What poll questions might look like if climate justice mattered

The Liberals’ strategy on Kinder Morgan relies on excluding moral truths from the national conversation
Aaron Saad

With a parliamentary majority at his back in the last years remaining to take the ambitious action needed to prevent extremely dangerous climate change, Justin Trudeau showed the nation last weekend that he is ready to step up in times of emergency.

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Not, mind you, the increasingly alarming climate emergency, but rather the emergency of Kinder Morgan threatening to pull out of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project if the government cannot assure the company by May 31 that disruptions will end.

With the same decisiveness with which he told Canadians he would be dropping the widely supported proportional representation electoral reform he once campaigned on, Trudeau quickly reassured Kinder Morgan the government was in talks to bail the company out with taxpayer money if necessary.

Trudeau’s gamble is that there exists a sizeable middle-of-the-road Canadian electorate who, with the right messaging, can be sold on policy that commits us to continued fossil fuel extraction. Polls suggest this segment of voters does indeed exist, as shown by responses to the following question:

Some say that Canada should continue to develop its oil and gas resources and get them to markets while we are using carbon pricing and other measures to transition to a lower carbon future. Others say that we need to take measures to greatly slow or stop development and transmission of oil and gas in Canada in order to meet our emissions reductions targets. Which view is closer to yours?

Among respondents, 60% agreed with the first view. Another recent poll showed slight majorities in Canada and B.C. supporting the pipeline.

It's important to avoid the wrong takeaways, however. Polls can tell us a lot, but they are hardly lodestars; they don’t tell us is what direction we ought to be moving in. Polls capturing support for the Kinder Morgan project might simply be (and probably are) reflecting the success of the Liberal communications team with its unique power to push positive spin about the pipeline through major media outlets. They could also reflect the failure of media coverage to contextualize how a large part of the resistance against the pipeline, in addition to struggles for Indigenous land rights and protection of the coastline, is rooted in the recognition that the climate has no more capacity to bear carbon pollution without breaking down. Indeed, you can read most stories on the pipeline and walk away without the impression that we are careening towards a precipice.

What matters is whether we would expect these opinions to stand up to scrutiny once the larger moral context is reintroduced.

Let’s make an assumption: that people living in Canada are by and large decent and that support for a destructive project will diminish as its moral cost becomes increasingly clear. Keeping that in mind, just for the hell of it imagine what some poll questions might look like if climate justice mattered:

  1. Climate science tells us very clearly that the world needs to keep fossil fuels in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming. Do you believe that expanding the Kinder Morgan pipeline to promote continued tar sands extraction is an effective way of keeping fossil fuels in the ground?
  2. A report by Oil Change International last year projected how much carbon would be emitted as a result of the extraction and burning of tar sands oil should the Kinder Morgan, Line 3, and Keystone XL pipelines be built. Canada, with 0.5% of the global population, would be responsible for 16% of the emissions allowable to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 C and 7% of emissions for 2 C, the targets included in the Paris Agreement to give us the best chance of avoiding very dangerous climate change. Some believe that, due to Canada’s current and historical status as one of the world’s worst carbon emitters per capita, we hold a special responsibility to quickly transition away from fossil fuels, made all the more urgent given that Canada’s emissions reductions targets are so insufficient that if every country took a similar approach the world would warm 3 to 4 C. These people also believe that it would be a nice idea to preserve a habitable climate. Others are Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Which view is closer to yours?
  3. Part of Trudeau’s strategy to sell Canadians on Kinder Morgan is to insist repeatedly that the pipeline expansion is, unconscionably, in the “national interest.” Approximately how many people’s livelihoods, security, and wellbeing, particularly in poorer communities across the world, do you think are worth sacrificing for Canada’s national interest? Do you have a preference for which ecosystems and species are wiped out and which communities are devastated because we pursued our national interest in an all-devouring way?
  4. Trudeau likes to say, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, that those opposing the pipeline subscribe to an “old way of thinking” because they are unable to appreciate how his carbon tax and pipeline policy balances the economy and the environment. This suggests that Trudeau believes we are still at a point in history when the world can continue to safely emit large amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere. Do you agree with Trudeau that it’s still the early 1990s? Or do you, too, embrace the “old way of thinking” based on the latest science?

All joking aside, the point is this: The success of the Liberals’ strategy relies on excluding a series of politically cumbersome moral truths from the national conversation while empty slogans about the national interest and balancing the economy and the environment are repeated until they take on a veneer of truth.

When we see the prime minister’s ongoing determination to pour his political capital into using that kind of approach to sell us on an environmentally destructive project instead of devoting it to securing policies that could actually prevent climate breakdown, it’s hard to escape the sense that, as is often the case with missed opportunities, there is something tragic about the Trudeau era.

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