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Trudeau’s climate strategy: Denialism through gradualism

The government’s refusal to confront the country’s biggest polluters is key to the Liberal Party’s ‘new climate denialism’

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

The Trudeau government’s approach to tackling climate change strikes a regrettable balance that favours symbolism over action, and it’s rife with hypocrisy. Photo by Catherine McKenna/Twitter.

From banks to car companies, ‘greenwashing’–or the practice of conveying misleading information about how a company’s products are environmentally sound—has become a default marketing ploy for any and all businesses wishing to stay relevant in Canada.

Within the next few decades, scientists are predicting that climate change will worsen the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, most of which have already begun: forest fires, droughts, coastal and inland flooding, and heat waves. By most metrics, the debate on the reality of climate change has ended. Even the companies that have known about the devastating effects of the crisis for nearly half a century are lining up to promote themselves as part of the solution.

By propagandizing both their involvement in climate destruction and manufacturing narratives in which the continuation of energy projects is deemed essential to climate action, these corporations are doing more than just greenwashing. Their outright lies translate to a more insidious form of climate denial.

After all, a corporation’s raison d’être has not changed. According to Joel Bakan, author of The New Corporation, any ‘good’ that a corporation will do is first and foremost for its shareholders, as anything more becomes irreconcilable with its “pathological pursuit of profit and power.”

The politicians who represent these shareholders run a very similar playbook. Seth Klein, public policy researcher and author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, perhaps said it best: “the new climate denialism is when our leaders say that they get the climate crisis, but then they don’t practise politics that aligns with what the science says we have to do.”

In recent years, the Conservative Party’s federal election strategy has shown that it has become impossible to win over voters without a climate plan. In the last election, climate action emerged as a top ballot issue. According to Abacus Data, 71 percent of Canadians support a transition off of fossil fuels to combat global warming.

Whether as consumers or voters, Canadians want to see their country do its part in a global energy transition. So far, the Conservative Party’s marketing of their climate plan remains unconvincing to most. Yet, on the other side of the pro-corporation coin, the Liberal Party has been able to balance expectations on climate action—at least enough to win a second term with a minority government.

According to 350 Canada’s Cam Fenton, the party’s success comes from placing itself between two perceived poles: on the one side, the argument that the Conservatives will not act on climate, and on the other, the fabricated argument that the NDP and the Greens want to shut down the fossil fuel industry overnight.

“It’s based on a political calculation that Canada is generally a centrist country, and if you can create two polarities and walk in the middle of it, that’s your road to power,” says Fenton. “They [the Liberals] sort of look where the winds are blowing and try to find the middle of those winds […] more recently they sort of found a way to try to articulate a progressive sheen on top of their position.”

This progressive sheen, however, has not curbed the steady climb of Canada’s carbon emissions. Although the Trudeau government can boast about the decarbonization of a number of sectors, an ecocidal elephant in the room—the fossil fuel industry—remains.

Last year, the Liberals released what they claimed to be a bold climate plan that will purportedly exceed the 2030 target set by the Harper government—from 30 percent to a lackadaisical 32 percent in carbon emission reductions. While this is a small improvement, what the Liberals fail to mention is that Harper’s target is weaker than the one to which Canada committed in the 1990s under the Kyoto Protocol.

Based on what scientists are saying today, Canada will need to cut emissions by at least 50-60 percent by 2030 in order to be on the right track.

In a similarly insufficient move, the Liberals promised recently to eliminate all “inefficient tax subsidies” for fossil fuels. Predictably, the Auditor General of Canada considered the term ‘inefficient’ to be too broad, and tasked the Department of Finance to develop guidance that clearly defines the criteria for determining the inefficiency of tax subsidies for fossil fuels.

Such an unclear approach to the issue of fossil fuel subsidies neither matches the scale of the crisis nor meets the timeframe set by climate scientists. Worse still, it could delay curbing the emissions of the fossil fuel sector, affording lobbyists more time to interfere in policy development.

“Anytime you bring climate policy forward in Canada and the fossil fuel industry gets a seat at that table,” explains Fenton, “you might as well tear up that piece of climate policy. They’re able to put loopholes into it that you could drive a bus through.”

Most recently, 47 organizations called on the Trudeau government to not implement a tax credit for carbon capture, citing it as “yet another inefficient fossil-fuel subsidy.” The co-signed letter locates the issue clearly: “Despite a veneer of green, such a tax credit could result in a significant amount of foregone revenue, and enable the production of more carbon than is captured.” The Liberals have made no indication that they will heed this warning.

“The reality,” continues Fenton, “is that what we see with Trudeau is that he’s sort of taken an approach of doing everything but standing up to the fossil fuel industry.”

