The Big Stall – How big oil and think tanks have blocked climate action in Canada

— by Donald Gutstein —

Just weeks after Justin Trudeau won the October 2015 federal election, John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, business’s main lobby group, gave him some advice on how to get serious about climate change. Writing in the online magazine ipolitics, Manley reminded Trudeau that the chief executives had been on record since 2007 about the need to put a price on carbon. He then made two points: Trudeau had to demonstrate a commitment to “responsible” climate action and he needed to step up efforts to support the export of energy products. More pipelines please. And from the actions Manley said must be undertaken — don’t damage the competitiveness of Canadian companies, phase in carbon pricing gradually, use revenues raised primarily to cut corporate and personal income taxes — it’s clear the responsibility was to the financial well-being of Canadian companies and not to the future of the planet.

And that’s what Trudeau did over the next year, demonstrating a commitment to “responsible” climate action without damaging the corporate bottom line, an agenda also followed by Alberta premier Rachel Notley. On the export side of the equation, Trudeau approved two diluted bitumen pipelines plus a liquefied natural gas plant on the British Columbia coast. But he rejected Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline which by this time was clearly dead to everyone, probably including Enbridge. He also imposed a ban on oil tanker traffic from Quadra Island to north of Prince Rupert, a decision that was necessary to have any hope of moving forward on the national energy strategy. The day before Trudeau approved the pipelines in November 2016, Manley restated his two points as a “grand bargain”: acquiescing to a price on carbon on one side, building pipelines on the other. Manley reminded all and sundry that the Business Council of Canada had signed on to carbon pricing, so long as it meant getting resources out of the ground and to their customers. “I would be very surprised if there were no pipelines emerging from this,” Manley said at a business forum in Lake Louise, Alberta sponsored by law firm Bennett Jones. “Acquiescence to a price on carbon really is looked at as one side of a grand bargain that would see pipelines built in return.” And the day after Trudeau approved the pipelines, Manley applauded, claiming that approving the pipelines “balances strong environmental protection with responsible energy development.”

There was more to this seeming convergence between CEOs and Trudeau. The Liberal government’s blueprint for a low-carbon future, the “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change,” was eerily similar to the declaration of Manley’s group nine years earlier, “Clean Growth: Building a Canadian Environmental Superpower.” Aside from a focus on clean growth — a declaration that growth will continue whatever “clean” comes to mean — the parallels in the documents are remarkable. The chief executives demanded a “coherent national plan of action”; Trudeau delivers a pan-Canadian framework, not quite a national plan, but on the way. The chief executives asked for investment in new technologies; Trudeau delivers investment in clean technologies. The chief executives demanded price signals such as emissions trading or carbon tax; Trudeau delivers carbon pricing through either emissions trading or carbon tax.

The long-awaited national energy strategy was rolling into the station. Trudeau had already adopted the business framing of a transition to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity. In preparation for meetings in Vancouver with provincial and territorial leaders, he said the talks “will focus on effective ways to…capitalize on the opportunities presented by a low-carbon economy,” not on what we must do to keep global warming within two degrees Celsius.

In Paris, at the make-or-break climate change meetings, the talk was all about two degrees Celsius and even 1.5 degrees Celsius, a vastly more ambitious target promoted by Trudeau’s Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna. It was a target Canada had no intention of meeting, as became obvious over the next year. Canada’s goal was to cut greenhouse gas emissions — its intended nationally determined contribution — 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, reducing emission from 742 megatonnes to 517 megatonnes, admittedly a daunting task (projected as of December 2016). Yet while McKenna was setting praiseworthy temperature and emission-reduction targets and Trudeau was telling the assembled dignitaries that “Canada is back,” McKenna was designing Canada’s escape hatch as well, as chair of the Paris Agreement Article 6 committee that authorized emission markets. This would allow Canada to purchase carbon credits from foreign jurisdictions such as California.

Recently, at a widely-publicized American town hall meeting, Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, said, “it is absolutely imperative that we get our act together on this issue and take on the fossil fuel industry and transform our energy system away from fossil fuels.”

Still stalling

Here in Canada, Justin Trudeau’s certainly not taking on the fossil fuel industry, nor is he transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels. Rachel Notley’s not doing it. John Horgan’s climate plan isn’t doing it either. It makes the fossil fuel industry, in the guise of Royal Dutch Shell’s LNG Canada consortium, a partner in the provincial economy.

Neither would Andrew Scheer nor Jagmeet Singh do what Bernie Sanders says needs to be done. And certainly not Doug Ford. Like Donald Trump he’s doing just the opposite.

In fact you’d be hard-pressed to find a politician in Canada, or anywhere in the world for that matter, with the exception of Sanders, soon-to-be New York State Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a handful of others, who are advocating for what clearly needs to be done — get our society off fossil fuels – and fast!

Sanders says we need to take on the fossil fuel industry. It’s a good call to arms, but he must know that we’re going to lose unless we know the enemy and have a realistic assessment of the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses. My book, The Big Stall, makes that assessment.

It explains Big Oil’s vast power and influence over politicians and how this is augmented by the critical backing of neoliberal ideology, which limits the range of possible global warming responses to market solutions. As a result, Big Oil and neoliberal think tanks have blocked action on climate change in Canada and around the word for 30 years. And they’re still doing it.

We don’t seem to be much closer to controlling global warming today than we were 30 years ago when global warming first became a public issue. We can thank Big Oil and its neoliberal sidekicks for that.

The Big Stall explains how and why we’ve ended up in this desperate situation. And it is desperate: the recent report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to achieve a zero-carbon economy by the year 2050 – that’s just 32 years from now.

Zero carbon means shutting down the tar sands by 2050, and shuttering LNG Canada’s massive LFG plant by 2050 – that’s Liquefied Fracked Gas, not Liquefied Natural Gas. Zero carbon means decommissioning the hundreds of gas fracking sites polluting B.C. and Alberta, saying farewell to the Hibernia oil fields off Canada’s eastern seaboard and much, much more.

And we need to achieve zero-carbon in 32 years, because if we don’t, the average global temperature will break the 1.5 degree limit that’s considered to be relatively safe.

But only relatively safe. We’re already up slightly more than one degree since the beginning of the industrial era in 1750 and we can see the enormous negative impacts of this increase.

We’ve got to get Big Oil and neoliberalism off our backs. The solutions they offer—carbon taxes, cap and trade, clean growth, a low—not zero—carbon future—will never get us where we need to be.

We’ve been living with market solutions to global warming for two decades and the dial continues to move in the wrong direction.

Governments need to step up to the plate and take charge. If they can’t entice industry to shift to renewable energy, for instance, then they must step in decisively and do it themselves. Just like governments used to do before neoliberalism became our prevailing ideology.

Text excerpted from The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks Are Blocking Action On Climate Change In Canada, James Lorimer, publisher.The book is available at Munro’s in Victoria, various Chapters outlets in Victoria and Vancouver and online. Donald Gutstein is a retired professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University.


December 12
Donald Gutstein speaks in Victoria

Wednesday, December 12
at the Legacy Art Gallery
630 Yates Street, 7-9 pm.

He will be joined by Bill Carroll of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Corporate Mapping Project and University of Victoria and Caitlyn Vernon of the Sierra Club of BC. The Corporate Mapping Project ( investigates the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada.

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