“You can’t be a climate leader and build pipelines.” In a moment of role reversal, that’s the message students will be delivering to teacher-turned-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when they descend on Parliament Hill next week. In advance of a decision on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline (see: “Expect a Kinder Morgan Surprise from Trudeau’s Liberals,” Bill Tieleman, the Tyee, September 6, 2016), students from across Canada will be educating the Liberal government that the voice of millennials – along with their votes – shouldn’t be taken for granted (see: “Students to Trudeau: Climate leaders don’t approve pipelines,” Derrick O’Keefe, ricochet, September 21, 2016).
It’s been a dizzying month with climate-related headlines dominating the national newsmedia. Canadians have been inundated with talk of targets, taxes and treaties. Elected officials and political pundits have offered opinions, spin, and in some cases, thoughtful analysis of proposed initiatives and government flip-flops. The picture that’s starting to emerge is problematic. Despite the government’s lofty rhetoric about “real change”, meaningful measures to slow the climate crisis are being offset by decisions that take us in the opposite direction – one where continuing conflict can be expected.
The Liberals have been engaged in a year-long process of backing away from their election campaign promises. After going to Paris and signing on to a treaty to hold warming at 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees C proposed by Canada’s very own Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna (see: “COP21: Catherine McKenna endorses goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C,” CBC, December 8, 2016), the Liberals opted not to tinker with the National Energy Board hearings on the Trans Mountain bitumen pipeline (see: “NEB pipeline process a ‘sham’, Liberal plan not much better, Vancouver mayor says,” CBC, May 20, 2016). Although promising more ambitious emissions reduction targets than those offered up by the previous Conservative government (see: “Liberals’ climate-change targets will be tougher than Tory version, McKenna vows,” the Ottawa Citizen, November 9, 2015), McKenna recently announced that the Liberals would instead be adopting Stephen Harper’s low-ball targets (see: “Liberals cave on climate - leaving weak Conservative targets in place,” the Green Party of Canada, September 19, 2016).
Just days before ratifying the Paris treaty, Trudeau dropped a carbon bomb in the form of federal approval for British Columbia’s fracked natural gas megaproject, which is destined to become the single largest greenhouse gas emitter in Canada (see: “Liberals approve controversial natural gas project on B.C. coast," the Toronto Star, September 27, 2016). B.C.’s Pacific NorthWest LNG project was greenlighted after Trudeau backtracked on his platform promise of a social license requirement for communities impacted by energy development proposals (see: “Federal government’s ‘social license’ for pipeline ‘permission’ cuts out local communities,” the Vancouver Sun, September 21, 2016). Growing animosity between the federal Liberals and indigenous peoples has led to more than 50 First Nations from across North America signing a historic treaty aimed squarely at the tar sands (see: “Tribes Across North America Unite in a ‘Wall of Opposition’ to Alberta Tar Sands,” CommonDreams, September 22, 2016), and to legal challenges to the B.C. LNG approval (see: “First Nations split on Ottawa’s Pacific NorthWest LNG decision,” the Globe and Mail, September 16, 2016).
A small, but important step forward, was Trudeau’s announcement of a plan to compel the provinces to put a price on carbon pollution, or have the feds impose a carbon tax (see: “Trudeau says Canada to implement carbon tax,” the Associated Press, October 3, 2016). However, the fed’s price – just $10 per tonne starting in 2018 - is woefully inadequate, and will not lead to any changes in consumer behaviour (see: "Don't fixate on carbon pricing: Mark Jaccard (updated)," Vancouver Business, September 21, 2016).
Putting a national carbon price, however, is the very least that Liberals could have done to show progress on the climate file. Recent polls show that a national carbon price is popular, especially if it’s coupled with pipeline development (see: “Climate, Carbon and Pipelines: A Path to Consensus?” Abacus Data, October 18, 2016). Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley has already insisted that her province will participate in the federal climate program only if the federal Liberals approve a new bitumen pipeline somewhere (see: “Rachel Notley says support for Trudeau carbon plan requires feds to act on pipelines,” Global News, October 9, 2016).
And here’s where the problems really start. Bolstered by polls and blackmailed by friendly premiers, Trudeau might be thinking that his bare minimum approach to the climate crisis is social license enough to kickstart tar sands-expanding pipeline projects. Of course, it all flies in the face of the best available science which clearly indicates that if we’re going to meet our Paris commitments, we’re going to have to leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground (see: “The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris Climate Goals Require a Managed Decline of Fossil Fuel Production,” Oil Change International, September 22, 2016).
That’s why you can’t be a climate leader and build pipelines. Trudeau’s final test of leadership may come as early as December. If Trudeau approves Trans Mountain, he will shred the last little bit of credibility the Liberals have left on the climate file.
(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Canada and Ontario)
Originally published in the Sudbury Star as, "The climate file heats up," in print and online as "Sudbury column: The climate file heats up," October 22, 2016, without hyperlinks.