When asked why he had ensured that half the people in his cabinet were women, newly elected prime minister Justin Trudeau famously responded in a way meant to make clear that there comes a time when moral imperatives are no longer up for debate: “Because it’s 2015.”
His government’s approach to preventing climate breakdown has proven more antiquated, however, and the battle that heated up last month over the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline — which Trudeau approved in 2016, the hottest year on record — was the result. Sadly, something like this was always inevitable under Trudeau’s leadership and was long hinted at by a refrain he has been reciting even since before coming to power.
“No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil and just leave it in the ground.”
The problem is that leaving the majority of that oil locked safely in the ground is exactly what the challenge of climate change demands. Articulations of this problem are usually followed by details on how pipeline expansion betrays Canada’s international climate commitments; how, once burned, the oil brought to market by the Trans Mountain expansion would release emissions equivalent to all of Canada’s cars; or how new fossil fuel infrastructure effectively guarantees that the world warms catastrophically.
But perhaps we should simply take a cue from Trudeau when justifying why this pipeline project shouldn’t continue: Because it’s 2018.
It really shouldn’t be up for discussion anymore whether a Canadian government ought to be finding ways to support workers in a rapid transition to a clean economy and leave its carbon beast lying dormant in the earth rather than approving infrastructure to unleash it. Accepting that reality now has to be the measure of whether a politician is fit to govern in the 21st century or merely presumes to be. Trudeau reassured us he merely presumes to be, by maintaining that the pipeline is in the “national interest”.
In response, climate group 350.org launched its #ShowUsTheScience campaign to pressure the Liberal government to prove its case, to show how completing the Kinder Morgan pipeline could possibly be safe for the climate or the B.C. coastline and how, when Indigenous communities are challenging it in court and calling for mass protests against it, it could be in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
It’s a smart play, placing a heavy burden of proof on the Trudeau government to offer some kind of evidence for its claims. But a savvy Liberal communications team has a few too many options in how it can shape the government’s response, from simply ignoring the campaign (Trudeau has already shown that he doesn't see himself as accountable to those demanding serious action on climate change) to using it as an opportunity to keep drumming the phrase “national interest” while positioning the prime minister as its champion and those opposing the pipeline its enemy.
Once political elites begin justifying projects they know to be destructive by invoking the national interest, we should be on the alert. At that point, they are appealing not to reason or evidence but to emotion. And so it’s worth considering a different tack, a companion to 350.org’s response, one that works on the same reflexive limbic level to which Trudeau attempts to appeal. We should not just call out the Trudeau government for failing to back its claims about the benefits and safety of the pipeline but also use every occasion to call this approach to pursuing the national interest what it really is — unconscionable.
Even if benefits were to materialize from releasing the vast stores of carbon quarantined in Alberta’s soils, we are no longer at a point in history where it’s possible to pretend those benefits would come without contributing to unconscionable burdens, unconscionable costs, and unconscionable losses for people across the world, particularly those with the fewest means to bear them.
To invoke national interest is to implicate all of us in that wreckage, to assume a broad Canada-wide indifference to the consequences to others of our gains. A decent nation ought to be offended by every part of that. It ought to greet Trudeau’s strange brand of climate denial with the same exasperated frustration the prime minister acts on when throwing out pipeline protesters who disrupt his public relations events.
Canada’s archaic climate policy is a reminder that while fossil fuels sped up our lives, they fossilized our politics. They preserve into the present, as though in amber, the shape of things that did not evolve while the world moved on, offering us a meagre politics that is unadaptive, unresponsive, inert, coprolitic.
Retrieving a more nimble and lively political project is what the New Democrats had the opportunity to do a few weeks ago at their convention in Ottawa, the last before the next federal election. After their attempts to out-mediocre the Liberals resulted in a third-place finish in the 2015 election, one of the big questions going into the convention was whether they would reembrace a bolder and more progressive identity, and possibly mobilize a Bernie Sanders–style democratic movement for Canada.
The Leap Manifesto offered the NDP a chance to do just that. Members were supposed to debate incorporating its contents into the party’s program. But it seems as though little of that content made it into the resolutions to be considered. And so Leap will remain an example of what an electoral platform might look like in a braver political context and a reminder of how far behind the times Canada’s parties stand.
All of this means that much of the political struggle to shape a Canada embracing its responsibilities in combatting climate breakdown will necessarily shift to spaces outside of the electoral system — in marches in the streets, in the courtrooms, and wherever pipelines become front lines. As civil disobedience campaigns take off, it’s likely going to mean arrests, surveillance, trials, denigration of activists, and so on. Because this too is a consequence of pursuing the national interest in unconscionable ways in 2018.