COP21

Trudeau’s big test in Paris: oil industry profits or real action on climate change?

It may have worked during the campaign, but the new PM won’t be able to please both environmental activists and Big Oil for long
Photo: Canada 2020

In just one month, the most anticipated United Nations climate summit in history will begin in Paris. With ominous signs of accelerating climate change already upon us, and negotiators pinning their hopes on a new binding international agreement, the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change promises to be its most important gathering to date.

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All eyes will be on Paris for COP21, and this year special attention will be paid to the Canadian delegation. The Harper government had become notorious for climate inaction on the world stage. The first country to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, Canada under the Conservatives regularly received the raspberry “Fossil of the Year” award from climate activists at previous UN summits.

With Justin Trudeau promising to take an expanded delegation to Paris, hopes couldn’t be higher for Canada to play a different role this year. Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who just days after the election met with Trudeau about COP21, enthusiastically told the CBC’s Rosie Barton the new prime minister “has the potential to be a hero coming out of Paris.”

Activists relieved but skeptical

To get a sense of the new lay of the land for Canadian climate policy on the eve of the historic Paris summit, Ricochet got in touch with a number of leading climate activists. While they all expressed relief the Harper era was over, they were for the most part skeptical about the new Liberal government.

Of the G7 countries, Canada under Harper made the weakest emission reductions pledges heading in to COP21. During the recent election campaign, however, Trudeau pointedly refused to commit to a stronger emissions reduction target for Canada. The Liberals did promise investments in green technology and infrastructure, and spoke about phasing out fossil fuel subsidies. Trudeau promised to coordinate with the premiers, who are all going to Paris as part of the Canadian delegation, to develop a new climate change plan for Canada sometime next year.

For many, Trudeau’s timeline is unacceptable for its lack of urgency.

“We need to actually be better on climate, not just look better.”

“Right now, Justin Trudeau has said he won’t be making any changes to Canada's climate ambition ahead of Paris,” Cameron Fenton, an organizer with 350 Canada, told Ricochet by email. “We need to actually be better on climate, not just look better.”

To that end, Fenton is helping organize a “Climate Welcome” for the new government next week in Ottawa, featuring young activists willing to face arrest for non-violent civil disobedience.

While environmental organizations are no doubt breathing a sigh of relief after nearly a decade of the Harper Conservatives, Fenton doesn’t think it makes sense to waste any time before putting pressure on the new government.

“We know that only weeks ago Trudeau's campaign was being run by an oil lobbyist working for TransCanada,” Fenton explained. “So we're planning four days of sit-ins to ‘welcome’ him to office and make our demands clear: freeze tar sands expansion and build a clean and just economy.”

Climate activist Melina Laboucan-Massimo, who is a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation, also pointed to the need for pressure to counteract the influence of the fossil fuel industries on the new government. “It’s more important than ever to ramp up the pressure from social movements on this new government to do the right thing,” Laboucan-Massimo told Ricochet by email. “Because the oil industry lobby is already working the back rooms to get new pipelines approved.”

Big Oil’s back-up plan

In the recent election campaign, all major parties failed to live up to the imperatives made clear by climate science. As Ricochet’s Ethan Cox has written, both the Liberals and NDP played both sides on the issue of major proposed tar sands export pipelines like TransCanada’s Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain projects. Their discourse was intentionally ambiguous, designed to appeal both to opponents of the pipelines, and to those in the oil sector dismayed by Harper’s failure to get pipelines built with his government’s aggressive approach.

For the Liberals at least, this deliberate ambiguity proved to be part of a winning formula. Trudeau successfully cast himself both as the agent of “real change” from the Harper years, and as Big Oil’s back-up plan. Alberta Oil magazine, for example, has made the case that Trudeau will actually be better than Harper for the industry. In an article published the morning after the Oct. 19 election, editor Max Fawcett emphasized the upside of the Liberals’ victory for the industry: “a beefed up regulatory process and a Prime Minister who has roots in the cities where anti-pipeline activism is at its most vocal could be a tough combination to overcome for the refuseniks who won’t support any new infrastructure in their back yards. At the very least, Trudeau’s presence will deprive the anti-pipeline movement of a key source of its energy and motivation.”

The inherent contradiction in Trudeau’s efforts to please both climate activists and the oil industry is evident from even a cursory look at the climate science. Simply put, for Canada to be a climate “hero” it must commit to leaving much of its oil, gas and coal in the ground. On this the climate science is unambiguous, which is why there is such a sense of urgency around the upcoming COP21 summit.

They are going to have to choose between oil industry profits and action on climate.

While Trudeau was reluctant to set different emission reduction targets than Harper, he has promised a dramatically different approach to both scientists and Indigenous nations in Canada. In his election victory speech, Trudeau promised a new era of “nation-to-nation” relationships between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples.

This has major implications for climate and pipeline issues, and Fenton says climate activists intend to hold Trudeau to his word. “He's said that he will respect community decisions when it comes to pipelines and respect science when it comes to decisions about climate change and energy. Right now that means honouring Indigenous rights and treaties, especially their right to say no to development, and recognizing that the science says 85 per cent of tar sands need to stay in the ground.”

The new prime minister’s cultivated ambiguity will be hard pressed to hold up under the glare of the climate talks in Paris. As Laboucan-Massimo puts it, “They are going to have to choose between oil industry profits and action on climate.”

Shut it down

The climate actions “welcoming” the new prime minister next week in Ottawa will be just a taste of what Trudeau and other world leaders are expected to see at the UN climate summit in France later this year. One climate justice organizer I spoke to suggested the aim of many was to “Seattle-ize Paris,” a reference to the large 1999 protests dubbed “The Battle of Seattle,” which included coordinated direct actions that effectively shut down some of the meetings of the World Trade Organization.

Vancouver activist and Ph.D. candidate Brad Hornick has spent years studying the science of climate change, and says this knowledge informs his belief in more radical, systemic solutions than those the official COP21 delegations will be discussing.

“Even if [COP21] makes a dramatic statement or agreement around emissions, they’re really only talking about rejigging the current system,” Hornick told Ricochet. “The whole thing is built around market solutions, when what we need is system change.”

When asked what is the best Canadians can hope for from Trudeau at the UN summit, Hornick’s response was blunt, “The best thing that could possibly happen is that Trudeau and every other leader who represents corporate interests is shut down in Paris.”

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