As Justin Trudeau and the provincial and territorial premiers confront a summer season of relentless heat, drought and wildfires, it’s tempting to ask what’s on their to-do list.
But that’s the wrong question for a country that promised decisive climate action at the 2015 Paris conference but is now running away from that commitment on too many fronts. What Canada’s political leaders need now is a don’t-do list.
The sense of urgency is coming from all sides: from a hemisphere-wide heat wave to failing crops, from the wildfires sweeping British Columbia, to the smoke they’ve been sending to cities much farther away, producing serious respiratory health risks that health professionals are still scrambling to fully understand and quantify.
For a quarter-century, we’ve been accustomed to framing climate change impacts in the future tense, and elected officials have been content to postpone action to get at the root of the problem. Now, the future has become the present, and the political narrative isn’t keeping up.
With daytime skies darkening from Calgary to Prince George, BC, the summertime reading has hardly been any lighter. In late July, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that was quickly dubbed Hothouse Earth. It warned of “the risk that self-reinforcing feedbacks could push the Earth System toward a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate.” The apocalyptic headlines that followed led the American meteorologist Eric Holthaus to point out that the authors intended their study as a call to action, not a declaration of defeat.
Then the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to an 18-month, 66-page investigation of the period in the 1970s and ’80s when decision-makers understood and accepted climate science, saw the crisis on the horizon, came close to an initial global action plan to get greenhouse gas emissions under control — but fell short of a final deal.
Then, as now, politicians and diplomats needed to agree on a to-stop list, focused on human activities that drive up atmospheric carbon. Now, even more than then, delaying that action is a luxury we can’t afford.
Which is why it’s becoming a serious problem that the Trudeau government came to power with a two-part to-do list on climate and energy. It promised to re-engage with global climate action, arrive at a Canada-wide climate plan and support a thriving cleantech industry, while clearing a path for continued fossil fuel and pipeline development.
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Nearly three years in, it’s lagging on the first part of that plan and doubling down on the second. The government has watered down the carbon pricing regime that was to be the cornerstone of its pan-Canadian climate plan, delayed implementation of critically important methane control regulations and slowed down parts of its signature Clean Fuel Standard. And it’s falling short of a “highly insufficient” Harper-era emission reduction target that Trudeau once declared a floor, not a ceiling, for the country’s climate ambition.
There’s no such equivocation on the other side of the to-do list. Ottawa approved two pipeline expansions and ended up buying one of them, in a deal that resurrected the Trans Mountain project and the company behind it in a single swipe. Meanwhile, provincial governments in British Columbia and Nova Scotia are gearing up for an expected liquefied natural gas export boom that will trigger significant releases of climate-busting methane.
So what not to do if the Trudeau government still wants to get its climate agenda right? Here’s a start.
- Don’t squander $4.5 billion in taxpayers’ money to nationalize a pipeline — with up to $15 billion more at risk to complete a project that won’t complete its operating life in any realistic decarbonization scenario.
- Don’t close that deal in a way that drives up the federal deficit, gives new life to a Houston-based pipeline juggernaut and enables it to launch new fossil fuel infrastructure projects
- Don’t announce funding for cleantech industries, then devote most of the dollars to new fossil fuel technologies.
- Don’t continue sending $3.3 billion in annual subsidies (not including the Kinder Morgan bailout) to a century-old fossil fuel industry entering its sunset period, when that money should be supporting climate solutions.
- Don’t allow fossil fuel industries to set the public narrative, positioning themselves as essential job creators when they’re actually cutting personnel as fast as they can.
- Don’t make a tax (or a fee, or a complex cap-and-trade plan) the leading edge of a climate initiative that is supposed to be about opportunity and gain, rather than loss and pain.
- Don’t declare a marine protected area off the Atlantic coast, then allow the company behind the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster to endanger critical marine mammal habitat by drilling for oil.
- Don’t reinforce the myth that natural gas is a clean transition fuel, when fracked gas fields are emitting alarming (and not yet adequately measured) quantities of atmospheric methane.
- Don’t enable billions per year in fossil fuel industry activity through the Export Development Corporation, when those funds should be driving cleantech development and exports.
- Don’t promise to embrace the urgency and complexity of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, then limit much of that embrace to communities that support your fossil fuel agenda.
- Don’t tolerate legal processes that criminalize pipeline protests, but sanction the civilization-level climate crimes those protests seek to avert.
- Don’t undervalue the water and other precious resources the fossil fuel industry treats as inputs to its production processes. They aren’t free, and they aren’t limitless.
- Don’t follow along as the Trump administration tries to gut fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks. Far better to boost Canada’s competitiveness and find some unexpected allies by staying the course.
When I asked a group of climate policy colleagues to contribute to this list, one phrase was the most common response: “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Trudeau and his cabinet are facing what National Observer calls a “leadership moment,” and a great deal depends on how they respond.
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