The latest threat to Alberta’s oil and gas industry and the province’s future is, apparently, a children’s film.
Netflix’s animated Bigfoot Family features a family (the dad is Bigfoot) joining environmentalists in confronting a cartoonishly over-the-top evil CEO seeking to exploit Alaska’s oil using deadly and destructive technology — nothing that would have been out of place in an episode of the 1990s Captain Planet cartoon.
But this was all too much for the beleaguered Canadian Energy Centre, the industry “war room” Alberta premier Jason Kenney established to push pro-fossil fuel talking points. As the centre put it earlier this month, “Brainwashing our kids with anti-oil and gas propaganda is just wrong – and Netflix needs to know that! Our children are the key to the future – but they can’t succeed if they’re filled with misinformation.”
The overreaction has been roundly (and deservedly) mocked and picked apart and some even speculated that it provided Kenney with a badly needed opportunity to divert attention away from his government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And yet what’s most interesting is not the kerfuffle itself, but rather how it points to a larger political effort to prevent Alberta from truly contending with climate change. As long as Jason Kenney and the oil industry can keep people perturbed about things like Bigfoot Family, they don’t have to worry about the possibility that Albertans will start to imagine a different approach to the climate crisis.
The Alberta disadvantage
Stare at the province’s climate politics long enough and you will notice a strange dynamic at play, one that goes like this. First there comes a reminder — a prime minister’s carbon price, a movement resisting pipelines, an outspoken environmentalist, now a children’s film — that fossil fuels can no longer be freely used and developed.
In response, prominent industry and political voices react defiantly, asserting that, actually, Alberta has every right to exploit those fossil fuel reserves, now and for as long as it likes. And they’ll back it up with a few customary claims, however problematic, about how Canada’s greenhouse gas contributions are globally insignificant, or how exploiting its hydrocarbons is ethical and environmentally sound, or how the world will still be addicted to oil and gas for a long time to come.
These elite cues have impacts.
Those inclined to believe these claims find it outrageous, therefore, that anyone should ever impede Canada’s fossil fuel industry. The more moderate of them throw their support behind those prominent pro-oil voices — doing everything from attending pipeline rallies with the ubiquitous “I <3 Canadian Oil & Gas” signs and banners to organizing to make sure right-wing governments get into power.
The more radicalized, meanwhile, channel that outrage into a strain of frustrated and threatened lashing out, or into bewildered speculation about the truer, more sinister motivations behind the anti-oil agenda. This is the noxious animus that’s been behind Yellow Vests Canada and its xenophobia, the western separation movement, a too popular conspiracy theory about foreign-funded environmentalists, harassment of prominent voices on climate, and still more twisted stuff.
It’s this dynamic that makes Alberta probably the last political context where anyone would want to try to win an ambitious justice-based climate program, a place where policies that could make the province home to a rapid transition into a post-fossil fuel economy are dead on arrival.
But it’s also the context that would benefit most from that very program. Even if it isn’t happening quickly enough, the global transition to a clean-energy economy is not only underway but accelerating. Alberta has a choice before it. It can double down on the increasingly unwise and costly gamble that a world moving away from greenhouse gas–emitting energy will still want much of the province's oil, and risk being left behind as the world moves on. Or it can read the writing on the wall.
Here’s the challenge: Can we imagine a Green New Deal happening in, of all places, Alberta?
Imagining the next best West
The idea behind a Green New Deal is the same that was behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression or the national efforts to prepare for World War II: that an all-out publicly funded economic mobilization (and this time a fully inclusive one) can build a fairer and more decent society while also responding to the crisis of our time, in this case the need to get us off fossil fuels quickly enough to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.
Albertans are already imagining what the outlines of a Green New Deal could look like. Just a few months ago, for instance, a great piece in Calgary-based independent journalism outlet The Sprawl identified four priorities of an Alberta Green New Deal: Indigenous stewardship of the land, a timeline for transitioning off fossil fuels, expansion of low-carbon good jobs, and support for Albertans during the transition.
