always grown up with the threat of climate change. 

But to end on a happy note, I grew up when I did a science project on the hole in the ozone layer, and we all thought everyone’s gonna get cancer because this hole was getting bigger. And guess what, we were able to actually, you know, deal with, by putting a price on emissions and by using science, bringing businesses together with governments to actually tackle the problem, and the hole in the ozone layer is healing. So you can do it. But it requires leadership. And it requires leadership from young people and you know, just regular people. It requires leadership from politicians. It requires leadership from environmentalists, and of course, from businesses and in cities. So we’re all in this together. But I think it’s really great that you’re asking these really smart questions, and hopefully, I can join you again.

Cleo: I could not agree more. And as a young person who will be around in 2050, I’m very grateful for all the work you’re doing. Thank you so much for your time. 

Catherine: Really great to join you. Bye.

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Cleo Carney
Cleo Carney
Cleo is a British Canadian food fanatic, living in Ottawa, Canada, after growing up in London, England. She is passionate about healthy living, limiting food waste, and finding ways to make classic dishes more nutritious and better for the environment. She is currently a student advisor for the Bluedot Institute and a recipe developer for Bluedot Living. Additionally, she runs a website, cleoscleancakes.com, where she showcases more of her recipes.

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