'The Big Stall' details how neoliberal think tanks blocked action on climate change

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The world's biggest oil companies knew for years that climate change was real, but they did all they could to derail government action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Donald Gutstein's latest book, The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada is a deep dive into the strategies that Canadian oil companies and their friends have implemented to prevent political action to slow and reverse catastrophic climate change.

The author, a former communications professor and co-director of the media-monitoring project NewsWatch Canada at Simon Fraser University, follows the individuals and organizations that have shaped Canada's energy and environmental policy over the last four decades.

Gutstein doesn't neglect the politicians (he devotes a chapter to Alberta NDP leader and just-defeated Premier Rachel Notley), but he spends more time on the players who fly slightly under the public radar or whose impact is felt long after they've fallen from view. People like Maurice Strong, appointed the first head of Petro-Canada by Pierre Trudeau and the secretary-general of the UN Conference on the Human Environment, who said in his opening speech that "There is no fundamental conflict between development and the environment."

That this position, articulated in 1972, could sum up current official Canadian climate change policy, wasn't inevitable, argues Gutstein. Justin Trudeau’s "clean growth economy" -- a mix of investing in 'green' technologies and "getting our oil to new markets," -- can be traced to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s. But we can't only blame the ideological context Trudeau inherited. There has been a concerted campaign to stall and prevent significant action on climate change by fossil-fuel industry lobbyists and policy think-tanks.

The book outlines the role of think tanks not just in "blocking action on climate change" but also in the development of neoliberalism, the dominant theoretical current in the capitalist world for over the last forty years (today's turn to protectionist, strong-arm despots notwithstanding).

Gutstein traces neoliberalism to Austrian free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, who wrote The Road to Serfdom, a 1944 book which challenged Keynesian economics. Hayek convinced a British businessman named Antony Fisher to create a "scholarly research organisation" to join the "great battle of ideas." Fisher established the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank which had a profound impact on British public policy debate, opening up the space for England's first neoliberal government led by Margaret Thatcher.

Canada's Fraser Institute led the charge on climate-change denial until such a position became considered too fringe by a broad swath of the public. It was created by a Vancouver economist and a businessman who were each inspired by the Institute of Economic Affairs and asked Fisher to be the first acting director. One of Canada's premier sources of pro-business anti-environmentalist agitprop (followed keenly by just-elected Alberta Premier Jason Kenney) can trace its lineage directly to this "originator of neoliberalism."

It's details and links like these that make the book a dizzying read. At times it's hard to keep all the names of individuals and organizations straight. For instance, the Business Council on National Issues, which rallied corporate opposition to Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s National Energy Program in the 1980s has changed its name not once, but twice (it’s currently the Business Council of Canada) even as it continues to successfully champion the interests of Canadian oil corporations during the tenure of Trudeau's son. Thankfully, Gutstein provides a short glossary of organizations at the end of the book.

It was the Business Council on National Issues (in its second guise as the Canadian Council of Chief Executives) that first brought together corporate leaders in Canada to develop their own plan to respond to climate change, leading to a 2007 report called "Clean Growth: Building a Canadian Environmental Superpower." Public opinion had come to support the scientific consensus that climate change was the result of human activity. Big oil needed a way to sidestep strict government regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; the "Clean Growth" plan was it.

The plan, supported by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, called for a clean energy development subsidized by government, a national energy strategy that relied on federal-provincial agreements, with "carbon reduction targets designed to protect corporate profits," and "appropriate" carbon pricing.

They worked to build a consensus around the plan through media-savvy industry-funded think-tanks and arms-length academic institutes founded by philanthropic CEOs. (Thankfully, Gutstein doesn't fall into the conspiracist trap of arguing that specific research results are bought by corporations, only that researchers whose pre-existing academic work supports industry ideologies are the ones hired). 

Some may be surprised to learn (as I was) that oil-friendly Stephen "Canada-as-energy-superpower" Harper actually prevented big oil's climate change response from being implemented in Canada. According to Gutstein, Harper was "ideologically incapable" of moving big oil's plan forward; he was totally opposed to taxes and didn’t like federal-provincial negotiations.

It wasn't until the election of Trudeau that big oil found their man. In 2016, Trudeau announced what Gutstein argues is essentially a carbon copy of the "Clean Growth" plan, his Framework Agreement on Clean Growth and Climate Change.

The deep research that otherwise buoys The Big Stall thins out in the closing pages of the book, when Gutstein offers a few solutions to the climate crisis: "question growth," "question economists," and "listen to Indigenous voices" -- all essential and (by dint of their importance) extremely complex tasks which merit books in and of themselves. Gutstein also says we "can listen to nature." By this, he means giving legal rights to nature, as in the Ecuadorian constitution, where anyone can sue to protect nature’s rights to "its existence and …the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes."

But "nature" can’t speak for itself. Any legal action taken on its behalf has to be initiated by human beings. One has reason to be sceptical of the outcome of such a strategy given the evidence Gutstein has amassed of corporate Canada's ability to ensure that any political conversation about nature takes place in their language. One hopes Gutstein's next book offers up some guidance on how to out-maneuver their "mechanics" and out-think their think tanks with the same sort of convincing detail he masters in The Big Stall.

Image: Aurelien Romain/Unsplash

Yutaka Dirks is a writer and editor living in Montreal. He has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, THIS, Briarpatch, The Montreal Review of Books, Alberta Views, and other publications. His work is included in Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution and has been nominated for the CBC Creative Non-Fiction Prize and the Canadian Association of Journalists/CWA Award for Labour Reporting.

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