Others have started filling in the details. Reports from the Pembina Institute last summer and from economist Jim Stanford this January on what a just transition for workers could look like are recent cases in point. Recommendations from the government Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities could also be useful here.
It’s the in-between stuff that still needs to be figured out. What takes the Green New Deal from dream to political force? Let’s consider two challenges: communication and leadership.
The Battle of (and for) Alberta
A few years ago, the Alberta Narratives Project researched messaging strategies — framings, arguments, and language — that could get Albertans on board with climate policy. Unfortunately, the project’s concern was about optimizing the much-too-cautious project of talking about climate change in ways that reduce polarization and “resonate well with the two-thirds of Albertans who hold the middle-ground position that climate change is real, but not a major threat.”
And so while the project’s political centrism was unideal for figuring out how to create traction for something like a Green New Deal — it doesn’t, for instance, look into ways of communicating the urgency of the climate crisis, and in fact recommends against talking about it as a major and immediate threat — we might nevertheless still be able to tease out some useful bits from the findings.
The project found that Albertans responded to messaging around the following: positive challenges that can open new economic opportunities through innovation; moving towards a new, more diversified economy in a way that taps into an image of Albertans as builders; wise long-term infrastructure investments; shared solutions benefitting all Albertans; the vulnerability and insecurity created by overdependence on oil and gas; and a gratitude for the good life they have found in the province.
Also useful is specifying who would pay for it. A 2019 poll showed that support for a Green New Deal in Alberta was lowest of any province, with 48 per cent approving and 31 per cent opposing (compared to 61 per cent approving and 17 per cent opposing nationally). But that figure jumped dramatically (60 per cent approving and 17 per cent opposing) when it was made explicit that it would be funded by raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
All of that seems perfectly workable for talking about a Green New Deal that invests in putting Albertans to work solving the challenge of how to think in new ways to move into a stable and prosperous, clean-energy economy and ensure that the province continues to offer a good life for generations to come — and to pull it off faster than anyone thought they could.
Next question: Who will represent a Green New Deal?
Alberta has been known to pull out some political surprises from time to time, but nothing on the level needed here. The Rachel Notley NDP government (2015–2019), the first non-Conservative government in the province in generations, remained a staunch supporter of expanding the oil and gas industry. It even rejected outright the 2015 Leap Manifesto, a Canadian precursor to the Green New Deal.
That version of the Alberta NDP is not the party to do it. But there’s an election coming in a little over two years. The need to recover economically from COVID-19 provides impetus for the NDP to go beyond the fossil fuel centrism it embraced last time.
But that two years is also just enough time for us to imagine a movement successfully mobilizing innovative, Alberta-specific strategies to make a Green New Deal part of the provincial NDP’s platform right as it mounts a challenge to the reigning Conservatives (who, if political memory lasts, will still be burdened by their failed COVID-19 response). That movement might take inspiration from the ways that the Justice Democrats changed the Democratic Party in the U.S. or the way that the Justice Greens came close last year to bringing the party under more progressive leadership than its establishment intended. In both cases, the movements sent the message that there is a political cost to failing to rise boldly in facing times of crisis.
It could take inspiration, too, from the Indigenous-owned solar projects in the province. And it’s a movement that could benefit from the province’s unrepresented political potential, glimpses of which we see in Alberta’s scrappy climate justice movement (with groups like Climate Justice Edmonton leading the way), in the 10,000-strong turnout for Greta Thunberg’s 2019 speech in the provincial capital, in groups like Iron & Earth aiming to transition Alberta oil workers into low-carbon sectors, and in smart, surreptitious moments of culture jamming. And there are, of course, the countless young Alberta voters who have been engaged in school climate strikes and Fridays for Future.
It wouldn’t be an easy fight, but also maybe not impossible. If it could happen and be supported by a federal government fully serious about climate change, not only might Alberta be able to move into a new economy, but it would also have nothing to fear from cartoons.