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Environmental leaders on post-COVID Canada: Greener future, or new climate denialism?

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Image: Ella Ivanescu/Unsplash​

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Yogi Berra could have been talking about Canada today. As COVID-19 decimates lives and livelihoods, governments' crisis-driven responses will shape Canadian society long after the pandemic subsides.

Do we want the previous status quo, with its now-obvious holes in our health and social well-being nets, and its trajectory towards climate catastrophe?

Or do we want to "build back better?" That fork requires a vision of the future, a strategy for getting there, exceptional leadership and an understanding of the obstacles to overcome.

Those are topics that Canada's National Observer editor-in-chief Linda Solomon Wood discussed with Canadian environmental leaders in a series of online conversations this spring.

What is the fundamental choice facing us, and who is on either side? Is the federal Liberal government serious about addressing both the health and climate crises?

Renowned broadcaster and scientist David Suzuki, while acknowledging the enormous suffering from the COVID-19 crisis, nevertheless sees it as a needed break for Mother Earth, and "a huge opportunity to say 'What the hell have we done wrong that got us into this mess.'"

Graham Saul, executive director of the conservation charity Nature Canada, sees the very definition of Canada at stake -- are we an "oil country," or a "country of nature?"

Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey Foundation, a charity focusing on environmental policy change, identifies "two dominant perspectives" within policymaking elites. Some in "the finance side of government" emphasize the crises of economy, oil industry and job losses, leaving "no time to deal with climate change." On the other side are advocates of a "once in a generation, multibillion-dollar public expenditure" on a sustainable future for Canada.

Tzeporah Berman, international program director for Stand.earth, described this as a "zero gravity moment" in which transformative change is possible. She spoke of the thousands of Canadians successfully petitioning parliamentarians to oppose the “outrageous demands” of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and the oil industry for huge bailouts.

The only conversationalist in a senior political position -- Catherine McKenna, formerly federal environment minister, now minister for infrastructure and communities -- laid out no grand vision or strategy, focusing instead on specific projects to reduce emissions.

The five participants broadly agreed on some of the principles for post-pandemic Canada. Invest in green energy that can replace fossil fuels. Electrify the supply and distribution of power. Don't subsidize or bail out big gas and oil companies.

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Incentivize the manufacture and sale of electric vehicles, with a charging grid to support them. Install solar panels on government buildings. Retrofit buildings for energy efficiency. Phase out coal, and put a price on carbon pollution, as the federal government is already doing.

Wherever possible, pursue policies that achieve multiple goals -- get double or triple value for the money, as McKenna put it. For example, combine Indigenous justice and job creation with species protection and land and marine conservation -- themes emphasized by Lourie and Saul.

Ensure that infrastructure jobs and projects are not just "shovel ready," requiring little start-up time, but also "shovel worthy," moving the economy in a greener direction.

Protect the most vulnerable. Any recovery should ensure equity and inclusion. Respect rights and justice for Indigenous people. Avoid gender biases in the kinds of jobs created.

Several speakers proposed other initiatives, less well-known but intriguing. Bring forestry within the framework of climate policy, argued Saul. Echoing climate researcher Barry Saxifrage, Saul points out that in the wake of climate change-fuelled wildfires and insect infestations, Canada's forests have become a "massive net source" rather than a net sink of GHG emissions.

Beyond clean energy investments, Saul added "a set of nature investments," such as planting trees, restoring wetlands and ecosystems, and reclaiming mining- and logging-scarred landscapes, perhaps propelled by a Canadian “nature corps” modelled on the Civilian Conservation Corps created by U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression.

Bruce Lourie said he sees opportunities, for Alberta in particular, in developing hydrogen as a climate-friendly energy source, using the skills of former oil and gas workers. Farmers should be assisted to adopt regenerative agriculture, benefitting food security, soil conservation and carbon sequestration.

Obstacles and Strategies

What are the obstacles to implementing more eco-friendly policies?

