Justin Trudeau Takes Hit on the Environment But He’ll Likely Escape As Usual
Photo via. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Justin Trudeau Takes Hit on the Environment But He’ll Likely Escape As Usual

The Trudeau government has a lot of weak spots when it comes to climate action. But who is going to set them right?
April 18, 2017, 4:04pm

With Donald Trump gunning the global accelerator towards thermonuclear and/or climate catastrophe, it is only natural to look for some kind of political solace. Lots of people in North America and abroad have pegged their hopes for a more sane and progressive world on Justin Trudeau, which is understandable because he seems like a nice guy and Liberal is in the government's name.

But, alas! Two pieces appeared yesterday in the international media to remind us that our fave is problematic. First was Jesse Brown in Slate writing about how Trudeau is not so much the anti-Trump as he is the bargain-bin Obama, because in Brown's universe, all the dynamics of Canadian politics can be boiled down to backwoods children aping what they see on American TV. More scandalous was Bill McKibben's takedown in The Guardian, arguing that Trudeau may actually be worse than Trump on the issue of climate change—because where Trump is at least honest that he doesn't care about the environment, Trudeau is spouting off about sustainability as he doubles down on pipelines and the tar sands.


On the face of it, both Brown and McKibben are in the right ballpark. Trudeau's brand—as progressive darling and huggable eco-feminist—far outstrips his actual record of accomplishment. (If anything, Brown is underselling Trudeau. When Obama failed at something, his apologists could cite the Republicans' rabid, frothing opposition. Trudeau is the prime minister of a majoritarian parliament and has gleefully made us all eat shit on the electoral reform promise for no reason beyond his own fickle freedom to do so. It's perversely impressive.)

McKibben is right when it comes to Trudeau's shortcomings on the environmental file, but his fixation on pipelines is strangely short-sighted. No question that Trudeau mishandled pipeline approvals, at least if he was genuinely serious about his campaign promises to overhaul the Harper-era environmental assessment process or respect Indigenous sovereignty. (And, as Andrew Leach has highlighted on Twitter, McKibben's own previous work on carbon pricing—i.e. the signature climate policy of the Trudeau government—undercuts the equivalence he makes in The Guardian between Trump and Trudeau.)

There is more behind the #Justin branding for anyone daring or alienated enough to pull back the curtain. Despite some genuinely good and worthwhile (if wonkish) climate policies—like the federal climate-taxing scheme, or the stringent emissions targets it championed at the Paris Accords—there is also a fair bit of greasy shit.


Despite its aspirations to price carbon emissions, the Trudeau government does not seem particularly interested in controlling those emissions in any meaningful way, or even in keeping tabs on them. Seriously. No one actually knows what the Canadian military's carbon footprint is, for one. The Canadian government is also involved in a dubious scheme to privatize the country's ports, which not only makes management of federal trade policy more opaque but also removes a significant site of the country's greenhouse gas emissions from public interest, control, and oversight.

And then there's the mining. Canadian mining companies have been behind some genuinely heinous activities in Latin America. Between 50 and 70 percent of mining projects in the region are carried out by Canadian companies who wreck the environment with impunity and routinely violate the interests and rights of Indigenous communities. At least one company, Hudbay Minerals, has been accused of orchestrating forced evictions of indigenous Guatemalans characterized by sexual assaults and arson. (Hudbay denies the allegations.) This is probably not the international reputation most Canadians want to build.

But let's lend some sympathy to the devil here. Let's assume that Team Trudeau and the legion of public servants behind them working on the environment portfolio recognize the existential threat of climate change. The problem is that they're stuck operating inside a system of political institutions that are not designed to tackle a problem of this size, scope, and abstraction. (I would also argue that the economic constraints of the capitalist system make decisive climate action difficult if not impossible, but that's a separate article/book/life's work.)

How much action can you expect when there is no electoral pressure? Trudeau and co can waffle on the environmentalism file because presently there is no political alternative. Even assuming the Tories are in a position to seriously challenge Trudeau in 2019 (a big assumption), the party can barely decide if climate change is real, or caused by human beings, or even that big a deal—so it seems unlikely that they'll scoop up much of the disgruntled environmentalist vote. And the Greens, God bless them, are not in a position to mount a provincial campaign, let alone a national one, without at least one catastrophically embarrassing candidate.

The NDP, meanwhile, is torn between a provincial government in the Albertan petrostate and urban partisans of the LEAP Manifesto. Barring something incredible happening in the Dippers' otherwise anemic leadership race—or, like, Justin Trudeau being caught on camera robbing a preschooler—the Liberals are poised to comfortably keep on keepin' on, periodically pulling an elegant PR stunt or dispatching troupes of spin doctors to keep the polls in line as the permafrost melts.

So the situation in Canada is less dire than the suggestion that we're led by a more charming Donald Trump, and more nuanced than the argument that our national politics boil down to The Amazing Race: Canada. But the planet's still fucked and somebody—or more accurately, some government(s)—will need to save it.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.