The reason for this is clear: the most powerful lobby group in Canada is the fossil fuel industry. The government’s refusal to oppose the country’s biggest polluters is key to the Liberal Party’s denialism through gradualism.

Even the carbon tax, which is meant to incentivize decarbonization, steers clear of ruffling the feathers of the oil and gas industry as it targets consumers over the actual producers of fossil fuels. Although it varies between provinces, Canadian consumers pay between $18 and $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted, while a subsidy of $19 per tonne of carbon dioxide emitted incentivizes fossil fuel producers. Subsidies come in many forms, from special tax deductions to direct cash transfers that governments transfer to fossil fuel companies.

The International Institute for Sustainability Development estimates that federal fossil fuel subsidies in Canada reached at least $600 million in 2019, without including potential subsidies related to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, for which public data is lacking. To borrow climate journalist Emily Atkin’s phrase, the Liberals like to “talk green but spend dirty.”

This delicate balance between the public’s expectations and the outsize influence of fossil fuel companies over the political sphere has been key to the Trudeau government’s neoliberal brand of climate denialism. It’s a balance that favours symbolism over action, and it’s rife with hypocrisy.

Photo by Maxim Tolchinskiy/Unsplash

Ministers of oil and gaslighting

Minister of Natural Resources Seamus O’Regan and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson got their start in the private sector, but both officials have shown weakness in standing up to the fossil fuel industry.

Wilkinson’s approach is rooted in his corporate career and long relationships with companies like Shell, which could explain his support for their greenwashing campaigns. Having worked for gas purification firm QuestAir Technologies Inc. before becoming a politician, it’s little surprise that the minister has been eager to pitch fracked gas as a transition fuel that will cut emissions.

In reality, the release of methane in fracked gas undoes much of the potential carbon reductions that the technology promises. To the detriment of the planet, Canada’s natural gas industry has received growing support from government officials, and the campaign to pose natural gas as a climate solution has been largely successful.

O’Regan is an even stronger advocate for all fossil fuels, including natural gas, and has gone so far as to say “I’m very proud of the fact that we’re such a large player in gas and in oil” in an interview with the Canadian Gas Association.

For O’Regan, economic growth is paramount, even when it is at the expense of the planet’s future. Moreover, O’Regan made his ties with the oil sector clear in an interview with The Tyee, where he said Canada is “known as one of the greatest oil producers on Earth. Alberta and Newfoundland see themselves as oil developers, but Canada does not. But we are. Getting this right is crucial. It’s life. It’s what we’ve been given.”

Some cabinet ministers refuse to publicly cozy up to the fossil fuel industry, and yet, their combination of equivocation and silence when faced with their party’s decisions is just as problematic.

Transportation Minister Catherine McKenna, for one, has said publicly that expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline “is not inconsistent” with the Liberal’s climate action plan. As the gap between Canada’s emissions and the Paris Climate Accord targets widens, such a misdirection only succeeds in obscuring the insufficiency of Canada’s approach.

And yet, while McKenna continues to assure the public that the government is working hard to stay on target, Canadians have had little to no say in what the country’s climate policy should look like.

“Catherine McKenna has said that to my face before: she’s like, climate activists are making it really hard for us to do our jobs,” says climate organizer Katie Perfitt. “My clapback was that climate activists are opening the window of what’s politically possible, and we’re doing you a favour.”

While the addition of well-known climate activist Steven Guilbeault to Trudeau’s cabinet might appear to bolster the government’s climate credentials, in his first year in office, he has remained silent on not only the Trans Mountain pipeline, but also on projects such as the failed Teck Frontier mine in Alberta, the Coastal Gas Link pipeline in British Columbia, and the Gazoduq Natural Gas Pipeline in Quebec.

After a long career of fierce advocacy for the environment, Guilbeault’s willingness to now carry water for a party that effectively denies or evades climate science is a boon to Trudeau’s image.

“You have within the Liberal Party this mentality that we’re getting something done, so that’s good enough,” says Fenton.

For someone who understands the stakes like Guilbeault, his silence is both troubling and confusing.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. Photo by Andrew Meade.

Justin’s ‘just transition’

It is difficult to determine where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stands with respect to climate science today. Certainly, back in 2015, the Liberal platform called for phasing out fossil fuels. But after enough internal and external pressure he quickly reversed his position, going so far as to fly to Houston for an oil industry conference to send a clear signal that his brand of climate action would not be at the expense of fossil fuel production: “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he told a crowd of executives and lobbyists.

During the 2019 election, Trudeau campaigned on a Just Transition Act, suggesting to Canadians that the fossil fuel era is nearing its end. Some elements of a just transition, according to Perfitt, could include straightforward changes such as early retirement for fossil fuel workers and steering post-secondary institutions away from investments in the fossil fuel economy.