Stand.earth's Berman called out the power of the oil and gas industries, contrasted with the smallness of Canada's environmental movement.

Saul similarly identified the need to confront the power of the logging industry. Lourie pointed to lobbying by major economic interests, and the GHG emissions entrenched in the global food system.

Suzuki, schooled by years of campaigning, offered the most extensive list of obstacles. We are driven by "basically a corporate agenda" that privileges "the economy” over air, water, weather -- the very necessities of life. That economy embodies endless growth, the "creed of cancer cells," and turns nature into collateral damage.

Suzuki lamented the demonization of scientists, and the short-term, election-oriented timeframe of politicians. Their commitments to long-range emission reduction targets for 2050, when they will be long gone from office, are meaningless, he said. Berman argued that accountability legislation, with targets for specific economic sectors, is needed.

Both Berman and Suzuki opposed further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and supported a wind-down of the industry -- measures more appropriate to an emergency than incrementally dampening fossil fuel demand through carbon taxes or rebates for electric vehicles.

What about strategy? Underlying the discussion, it seemed, were different understandings of power, conflict and social change. Is it enough to educate people and persuade policymakers to act vis-à-vis climate crisis? Or is it necessary to organize collectively to overcome the interests entrenched in an extractivist and colonialist economy of wealth production but also expropriation and -- let's be frank -- extermination?

With a background in Climate Action Network, Saul offered the most detailed political strategies. Environmental movements should extend beyond research, policy lobbying and conversing amongst themselves, to "build a [grassroots] constituency of people who say they care about an issue, and then get them involved in increasingly meaningful ways."

Saul lauded movements such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter for sensitizing broader publics to the climate emergency and racial justice. And he identified nature lovers as an "incredible resource to the environmental community," if they were "sufficiently politicized and organized." From trail and canoe clubs to Land Trusts, Nature Canada's more than 100,000 members are a potential nucleus.

Silences and the New Climate Denialism

As in any conversation, there are also shared silences, things that are relevant but not openly discussed. Some silences are dictated by time constraints; others are blind spots, concepts that don't register in the speakers' mental or ideological universe. And others are strategic -- elephants in the room that go unmentioned for fear of losing face or support.

The Conversations series implicitly raises further questions.

How far and how fast can renewable and low-carbon energy really replace the fossils?

Is the environmental agenda distorted by institutionalized advocacy groups' need to maintain relationships with government and funding for the fixed costs of staff and offices?

What's the role of direct-action groups such as Extinction Rebellion, or Greta Thunberg's school climate strikes, impatient with the slow-paced reformism of the environmentalist establishment, that Naomi Klein described as "Big Green?"

Several speakers praised Canada's National Observer ("the kind of coverage that gives heart to those of us in the trenches," Suzuki said), but what about corporate news media as a blockage to climate action -- can they be changed or challenged?

What about adaptation -- in addition to mitigation -- to the climate change already baked into our atmosphere?

How radical are the necessary shifts in policy and middle-class lifestyles?

Are hard regulatory ceilings on fossil fuel production needed to counter the Jevons paradox, named after a 19th century economist who discovered that greater energy efficiency often increases energy demand?

What if destructive growth is hardwired into the economic system: Can only the replacement of capitalism save us?

Of all the conversationalists, only McKenna has a direct hand in making government policy. That makes her comments -- and silences -- particularly important. She deserves respect for her evident sincerity on inclusiveness and racial justice, for enduring hate and harassment from far-right climate deniers, and for encouraging and funding green recovery projects, such as public transit in Waterloo.

But when asked about a just transition from fossil fuels, McKenna narrowed it to assistance to workers in one specific industry -- coal. She highlighted retraining, early retirement, consultation with communities and access to greener jobs with cleaner industries -- a program, developed with input from Canadian labour leader Hassan Yousef, to promote social stability as well as environmental sustainability.

