Earth Day: Forget raising awareness, it’s time to fight Big Oil

Two recent reports show how government climate policy has been subverted by industry
Photo: Booker Smith
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I attended my first Earth Day event way back in 1990. After hearing from a few speakers assembled in a downtown Toronto schoolyard, participants were invited to fan out in the neighbourhood using multicoloured chalk to write messages on local sidewalks.

The chalk-writing action reflected the awareness-raising ethos of this event, and many more that would follow. The belief was that if enough people learned about the problems threatening the ecosystems upon which we all depend, action to fix these problems would soon follow.

Three decades later, and a full 50 years after the first Earth Day in 1970, that consciousness-raising approach seems painfully naïve.

If nothing else, our prime minister is very good at talking about the need for climate action.

Awareness of our ecological crisis is hardly lacking anymore. The threats that seemed theoretical back in the nineties are now the daily fodder of our nightly news reports. From raging bushfires to floods to increasingly destructive hurricanes, climate-related disaster has become a subject that’s hard to avoid.

Nor is lack of awareness the problem when it comes to our politicians. If nothing else, our prime minister is very good at talking about the need for climate action. Just before announcing the multi-billion-dollar purchase of a pipeline last year, his government even passed a motion officially declaring a climate emergency. Even the Conservative Party has come to begrudgingly accept that the environment is an issue to which one must at least pay lip service.

This bus is not bound for glory

On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the question we need to be considering is why five decades of awareness raising has done so little to slow our continued march toward ecological catastrophe. We are all on a bus rapidly heading for a cliff. The passengers on the bus know we’re heading for a cliff. The driver knows too. So how can it be that we don’t change direction?

Answering this question requires us to look at how power operates in Canada. Specifically, we need to better understand the relationship between government and the industries that profit from pushing us ever closer to the brink of catastrophe.

Fortunately, in the last year, two reports have documented the extent to which public policy under Liberal and Conservative governments alike has been shaped by the lobbying efforts of the oil and gas industry. They paint a portrait of a country whose energy and environment policies have been captured by corporate interests.

Key government institutions and actors have become integrated with private firms to the extent that regulation and policy are effectively “co-produced.”

The first report, The Single Biggest Barrier to Climate Action in Canada: the Oil and Gas Lobby, published by Environmental Defence, found that in the last decade, “six major areas of legislation or regulation — including water protection, industrial environmental review, and carbon pricing — have been killed, weakened or delayed due to industry lobbying efforts.”

The second report, Big Oil’s Political Reach, published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, presents a detailed picture of the changing tactics that oil and gas industry lobbyists have used in order to shape policy.

Most disturbingly, the report describes lobbyists shifting from targeting members of the House of Commons under Stephen Harper to targeting senior government bureaucrats with the election of Justin Trudeau. Ominously, it says this development has led to the development of a kind of “deep state,” whereby key government institutions and actors become integrated with private firms to the extent that regulation and policy are effectively “co-produced.”

Two roads diverged in a wood...

All of this is extremely relevant now that the coronavirus crisis has sent the economy into freefall. With the help of interest-free loans from the Bank of Canada, the federal government is gearing up for a massive amount of stimulus spending. The shape that spending takes will determine whether we remain part of the problem, accelerating the bus towards the cliff, or become part of global efforts to change direction. We can invest in a green recovery, or we can double down on a failing industry that threatens our children and invites us all to a world where we lurch from one crisis to the next.

The oil and gas industry sees the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to once again shape government policy.

In line with Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine, the oil and gas industry sees the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to once again shape government policy. We know this from the over 30 meetings between the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Trudeau’s government that occurred in the 20 days following the announcement of the global pandemic on March 11, 2020. We also know this from a leaked memo from CAPP sent to members of Trudeau’s cabinet. In addition to providing a wish-list of dystopian policies, the memo states that CAPP “greatly appreciated” the “openness to dialogue” shown by cabinet members. While it remains to be seen how much of CAPP’s wish-list the Trudeau government will grant, it is hard to imagine a government willing to meet so frequently with lobbyists is not being influenced.

The coronavirus crisis represents a crossroad for Canada’s economic future: we can retain a disastrous status quo or we can direct stimulus spending towards a sustainable and more egalitarian future.

This is exactly why oil and gas industry lobbyists have been so busy. It’s also why this Earth Day we need to go beyond just thinking about the ecological problems we face and turn our focus to the corporate lobbyists whose anti-democratic influence on our sadly subservient politicians has prevented these problems from being addressed.

Until we as citizens can find ways to counter the influence of these lobbyists, the bus we are all riding will remain fixed on its current trajectory of disaster.

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