Why would someone who wants action to fight climate change have supported the “Freedom Convoy” movement that occupied Ottawa, blocked the U.S.-Canada border, and persisted with smaller rallies, including in Calgary and Victoria?

After all, we saw the convoy mix anti-vaccine mandate anger with a range of far-right grievances, far-out fantasies, and even outright racism.

But some environmental voters did sympathize with the horn honking caravans. National polls revealed Green Party voters were disproportionately supportive. In my own small British Columbia coastal town, several prominent progressive activists stunned their compatriots by taking up the anti-vaxxer cause.

Apparently and unfortunately, some progressives fall down a social media-fuelled rabbit hole. They start with holding a healthy distrust of corporate capital’s influence on public policy and scientific research, but then transition to cult-like conspiracy theories and knee-jerk rejection of government and science.

So let’s remind ourselves how the convoy’s politics were completely at odds with the social, ethical and political values needed for an adequate response to the climate crisis.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

Good climate action requires challenging the political power of the gas and oil industry

The fossil fuel industry might sometimes talk a green game, but repeatedly it has shown that it’s determined to delay climate action. And that industry certainly saw plenty to love about the convoyers.

Their behaviour was a clue – belching diesel fumes into the Ottawa night, firing up outdoor hot tubs on frigid winter days.

Beyond that, some leading convoy organizers have direct ties to oil and gas. One is Tamara Lich, a former administrator for a Calgary-based oilfield services company who proudly wears an “I love Canadian oil and gas” baseball cap — likely a souvenir from her involvement in the pro-pipeline, anti-carbon tax “United We Roll” trucker caravan in 2019.

Effective climate policy requires taking seriously science, expertise and real-world evidence

Informed people will often disagree about appropriate climate solutions — cap and trade, carbon taxes, or full-scale system change? But we need a shared grasp of sobering realities before we can even debate what to do about them. Climate deniers opt out by downplaying the rise of extreme weather events, or finding absurd explanations for it. Sun spots, perhaps?

A similar preference for anecdotes and speculation over scientific evidence or competent data analysis is common among anti-vaxers. Take for example the claim by the right-wing People’s Party of Canada that vaccines don’t work because there are slightly more vaccinated than unvaccinated people in Ontario hospitals. That’s an example of the “baseline fallacy” — you have to take into account the relative size of the two groups. Because far more Canadians have had the jab than not, the data actually shows that unvaccinated people are far more likely to experience hospitalization, critical care and death — as well as taking up more than their share of hospital beds needed by people with other illnesses.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” — W.B. Yeats

Like it or not, avoiding the worst impacts of climate collapse requires collective sacrifices

To stave off disaster we will need to change our consumption and travel habits, and pay more in the form of carbon taxes or public investments in zero-carbon infrastructure. That kind of co-operation, based on both enlightened self-interest and a sense of justice, has been radically defined as anti-freedom by right-wingers who found a home with the convoy crowd. Their ethics, as Canadian singer Jann Arden tweeted, seemed to be, “Me Me Me HONK HONK Me Me HONK.”

The false idea that individual freedom has no limits implies we have no responsibility towards others. Yet in myriad ways, our society already accepts the need for limits to individual freedom. For example, to ignore speed limits, traffic lights and seatbelt fastening would not only be unethical and illegal, but deadly. Surviving the climate crisis demands similar practicality.

Climate action requires broadening our empathic imagination about the suffering of others.

The convoyers claimed to lament the isolation of elderly people in lockdowns, the relatively small number of people who have had serious reactions to vaccines, or who have had genuine medical reasons to avoid vaccination but have lost their jobs. These are legitimate concerns.

But the honker brigades denied or ignored the 37,000 Canadian (and at least six million global) deaths related to COVID, the suffering of longhaul survivors, the vulnerability of the immunocompromised, the misery and deaths of people whose urgent operations are delayed and the extra emotional and physical burden on health-care workers, because hospitals are full of COVID patients who refused the jab. Where is their “freedom of choice?”

Climate action requires civil communication conducted in good faith

It’s a pity much of the convoy movement fell under the spell of emotion-laden rhetoric largely unmoored to factual reality. When powerful individuals and groups turn language and meaning inside out, they create a kind of vertigo where contradiction becomes a virtue and standards of reasoned thought are demolished.

For example, if you occupied Canada’s capital demanding the toppling of the duly elected government, claim to be for democracy and compare the prime minister to Hitler. If you were intimidating and harassing residents, shout about defending their liberty. If your heavily U.S.-funded movement wanted to import American-style polarization and cited the U.S. constitution, festoon your vehicle with Canadian flags. Push your views within Facebook echo chambers, the provinces of disinformation demagogues and conspiracy mongers. “Flood the zone with shit,” is the tactic espoused by far-right operative Steve Bannon who helped mastermind Donald Trump’s election.

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule,” philosopher Hannah Arendt warned us in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

Pro-climate movements need a clear sense of who wields influence and who are potential allies

There certainly are power imbalances in the world. Parliamentary democracy has not lived up to its claim to fairly represent all of us. In our southern neighbour, hostility to government has been fuelled by State-sponsored lies preceding the Iraq war, the huge banking bailouts of 2008/09, lack of corporate accountability for the opioid crisis, obscene levels of inequality, the hollowing out of rural communities, and much else. 

Through their lobbying, media ownership and other means, corporations have too much power over many policy areas, from health, to defence and taxation. In the energy and environment fields, such connections have been well traced by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Corporate Mapping Project.

But rather than engage in such careful institutional analysis, the convoy literature and activists I encountered often promoted baseless conspiracies. The pandemic isn’t real, they’d say. Or, it’s real but is a pre-planned Nazi-like global experiment on unsuspecting human guinea pigs. Like many other conspiracy theorists, including some climate rejectionists, they hallucinate about an absurdly powerful and secretive tyrannical force, against whom they fight to reveal the truth.

Rather than find democratic paths to reform imperfect institutions, the convoy leaders sowed distrust of government, period. Paralyzing the ability of governments to defend the public good would suit the far right — and many of the wealthy — just fine. When that happens, our best chance to address the greatest threat we collectively face is gone.

Pro-climate Canadians cannot continue to support the honking parades and what their movement represented without betraying their own values.

A version of this story originally appeared here. The piece has since been updated and modified.


Robert Hackett

Robert Hackett is Professor Emeritus of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has published eight (mostly collaborative) academic books on media and politics, most recently Journalism and Climate...