Yet coal is a relatively minor component of Canada's fossil fuel sector -- six per cent of Canada's total primary energy supply, compared to 35 per cent each, for gas and crude oil — coal accounted for two-thirds of emissions from electricity but only nine per cent of production in 2016.

A just transition from coal to more sustainable energy is a potentially inspiring model vis-à-vis the larger fossil fuel dinosaurs, but it is relatively low-hanging fruit for climate action. In an hour-long interview, during which McKenna evoked the Liberal government's goal of net-zero emissions by the politically distant year 2050, McKenna did not once mention "gas" or "oil," let alone a planned wind-down of production, or GHGs from Canada's fossil fuel exports, which exceed domestic emissions from all fossil fuel combustion within Canada. Nor, beyond briefly mentioning fights with "certain provinces," did she identify the political power of the fossil fuel sector -- which made more than 11,000 contacts with federal officials between 2011 and 2018 -- when asked why the federal government could not respond to the climate emergency with COVID-level decisiveness and urgency.

Moreover, McKenna claimed that "we've eliminated all the fossil fuel subsidies at the federal level," in contrast with credible agencies estimating Canada spends from $3 billion to more than $50 billion per year, depending how "subsidies" are defined.

The minister justified the $4.5 billion purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline -- arguably a fossil fuel subsidy in its own right -- on the grounds that "all of the revenues would go to the clean transition." Will there be any net revenues at all from a project facing profound global market risks and soaring construction costs, now surpassing $12 billion? What mechanism guarantees that future governments would pour pipeline revenues into green alternatives? And does it make sense to be "eating more cake to build up more strength to go on a diet," as professor Kathryn Harrison metaphorically described the Liberals' contradictory climate policies?

McKenna may be fighting the good fight within cabinet, but her interview followed the Liberal government's political script -- the "new climate denialism," described by Seth Klein in a book published this month. By that, he means political and industry leaders verbally accepting the scientific warnings about climate change (by contrast with "old" denialism); but they deny "what this scientific reality means for policy or they continue to block progress in less visible ways." Such governments "promise climate action" but, because they practise "appeasement" of vested corporate interests, they "deliver underwhelming and contradictory policies."

New climate denialism suits the Liberals' longstanding strategy for political success, sometimes described as campaigning from the left and governing from the right. Progressive rhetoric and meaningful but moderate social reforms are combined with fundamental economic, fiscal and energy policies that the corporate sector prefers, or at least can accept.

New climate denialism has apparently impacted Canada's COVID-related bailouts. Energypolicytracker.org has been following the money. As of July 29, Canadian governments have committed an estimated $319 per capita to fossil fuels, and only $42 to clean energy.

Numbers like that led Dogwood, a B.C. progressive campaigning organization, to email supporters -- "We're getting our butts kicked."

Some of these expenditures are from openly right-wing governments, such as Alberta, but even the B.C. NDP government, with reputedly the most ambitious climate plan of any province, has committed itself to subsidizing a huge LNG industry.

Small wonder that the environmental conversationalists are ambivalent about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's leadership. There were kudos for his handling of the pandemic, but bitter disappointment over minimal action to meet Paris climate commitments, and Trudeau's 2016 turnabout in approving the Trans Mountain pipeline; Berman said it left her "nauseous," and Suzuki said Trudeau no longer answers his calls.

Still, most of the speakers were surprisingly "hopeful" about such promises as expanding Canada's parkland or introducing periodic milestones for climate accountability. But as one interviewee put it, "We're waiting to see what it looks like in practice."

In another interview in the Observer's Conversation series, Noam Chomsky said the shape of post-COVID society depends on "the balance of forces" between entrenched elites that want a return to neoliberalism, austerity and rapid ecological decay, and the popular movements that want a more just and sustainable society.

How we act now could help tip that balance.

Robert Hackett is a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, and co-author of Journalism and Climate Crisis: Public Engagement, Media Alternatives. He is also a member of the NDP and of the non-partisan Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion (BROKE). This article originally appeared in the National Observer.

Image: Ella Ivanescu/Unsplash​

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