“What we’re told by oil companies is that it’s not possible, that workers are going to have to settle for scraps,” she said.

For the last decade, employment in the oil and gas sector has indeed shrunk, but mostly due to automation, not because of a transition to renewable energy. Nevertheless, the steady decline in jobs has been the perfect weapon for oil and gas firms—by decrying the loss of steady employment for workers, as evinced by the backlash regarding the recent Keystone pipeline cancellation, these corporations are able to paint themselves as job creators and climate activists as job destroyers.

A just transition would include a comprehensive plan to decarbonize Canada: one that empowers workers rather than holding them hostage, all while disempowering fossil fuel firms from continuing to pollute and building out alternative energy infrastructure on a massive scale.

According to Perfitt, Trudeau’s about-face on the proposed Just Transition Act is an apt example of climate denialism in practice. “If this government is truly being genuine about their intentions for climate action and a safe planet,” she said, “they will have to move forward with Just Transition legislation that addresses the big question of what will happen to workers in the oil and gas industry and communities that are most impacted by the fossil fuel economy.”

Bill C-12, also known as the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, is another recent Liberal policy proposal that, on the surface, articulates the spirit of genuine climate action. If implemented correctly, such a policy would be crucial to workers in the oil and gas sector. Yet, by providing no checkpoints for the next ten years, the proposal follows a common Liberal trend: articulate boldness, but put it off long enough to fall outside of the jurisdiction of the current administration.

“If you listen to the Liberals […] they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, the transition’s happening.’ But it’s sort of this future thing,” says Fenton. Moreover, Wilkinson has made it clear that he is unwilling to set a 2025 target.

There are some things for which to be hopeful with Bill C-12, however. After pressure from climate advocacy groups, the appointed “scientists, economists, and experts” to guide Canada towards achieving its emissions reductions targets will not include any fossil fuel executives.

Although it represents the bare minimum for climate policy, if passed, Bill C-12 could signal the start of a transition off of fossil fuel influence. But even so, the Liberals never fail to disappoint.

Perfitt reveals that after discussions with politicians from parties that are really trying to push Canadian climate policy to align with the science, they too are sensing a pattern. By introducing climate legislation without showing any immediate commitment, the Liberals would be able to get away with doing nothing precisely as they did with electoral reform, especially if they’re able to distract from their failures by moving into a snap election. “I think it’s all political play,” remarked Perfitt.

Meanwhile, the Trudeau government formed a secretive committee during the pandemic in order to reduce regulations, strengthen “investor confidence,” and create post-pandemic opportunities for the oil and gas industry.

Led by Natural Resources Canada, the working group included Minister O’Regan, deputy ministers from Natural Resources Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Finance Canada, and the CEOs of Petronas, Cenovus, Suncor, and Chevron. As reported by The Breach, this working group is part of a broader lobbying offensive that undertaken by oil majors. According to the federal lobby registry, these companies were in contact with the Trudeau government over three times per day throughout the pandemic.

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion

Perhaps the most egregious blunder Trudeau has made on climate was his government’s decision to effectively ‘nationalize’ the Trans Mountain pipeline using more than $12 billion of public funds. Regrettably, as the price tag continues to grow, any economic justification for the project diminishes almost entirely.

As the cost of oil drops, Trudeau’s gambit is becoming increasingly difficult to rationalize. Emissions from the oil and gas sector are already on track to exceed Canada’s emission targets by 81 percent, and this project will certainly ‘bake-in’ pollution, as well as increase oil tanker traffic along the west coast.

More than anything, the pipeline purchase typifies Liberal Party doublespeak, a trend typified by a comment by the PM’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts: “Future generations will look at this era and wonder how people could ignore a threat so obvious for so long.”

Fenton notes the strange Liberal Party illogicality: “It’s like, ‘Oh, we’re going to buy this pipeline, we’re going to build it and that’s going to pay for the transition.’ That makes no sense. There isn’t a single rational person who’s would say, ‘Yes, we need to build more fossil fuels to get off fossil fuels.’ It just doesn’t make any sense. But that’s kind of their approach to it.”

In their attempt to please everyone, the Liberals are forced to lie about the severity of the crisis at hand. The interests of fossil fuel companies do not align with 71 percent of Canadians who support a transition off of fossil fuels.

The problem is that when faced with an existential threat like climate change, trying to please everyone—including the institutions that are causing the crisis—means the Liberals are standing in the way of necessary, systemic solutions.

Ministers O’Regan, Wilkinson and McKenna declined to comment for this article.

Poet and activist Christian Favreau is based in Montreal (Tiohtiá:ke) where he organizes with Climate Justice Montreal, the Courage Coalition, Our Time, and La planète s’invite au parlement. He has written for Canadian Dimension and Graphite Publications.

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