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Science vs. Politics—The Real Problem with the Premiers’ Climate Summit

The provinces recognized climate change is a problem, which is great. But without any action, that recognition doesn't mean a thing.

by Cameron Fenton
Apr 15 2015, 4:32pm

A Shell manufacturing facility in Scotsford. Photo via Flickr user Pembina Institute

When I was in tenth grade I played one season of high school football. I hated it, mostly because of my coach. He was the type of guy who would, without a hint of irony, declare that second place was really just first loser. I despised that attitude, which is why today I'm frustrated as a climate activist trying to respond to the recent Canadian Premiers' Climate Summit—I find myself saying the same thing he did about my blocking: that it's just not good enough.

At first glance, there's nothing offensive about the outcome statement from the summit. It's refreshing to know that Canadian provinces all believe in a "scientific consensus calling for significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to less than 2C and that they recognize that "the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action." For climate activists in Canada, who are frankly desperate to see any political action, it makes sense that these kinds of statements are applauded. After all, they're a far cry better than the positions of our federal government. The problem is that climate change requires a sort of absolutism, that Canadians are by and large uncomfortable with, and it shows in our politics. It's a lot easier to commit to a cap and trade scheme or a carbon price—like Alberta's, which effectively recycles a paltry $15-per-tonne fee back to oil companies—than it is to commit to leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Unlike many other issues, climate change has a clear red line. According to the best science we have, about 80 percent of the world's oil, coal, and gas needs to stay underground for us to have a good shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2 degrees. Here in Canada, the numbers shake out pretty much the same, with one study published in the scientific journal Nature estimating that at least 85 percent of Canada's tar sands need to remain underground and unburned.

The challenge is deceptively simple. Imagine our atmosphere as a bathtub that is partway full and has the tap running full blast. At some point we need to turn off the tap and stop filling up the tub or we're going to create an awful mess. The same is true of fossil fuels, and the sooner we acknowledge that at some point the tap needs to be shut off, the more time we have to do it gradually. In other words, if politicians admit now that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, that gives us more time to figure out how much we can safely burn and figure out a strategy so we transition into the new energy economy, not crash out of the one we're in now.

This is the fundamental problem with the outcome of the Premier's Climate Summit, that when faced with the climate crisis, politics—notorious for working in the grey area of society—seems unable to grapple with the black and white reality of physics. In Quebec, despite 25,000 voices echoing the scientific reality that tar sands and climate leadership don't mix, Canada's premiers not only failed to acknowledge that we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground to tackle the climate crisis, they failed to even use the words "fossil fuels," "oil sands," or even "oil, gas, or coal" in their entire declaration.

So how could this summit have ended differently?

Shortly before the summit, two studies were published, one from the Pembina Institute and the other from Greenpeace and Environmental Defence. Both came to roughly the same conclusion: until Canada puts a freeze on tar sands expansion we can't meet our global climate responsibility. Since permitting for new tar sands extraction projects isn't something that the premiers who gathered in Quebec could tackle—that's something either the federal or Alberta government would need to lead on—they could have focused on pipelines, which they are uniquely positioned to weigh in on. If the summit's two major power brokers, Kathleen Wynne and Phillipe Couillard, joined together to oppose the Energy East project, it would have been game-changing leadership. It also would have made perfect sense, given that building Energy East would facilitate enough carbon emissions to undo the emissions reductions from Ontario's coal phase-out. A statement of opposition to Energy East would have broken that quintessential barrier to climate action in Canada—political admission of the scientific reality that stopping climate change means leaving tar sands in the ground.

They didn't though, and once again confirmed the unfortunate reality that politicians don't have the backbone to stand up to Big Oil. Right now in Canada, even with a collapsed price of oil costing thousands of jobs and delaying a federal budget, there is a vacuum when it comes to leadership calling for a real—not just economic—transition away from fossil fuels. It makes sense: the fossil fuel industry in Canada is one of the most powerful lobbies around. Despite representing a mere 2 percent of Canada's GDP, the tar sands companies have a massive impact on our democracy. These companies have been linked to the gutting of environmental protections and regulations. They have been backed by multi-million dollar government ad and lobby campaigns in the US and Europe, and most recently been revealed to be briefing Canada's police and security agencies on the so-called "anti-petroleum movement."

Climate change demands more from our political leaders than they seem ready to give, and so in many ways the hard work still remains. Thankfully, we know that on the other side of Canada's oil addiction there is plenty to look forward to. Already, despite the power of the fossil fuel lobby, more people across Canada are working in clean energy than working in the tar sands—it makes sense given that job creation from clean energy investments outpaces fossil fuels by a rate of 15 to two. We know that leaving tar sands in the ground isn't just good for the climate, but necessary to uphold the treaty relationship with indigenous peoples in northern Alberta. We know that movements opposing each and every pipeline proposal that pops up are only building political power, but winning victories like the cancellation of TransCanada's port in Cacouna, QC and forcing tar sands producers to face the prospect of constrained production. We know, or at least I hope we know, that as people we are greater than the tar sands, and if we keep fighting we can build a most just, clean, and vibrant Canada together.

Cameron Fenton is the Canadian Tar Sands Organizer with the global climate campaign 350.org who just launched a summer mobilization project called We > Tar Sands calling for real political leadership for a new energy economy in Canada. Follow him on Twitter.