11/04/2015 03:33 EST | Updated 11/04/2016 05:12 EDT

Justin Trudeau's Climate Change Agenda Gets Green Light

OTTAWA — As signals go, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put a big green light on his Liberal government's promised climate change agenda.

Catherine McKenna, an international lawyer with an eye-popping resume, was named the new minister of "environment and climate change" Wednesday at Rideau Hall as Trudeau installed his new Liberal cabinet.

But the signs of climate policy green shoots go well beyond a high-profile new MP and the semantics of a ministerial name change.

Former Liberal environment minister and party leadership climate advocate Stephane Dion is Canada's new foreign affairs minister — a powerful post that will give him oversight on ensuring climate policy is integral to Canada's foreign policy.

Dion was also named chairman of a new cabinet committee on "environment, climate change and energy."

That committee will also include new Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, a former University of Windsor climatology professor who served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

With less than a month to go before the COP21 United Nations climate conference in Paris, their work begins immediately.

"Canada is going to be a strong and positive actor on the world stage, including in Paris at COP21," Trudeau said outside Rideau Hall following Wednesday's swearing-in.

"That's why we have a very strong minister — not just of the environment, but minister of the environment and climate change — who will be at the heart of this discussion."

McKenna, whose background includes practicing international trade law in Indonesia, founding Canadian Lawyers Abroad and acting as a negotiator for the UN peacekeeping mission in East Timor, brings more to the table than simply knocking off NDP stalwart Paul Dewar, the party's high-profile foreign affairs critic, in a downtown Ottawa riding.

The 44-year-old rookie MP also has backup.

"We have an amazing team of strong cabinet members who will lean in with the kind of engagement, both with the provinces and municipalities and countries around the world, to demonstrate that Canada is doing its part to address climate change impacts," said Trudeau.

The cabinet climate and energy committee includes new Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, the founding CEO of the Business Council of Manitoba, along with Hunter Tootoo, the former Nunavut legislator who has been handed Fisheries and Oceans and responsibility for the Coast Guard. Also included are the ministers responsible for agriculture, infrastructure, First Nations and economic development.

Combining the environment, climate change and energy policy under a single cabinet committee recognizes the inextricable links between Canada's resource policies and its environmental record. Including both Carr and Amerjeet Sohi, the rookie Edmonton MP who becomes Trudeau's infrastructure minister, suggests climate policy will include a diversity of perspectives. 

Dion, the committee chairman, led the Liberal party to defeat in the 2008 election on a revolutionary platform that proposed redrawing federal taxation by imposing significant carbon taxes, offset by income tax cuts. He famously named the family dog Kyoto, after the city where the original 1997 international climate protocol was forged.

Environmental groups were quick to offer qualified praise of the new cabinet.

Louise Comeau of the Climate Action Network singled out McKenna and Dion for leadership.

"We welcome today's appointments of two ministers with such a commitment to social justice and human rights, as well as United Nations and climate change experience," Comeau said in a release.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May said she looked "forward to working with Mr. Trudeau and the cabinet to start repairing Canada's international reputation at the upcoming climate negotiations."

And Greenpeace Canada climate researcher Keith Stewart issued a statement that: "Names matter, and we hope that the appointment of a minister of environment and climate change indicates that Canada's federal government is at last ready to take real action in the fight against climate change."

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