Code Red: A Death Knell for Fossil Fuels in Canada?

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“It’s us. We’re certain. It’s bad. We can fix it”.  [i]

With those few concise and admirably clear words, Lund university professor Kimberly Nicholas summed up the findings of the most recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There can now be no doubt that climate change is real, and that the primary cause is human activity. It is also happening far faster than expected. The only good news is that there is still a small window of opportunity left for world leaders to act. As Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it, the report is a Code Red warning for humanity. Its findings, he concluded, must signal a “death knell for fossil fuels”, the major source of greenhouse gas emissions that are causing such dramatic changes in global weather patterns.

As the world’s fourth-largest producer of fossil fuels, Canada can hardly ignore this warning. To begin with, reducing dependence on fossil fuels could have a significant negative impact on the country’s economy – especially in western Canada. Only proactive measures to diversify and refocus economic activity will prevent widespread financial pain. Nor is Canada immune to the dangers posed by climate change. The report predicts the toll already incurred by the current heat waves and wildfires raging out of control in the western provinces is merely the precursor to far more frequent and far worse weather events to come, as Canada’s north and prairies are warming at twice the average global rate.     

Clearly the rational choice of Canada’s political leaders would be to take action quickly, both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to implement a strategy of economic recovery. Of course different political parties could be expected to take different approaches to tackling these issues, but that is not what is happening here. Many are not tackling these issues at all. Instead, Canadians are saddled with a number of political actors who appear to have their heads resolutely in the sand. The federal Conservative Party of Erin O’Toole is still not even sure that climate change is real, or that humans are  to blame. Meanwhile under NDP leader Jagmeet Singh the environment and sustainable development appear to be an afterthought – an issue, to be sure, but only one of many and far down on their priority list. As for the Green Party, which has only ever been a marginal bit player in federal politics, the current round of vicious infighting and self-immolation has put paid to any notion that they might be able to advance a serious agenda for change on this or any other topic.

Then there are the truly recalcitrant provincial premiers. In particular, there is Alberta’s Jason Kenney, a man who has never hesitated to attack when cornered.  Nor does he let the facts get in the way of his opinions. From his early defence of Alberta’s oilsands as “ethical oil” and his creation of a mysterious “war room” to root out devious foreign influences funding the environmental “anti-oil” movement in Alberta, to his strident attacks on U.S. president Joe Biden for shutting down the Keystone pipeline and his leadership of the failed provincial court challenge to the Trudeau government’s carbon-pricing plan, this is someone who does not plan to concede the battle gracefully.   

 No surprise, then, to learn that Kenney is dismissing the UN report as so much “utopian” nonsense. While Kenney is right to note that the global demand for fossil fuels cannot disappear overnight and will inevitably continue to some extent for several decades, he blissfully ignores the fact that demand will decrease significantly while his government continues to support increased production. Similarly his claim that Alberta is a “world leader” in the reduction of carbon output conveniently ignores the fact that his province’s GHG emissions actually increased by 56% over the past twenty years and continue to lead the country by a huge margin. He has also conveniently ignored the fact that the Liberal government purchased the TransMountain Pipeline in an effort to aid the Alberta economy, despite widespread criticism from environmental groups. (Indeed, Trudeau’s commitment to a “balanced” approach to the economy and the environment, while popular with a majority of Canadians, has gained him no support with either Albertans or those environmentalists who dismiss his pledge to use the proceeds from the eventual sale of the pipeline to fund environmental programs.)   

Kenney has been joined in the fight against the Liberals’ carbon pricing plan by Scott Moe of Saskatchewan, a province whose emissions actually rose 67% over the past twenty years due to increased oil and gas production, and Doug Ford, another conservative contrarian who has spent thousands of taxpayer dollars denouncing what he terms a federal carbon “tax” at the gas pumps before the Supreme Court ruled his tactic unconstitutional.

Of course there is also a significant lobby of the petroleum industry itself, much of it U.S.-based. In the 2019 election Canadians were exposed to the combination of big money and big vested self-interests conspiring to influence the results through a series of American-inspired tactics including the creation of so-called political action committees. Although election laws had been modified to limit third-party interference in elections by restricting the total allowable amount of spending by any such organization in a campaign, and by requiring disclosure of the organization’s funding sources, the amendments did not foresee the creation of purpose-built advocacy groups such as Canada Strong and Proud, the Canada Growth Council and West Watch. These groups revealed that their “carpet-bombing” of Liberal candidates across the country was paid for by sizeable donations from the right-wing Manning Centre of Calgary, but under the law the Manning Centre does not have to disclose where it, in turn, got the money and it refused to do so. [ii]  Liberal leader Justin Trudeau referred to this unexpected development during the 2019 election campaign, lamenting the massive “disinformation” campaign of the groups’ attack ads and stating “it’s no surprise they don’t want to share whose deep pockets are funding their attacks.”[iii]  Experts conclude these ads were an important factor in the defeat of several Liberal MPs whom they targeted, including veteran cabinet minister Ralph Goodale in Saskatchewan. [iv]

In light of these various failings and foibles of other federal and provincial politicians, the many concrete actions of the Trudeau Liberal government on their climate change agenda since 2015 take on renewed significance.  In addition to restoring legislative protection removed by the Harper government for fisheries, wildlife and waterways, establishing energy efficiency rebate programs and conservation measures, and funding environment-friendly projects such as public transit through Infrastructure Canada, the Liberals’ have introduced two major legislative measures, Bill C-48 (Oil Tanker Moratorium ) and Bill C-69 (Environmental Assessment) whose importance can be gleaned from the fact that Alberta’s Jason Kenney lobbied hard to prevent either of them from passing. Meanwhile the Liberals’ signature carbon pricing plan and related measures have received positive support from both environmentalists and economists. Clearly much more needs to be done, but the progress they have made to date is tangible and credible, particularly in the context of an 18-month global pandemic that could have easily deflected any government’s attention from this file. Yet the 2021 federal budget specifically commits additional funding to the development of a green economy, including the promotion of research and development of alternative energy sources.

“It’s not easy being green” might well be the slogan of the Liberal Party in the upcoming federal election, as they face relentless opposition to their climate change platform on practically all fronts. Hopefully voters, whom polls repeatedly show as putting climate change near the top of their list of pressing concerns, will recognize the Liberals’ previous efforts and reward them with a majority so they can move forward on their agenda. It’s obvious no one else will.     

[i] Interview on CBC Radio 1. August 11, 2021

[ii] James Keller and Kelley Cryderman. “Manning Centre Won’t Disclose Source of Donations to Third parties for  Attack Ads on Liberals”. October 19, 2019. Globe and Mail.

[iii] [iii] Kathleen Harris. “Trudeau Acknowledges Tories Could Win, Accuses Them of Running Dirtiest Campaign Ever”. CBC News. Oct 16, 2019.

[iv] Kendall Latimer. “Goodale reflects on political carpet bombing during election” CBC News, Oct. 25, 2019. Retrieved at