It was an audacious move given its long history of being anything but.

A failure years in the making

You could see the Liberals’ failure on climate coming early, when Trudeau campaigned on a promise to get the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline built, and again when he expressed disappointment about President Obama’s decision to veto the project.

You could hear it coming when Trudeau aired his views on the tar sands in refrains about how it’s a prime minister’s “fundamental” economic responsibility to get a country’s resources to market and how “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil and just leave it in the ground,” when, reflex-quick, he walked back comments interpreted as suggesting the tar sands need to be phased out.

What we ought to be concerned about is why, after all this, Trudeau’s Liberals still present themselves as climate leaders.

If there was any hope that the Liberals would lead on climate, it disappeared when the government recommitted Canada to the weakest of climate targets and approved two tar sands pipelines (including the Kinder Morgan Transmountain expansion) in the hottest year ever recorded and in the face of democratic campaigns at public climate consultations and on Parliament Hill urging real climate action.

And so no one should have been surprised when the Trudeau government decided to buy out the Kinder Morgan pipeline to ensure the survival of its too-weak climate plan.

What we ought to be concerned about is why, after all this, Trudeau’s Liberals still present themselves as climate leaders.

Worse than cynics?

Did the Liberals just cynically present themselves as climate leaders to win an election in the same way they falsely promised, and then took away, voting reform?

That explains some of what we’re seeing and fits a pattern. What doesn’t quite fit is that instead of simply dropping their climate plan, they have poured so much political capital into realizing it.

So what if the problem is not one of betrayed promises or even lack of political will to take on climate change? What if it’s something worse?

What if they really believe they are doing what needs to be done?

We need to have a conversation about ideology

Ideology powerfully affects the way people think about climate change and the policies they are willing to countenance or tolerate to address it. It’s why, for instance, holding a free-market fundamentalist worldview is the strongest predictor for whether someone is a climate change denier: it’s easier to deny the science than to admit that the worldview informing one’s identity cannot accommodate reality.

Less widely appreciated is how the challenge of climate change tends to be reshaped to fit the worldview of your standard 21st-century liberal party like the one Trudeau heads.

It wouldn’t reveal the need to quickly phase out a fossil fuel industry now engaging in defiant brinkmanship with the physics of a safe world.

As with other countries over the last generation, the neoliberal gravity well pulled Canada’s already truncated political spectrum rightward on economic questions. That means that even though the Liberals are widely seen as occupying the Canadian centre, and though they represent a turn away from the Harper Conservative years, they will, like other contemporary liberal parties, carry strains of a party of the right. Underlying their social progressivism, internationalism, and recognition of environmental issues we should expect to find an overriding ideological faith in the basic rightness of the prevailing political and economic arrangements.

Climate liberalism

It’s this last bit that we should be concerned about.

Imagine for a moment how you might understand climate change if you believed, deeply, in the following: That the general contours of the status quo provide the necessary and exclusive conditions for a good and viable society. That no impending threat, no matter the magnitude, brooks too much tampering with an economy mostly run by and for private corporate interests. That we might not like it, but moral imperatives really must come second to capitalist pragmatism, and it’s the duty of a responsible government to find the compromise between them.

The danger this worldview raises is that climate change can be no more serious than a commitment to that general status quo allows, no more urgent than can be handled by the policy tools consistent with those beliefs.

And so the climate crisis might not signal, as it should, an urgent existential threat requiring a rapid course correction along the lines of a wartime-like retooling of our industrial system. It wouldn’t reveal the need to quickly phase out a fossil fuel industry now engaging in defiant brinkmanship with the physics of a safe world. It certainly wouldn’t raise questions about whether there is a richer and more ecologically sensible way to live in this world.

It would become a problem for another tomorrow.

Climate change would instead need to become shrunk down, more manageably, to a problem of incorrect market signals (i.e., greenhouse gas emissions aren’t being factored into the cost of fossil fuels), nothing that a mild and minimally interfering carbon price can’t fix by activating the dynamism of markets, profits, private industry, innovation, and growth. It would become a problem for another tomorrow, leaving ample time for accommodating a domestic tar sands industry as a bargaining chip for climate action.

A worldview of that sort would be necessary to propose, defend, and pour so much political capital into realizing a climate policy like the Liberals’. Ensconced in it, you might be able to exclude some difficult moral questions from the national conversation and ignore the Transmoutain pipeline’s very dubious economic prospects. You might still, in 2018, talk about how you’ve balanced, impossibly, the needs of the fossil fuel industry with the need to act on climate change, your ideology having compressed and collapsed those opposing forces into a contradictionless singularity.

If it is a problem of ideology, we should ask how this might shake out in the current national context as the Liberals face possibly unprecedented protests from the environmental and Indigenous rights movements for imposing a pipeline, as a resurgent right fights back against carbon pricing, and as the prime minister is urged to stop at nothing to build Transmountain.

Justin Trudeau’s “Just watch me” moment might not be as unlikely as we might hope.