We Need to Talk
It’s impossible to talk about the discourse surrounding the building of the Keystone XL or the Northern Gateway or any other major pipeline project without talking about the Alberta Oil Sands, and it’s impossible to talk about the Alberta Oil Sands without talking about Canada’s role in Climate Change negotiations.
Canada was once recognized as the doer of good deeds, the peacekeeper, the diplomat. In the past, Canada has played all of these roles.
In 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stood before a group of Canadian and UK businessmen and declared Canada “a global energy powerhouse, the emerging energy superpower.” In that moment, he was poised to remake Canada’s image — and remake it he has.
At international negotiation after international negotiation, Canada has impeded movement on climate action. In 2007, Canada was accused of blocking a resolution calling for binding climate change targets at the Commonwealth summit in Uganda. A year later at climate talks in Poland, Canada was again accused of obstructing progress on an agreement that would set targets for developed countries. During the 2009 Copenhagen talks, the Harper government endorsed the scientifically agreed upon 2 degree limit to global warming. But in spite of its endorsement, Canada was the only country to leave Copenhagen with a weakened emissions reduction target. That target commits Canada to reducing its GHG emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020. However a recent emissions report shows we will be far short of reaching even this reduced target. It goes without saying that Canada was the first country to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has said about global treaties: “It’s not up to one country to solve global greenhouse-gas emissions. I mean, seriously now, it’s just not fair.” But to me this is misleading and disingenuous. Upon returning from Durban, a member of the Canadian Youth Delegation said this: “The Canadian Government’s inaction has led to it being constantly singled out as a laggard and even a pariah in these negotiations. They’ve made our country irrelevant to the United Nations’ efforts to combat climate change.”
Canada has been labeled “cavalier.” Canadians have been accused of “negotiating in bad faith.” Our country’s performance at climate talks led the Guardian to claim that Canada “is now to climate what Japan is to whaling.”
We know that there is overwhelming international scientific agreement that we are headed for global catastrophe if we don’t limit the planet’s warming to 2 degrees, even international governments have agreed to this number, and we have heard from a number of international organizations on the importance of limiting emissions. In 2012, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, announced: “A 4 degree warmer world can and must be avoided. We need to hold warming below 2 degrees. Lack of action on climate change threatens to make the world our children inherit a completely different world than we are living in today.”
The Prime Minister himself has said that climate change is “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity.” Eight years ago, he promised “a national system of regulations for the control of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.” And for years his government has been promising regulations for the oil and gas sector. Two years ago, then Environment Minister Peter Kent said his government was “very close to finalizing regulations for the oil and gas sector.” But then late last year, Prime Minister Harper explained that given the current circumstances, “we are clearly not going to do it.” Our government’s messages have been erratic and inconsistent to say the least.
Is this mixed messaging a sign of purposeful obfuscation, is it simply run-of-the-mill political expedience, or is this the inertia displayed by a government that is unable to reconcile its neoliberal bias with the necessity for global and domestic action? I wish I had the answer to this question.
Part of the reason for Canada’s perplexing behaviour is that our government has “bet the bank” on fossil fuels. It has no “Plan B.” The government is desperate to sell the bitumen from the Alberta Oil Sands because it has no other strategy, and in order to sell Alberta’s bitumen, it needs to get it out of the province.
This is at the heart of the government’s push for pipeline construction. Alberta’s past Finance Minister, Ron Liepert, said it best: “If we don’t get moving on these pipeline projects, our greatest risk in Alberta is that by 2020, we will be landlocked in bitumen.” But here’s the thing, not even a month ago a research study published in the journal Nature found that if the world wishes to stay below the 2 degree ceiling, the most efficient plan includes “negligible” production within the oil sands by 2020.
According to Dr. Andrew Weaver, at the time a leading climatologist with the IPCC, “The tar sands remain the largest source of GHG emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader.” As the world has become more willing and even eager to deal with climate change, Canada has become less so.
The Keystone XL Pipeline could transport 830,000 barrels of oil to the US every day, leading the Prime Minister to call the pipeline’s approval a “no brainer.” He has even called out the US president on the approval process: “My view is you don’t take no for an answer.” Well, you can’t just force a sovereign nation to bend to your will. And while it my just be political posturing, it seems like poor diplomacy. Since then Obama has stated quite clearly that Keystone XL pipeline would only be approved if it does not, “significantly exacerbate the problem of climate change.” With leading climatologist, James Hansen, declaring that continued development of the oil sands means “game over for the climate,” it seems difficult to imagine Obama allowing the pipeline to go through on his watch.
If the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, will that mean the end of the Alberta Oil Sands? Likely not, there’s still the Northern Gateway and the Energy East projects on the table — and there will be others. In simpler times maybe we could have developed the oil sands with impunity, but climate change threatens the health of our entire biosphere. It threatens ocean acidification, severely reduced agricultural productivity, mass extinction. Climate change threatens civilization itself. These are big issues we’re dealing with. In Stephen Harper’s own words “the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity.”
Here at home in Alberta, we face some difficult decisions, decisions that must be reached through honest and open dialogue. Obfuscation and bullying will not help us through this process. Talking around climate change will not help us either. We must be truthful in our approach. We need to allow all voices to be heard — not just those in positions of power. We require a process that allows us to come to rational, but creative, constructive decisions, and we have not seen that yet in this province or in this country.
* * *
The above is the transcript of the opening comments I made for a panel discussion hosted by the Oilsands Student Delegation during International Week at the University of Alberta.