With opposing factions deeply entrenched on either side of the climate change divide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to think he’s found the sweet spot of Canadian politics dithering in the middle.
But trying to find some happy middle ground doesn’t work when the force to be reckoned with is nature. You can’t cut a deal with her on climate any more than you can barter with her about the laws of gravity.
So, while it’s refreshing that the prime minister has ditched the petro-swagger of his predecessor, Trudeau’s support for the Kinder Morgan and Keystone pipelines keeps us on a path of increased oil sands production, making it virtually impossible to meet our emission reduction targets -- which is what matters. No amount of sunny charm can stop sea levels from rising.
Last year Trudeau won a standing ovation from Houston oil executives for saying: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.”
While it was a great punchline for an oil gathering, the simple truth is: much of that oil will have to stay in the ground if we are to meet our targets.
Trudeau’s support for more pipelines is regarded by many media commentators as simply the practical option, the only one that Canadians will accept.
But that may be changing. Recent polling by Abacus Data found that Canadians have become more worried about climate change and keen to be part of the green energy revolution. Over the past three years, support for building new pipelines has dropped (from 58 to 44 per cent).
“Canadians sense both an environmental and moral urgency and an economic wave they want to be part of,” notes Abacus chairman Bruce Anderson.
This suggests the main obstacle to climate action may not be the public, but rather the world’s most powerful interest group -- the international petroleum industry.
It is, after all, the player with the most to lose.
U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben has calculated that if 80 per cent of global oil reserves stay in the ground -- as the scientific community considers necessary to avoid climate disaster -- Big Oil stands to lose $20 trillion.
Yet its central role in blocking climate action is often obscured, with the focus instead on oil and pipeline workers.
While these workers undoubtedly want pipelines, the massive, costly campaign that has derailed climate action in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere has Big Oil’s fingerprints all over it.
In a powerful new book, Oil’s Deep State, Kevin Taft argues that the petroleum industry has effectively captured control of our key democratic institutions -- government, opposition, universities, regulators, parts of the civil service, etc.
Taft, who writes from experience as former Leader of the Opposition in Alberta, argues that this “capture” of democratic institutions explains the otherwise baffling failure of our democracy to deal with something as threatening to our interests as global warming.
“Left to its free devices, a healthy democracy will respond to a pressing and substantive issue like global warming with deliberation, debate and resolution,” Taft writes.
He notes that that’s how Canada and other democracies responded in the ’80s and early ’90s, but “since then, the prolonged efforts and vast expenditures of the fossil fuel industry have corrupted the shape and form of the democratic process itself.”
If that sounds overdramatic, consider the fate of the Leap Manifesto, which calls for bold government action to make the leap from fossil fuels to clean energy.
Although it makes a reasonable case -- envisioning “a Canada based on caring for the Earth and one another,” the manifesto provoked outrage when it was presented to the 2016 NDP national convention by one of its creators, Avi Lewis, son of party legend Stephen Lewis.
The NDP is the most environmentally friendly of our major political parties, but the Leap was a step too far for many party centrists. There was even controversy over the decision to consign it to local riding associations, where its ideas could be safely debated in the obscurity of church basements and union halls.
With another NDP convention happening later this week in Ottawa, the manifesto -- this time backed by key players from the campaigns of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. -- is expected to once again make waves.
While just about everyone now acknowledges climate change is bad, actually taking action to stop it continues to be wildly controversial, and Big Oil remains hidden behind the curtain.
Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Mythswas among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." You can follow her on twitter @LindaMcQuaig. A version of this column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
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