Is climate change a moral issue or not? Is it wrong to contribute willfully and massively to the devastation of communities around the world, mass displacement, species extinction and ecosystem collapse, heat deaths, forest fires, and all the complex, unpredicted effects of climate change?
If it is, then there has never been a case for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX).
Which makes it all the more appalling that the Trudeau government has now approved it on two separate occasions, the first in 2016 at the tail end of what would be the hottest year on record, and again on June 18 due to the Federal Court of Appeal ruling last year that the government had failed to consult meaningfully with Indigenous nations along the pipeline’s route.
When announcing the reapproval of TMX, Trudeau noted, “We know that there are still going to be people who remain unconvinced. But I also know that the vast majority of Canadians understand that we need to grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time.”
It was the latest instance of the Liberals sticking to the strategy, one they have used since the last federal election, of branding themselves the party of responsible resource extractivism, again and again turning to variants of how they are striking the right balance between fossil fuel development and climate change. As they did in 2016, when prior to announcing the first approval of TMX they presented their framework for taking on climate change, the announcement of the second TMX approval came a day after voting to pass their (empty) motion declaring a climate emergency.
The Liberals’ “right balance” branding strategy is aimed at a politically moderate segment of the Canadian electorate. But it only works by avoiding the truth about just how dire the moment upon us really is.
1.5C or barbarism
It’s been widely repeated in recent months that we have only 12 years left to take action on climate change. The timeline comes from an important Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published last year on the efforts needed — and the consequences of failing — to constrain warming to 1.5C relative to pre-industrial times. It warned that, in order to avoid overshooting 1.5C, emissions had to fall by 45 per cent relative to 2010 levels by 2030.
But there’s a second sense in which that 12-year timeline is important. The report finds that if we want to preserve a mere 50-50 chance of keeping temperature rise below 1.5C relative to the 1850–1900 average, humanity can emit no more than 580 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (and no more than 420 gigatonnes if we want to preserve a two-thirds chance) from the start of 2018.
At current annual emission rates, the carbon budget for that even 50-50 chance runs out around 2031 (and around 2028 for the two-thirds chance). And it could be short by up to 100 gigatonnes should warming continue to release methane stored in arctic permafrost, not a remote enough possibility as recent research suggests.
The 1.5C target is crucial. Beyond it, we enter a world of rapidly increasing dangers. An important paper last year by leading earth system scientists argued that around warming of 2C, there is a possibility of triggering cascading and self-reinforcing biogeophysical feedbacks that push the climate into a lasting “hothouse” state.
The carbon that would be released from just the fossil fuel reserves around the world that are already in development is enough to blow the 1.5C carbon budget. The implications are harrowing: we have to not only stop investing in the infrastructure intended to accommodate new reserves but also begin a managed retreat from the reserves that are already being developed.
TMX is part of a larger effort at ruin
Building TMX sets in motion the opposite of that. Every year, digging up and burning the oil passing through the pipeline would release 84 megatonnes of CO2 — roughly equivalent to what came out of all of the passenger cars and trucks on Canada’s roads in 2017.
Bear in mind, as well, that TMX is part of a larger effort, which also includes the Line 3 and Keystone XL pipelines, to promote the expansion of the Alberta tar sands. Oil Change International estimated that the total lifetime emissions of the oil transported by those three pipelines would amount to 57 gigatonnes over the course of the century — meaning a country with 0.5 per cent of the world’s population would be responsible for wiping out nearly 10 per cent of the carbon budget for an even chance of staying below 1.5C (and 13.5 per cent of the budget for a two-thirds chance).
Whether or not that much oil actually ends up flowing through those pipelines is impossible to predict (there are still legal challenges against Keystone XL and planned legal challenges against TMX, as well as the growing possibility of a Green New Deal in the U.S., which would change the dynamics of fossil fuel energy demand). It is also beside the point. What matters right now is that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives have any qualms about ensuring Canada has the infrastructure that would allow that much carbon to be pumped into the atmosphere.
And since this is something they are willing to do despite all we know about climate change, we cannot reject the possibility that they will bow to other fossil fuel industry expectations, which just this year included a doubling of industry growth and three new additional tar sands pipelines.
Killing us ethically
During the debate over the motion to declare a climate emergency, a Conservative member of Parliament uttered a statement that many supporters of TMX will be turning to as actions to block its construction heat up:
Every study in the world says that the demand for fossil fuel is going up over the next 50 to 100 years. The oil and gas is coming from somewhere, and if we just shut down our industry ... it is going to come from other sources, such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, that are using technology and natural resource development that is nowhere near the environmental and human rights standards here in Canada.
Moving past the “ethical oil” argument that has succeeded in warping the national conversation about fossil fuels for nearly a decade, think about the logic — projections tell us that countries will remain on the pathway to severe global climate breakdown, and therefore Canada ought to be the one to provide the world with the means of its suicide. That’s entirely the wrong message to take from those fossil fuel demand forecasts (the findings of which are, incidentally, debatable). Rather, the clear takeaway is that politics as usual is driving the world to catastrophe.
A morally indefensible government
Views like these are consequences of the fact that there remains a politically unutterable and ideologically unthinkable truth in mainstream Canadian politics: that Canada has already had its time with fossil fuels.
As all the science is telling us, we’ve already missed our window for funding a renewable transition through expanded fossil fuel development. This is why it rang so hollow when Trudeau doubled down on the “right balance” strategy by announcing that profits from the government eventually selling TMX would be earmarked for funding a transition to cleaner energy; the billions spent purchasing TMX should have instead gone directly into that transition.
One sad, frustrating, and unfair part of this whole TMX mess is that, once again, so much of the burden of stopping the pipeline in order to make Canada meet its global climate responsibilities falls onto activists and Indigenous communities in B.C.
If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that it’s never been easier to show that the Liberal party has made itself morally indefensible, nor has it ever been more urgent to fight for a political program equal to the challenges of this century.
Right now, efforts to make a Green New Deal part of the federal election are underway. It represents the best chance we currently have of finally responding to climate change with justice in Canada, and sparing those in B.C. another difficult fight.