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Canada’s climate behemoth

Pierre Poilievre’s brand of right-wing populism is bad news for the planet

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre wears a hoodie with the logo of Oil Sands Strong, a pro-energy advocacy group. Photo from Facebook.

After a summer of unprecedented heatwaves, catastrophic flooding, and rampant wildfires, the race to become the lead of the Conservative Party of Canada ended rather predictably: Pierre Poilievre, the loudmouthed, bespectacled populist and former cabinet minister under Stephen Harper, won easily with 68 percent of the vote.

While he pitches a similar platform of lower taxes and cuts to the welfare state, Poilievre invokes the working class, or at least “ordinary working Canadians,” more intentionally and regularly than recent leaders of the CPC. If anything, some of his proposals, like his support for cryptocurrency or his “pay-as-you-go” budgeting plan, are even more steeped in free market absolutism. But the new Conservative leader also speaks to the struggles young people have finding a place to live—even just by talking about this crisis in a way that resonates with young Canadians, Poilievre is claiming rhetorical space left wide open by the parties to his left. This too is a departure from his predecessors.

Poilievre is the beneficiary of crises: a cost-of-living crisis and a housing crisis, to name just two. These issues, addressed inadequately, if at all, by the incumbent Liberal government, build resentment among Canadians who turn to empty populism. In a world where “natural” disasters, supply chain disruptions, and geopolitical dislocations caused by anthropogenic climate change are increasingly becoming the norm, the Poilievres of the world stand to benefit—while doing nothing to address the causes of these crises. What happens to our politics when, in the words of Simon Fraser University Professor Geoff Mann and his co-author Joel Wainwright, the state of emergency becomes the norm?

Wainwright and Mann are the authors of Climate Leviathan, a book (inspired by Thomas Hobbes’ of the same name) that theorizes what will happen to our politics as the climate crisis worsens. The “Leviathan” in question is an emergent “planetary sovereignty,” a super-state that coordinates the Earth’s resources such that extractive industry is compatible with human survival. The path to Leviathan, in their view, is largely paved with the status quo: international treaties that govern carbon emissions, increasingly complex market mechanisms for carbon pricing; $5 million in aid to Pakistan and $20 billion to build a new pipeline.

There are alternatives to Leviathan, including some that challenge our extractive relationship with nature, but that is not what Poilievre represents. “Behemoth,” as Wainwright and Mann explain, is the rejection of planetary sovereignty and the continuation of extractive capitalism. In the past decade or so Behemoth has multiplied—most recognizably in Donald Trump, who pulled the United States out of the 2015 Paris Accord.

Poilievre is part of this “every country for itself” version of global capitalism: supporting Canada’s “energy independence” by increasing domestic extraction. This isn’t so different from his old boss, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who called the 2005 Kyoto Protocol a “socialist scheme.” But Poilievre has intensified this rhetoric. During the leadership contest, he courted supporters obsessed with conspiracies surrounding the World Economic Forum, shorthand for capitalist internationalism. His alliance with conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and others is a symptom of the multiplication of Behemoth globally.

As nation-states reject liberal internationalism’s pretensions of fighting climate change, and conditions worsen due to multiplying crises, politics in Canada and elsewhere will increasingly look like rule by popular resentment and populist platitudes. Perhaps it is too early to say exactly what Poilievre represents, both ideologically and in the global fight against climate change. What is clear is that his right-wing populism is bad news—for Canadian democracy, and for the planet.

Gabriel Blanc is a student in Environmental Studies and History at Brown University and the Engagement Chair of the Young Greens of Canada.

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