Justin Trudeau’s Canada Is Cozying Up to the Fossil Fuel Industry to Fight the Climate Crisis

Canada’s Trudeau government touts the country as a climate champion. COP27, where Canada was the only OECD country to have fossil fuel delegates in tow, offered a more telling snapshot of the government’s priorities.

Steven Guilbeault, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change of Canada, addresses delegates at COP27 on November 15, 2022. (Dominika Zarzycka / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The closing of the latest Conference of the Parties — COP27 — in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, offers a moment to reflect on the doom we’re staring down. Not that ruminating on disaster is a productive use of our time. It’s not. But clocking where we’re at and where we’re headed is good for perspective. Ideally, it ought to be good for motivation, too. It’s better to forestall 1.5°C of warming than 3°C. And yet as we stare down the trajectory of a warming planet, and as the Trudeau government struts the domestic and global stage overselling Canada as a climate champion, the annual meeting of those who can do something about it produced, at best, a mixed bag. That’s simply not good enough.

On November 20, as the conference closed, Catherine Abreu, founder and executive director of Destination Zero, told the story of “A tale of two COPs.” The first COP is one that recognizes the disproportionate burden of climate change. As Abreu put it, “On one hand a landmark decision to establish a loss and damage fund to address the devastating consequences of climate change . . . ” The fund is well overdue. Not all states are affected equally by climate change, just as not all states are equal contributors to the phenomenon. And keeping in line with global history, the poorest states are set to bear the greatest burden despite being — as a rule — minor offenders compared to the wealthy ones.

Beyond the fund, however, Abreu noted a second COP. This COP is profoundly compromised by its “major failure to finally name and tackle the cause of the climate crisis: fossil fuels.” And Canada is part of the problem, even with its last-minute, weasel-worded commitment to including language on phasing out fossil fuels to the COP final text (after saying it wouldn’t commit).

With Friends Like These

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has fought a rearguard action to preserve its own interest in producing shareholder value and profits while speeding up climate change. Serving customer needs, they might put it, is their defense. But they were meeting those needs by way of slowing down climate action and a transition to green energy. They were abetted by politicians, of course, too scared, too self-interested, too captured by industry, and too cynical to act early. Even now, their actions are wholly inadequate to the problem.

Writing in the Orchard, Jeremy Appel tracked the Canadian delegation to COP — and its dubious distinction of being “the only country in the Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) or G20 to have brought delegates from the fossil fuel sector.” The Canadian contingent were part of the 626-strong fossil fuel industry delegation, as Appel points out, citing BBC reporting. He also argues the industry presence dialed down the pressure to get a deal that holds the fossil fuel industry to account. Moreover, the muted activist and protest scene didn’t help, notes Mike Morrice, a Green MP and parliamentary delegate to COP.

Deal or no deal, it’s hard to see what the plan is for Canada when it comes to climate change and the oil and gas industry. The industry itself isn’t investing in decarbonization or reducing emissions, as policy analyst Laura Cameron writes. They are, however, “opposing regulations that would limit their emissions,” she notes. They’re also pushing a greenwashing agenda. Leah Temper, of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, is fighting back against misleading advertising in the industry. Citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she notes “fossil fuel disinformation obstructs effective climate action by undermining public support.”

The Need for an Actual Plan

The fundamental challenge for Canada, and much of the world, in confronting the fossil fuel industry is that the structure of energy production and consumption is fundamentally rooted in old ways of extracting that we continue to rely on. This problem is made worse by the fact that the capitalist class has a material interest in protecting fossil fuels until every last drop of oil and gas is extracted and consumed. In the near term, we are all bound up in that system whether we like it or not. Green austerity isn’t a winning message or strategy, and shutting down industry production overnight would produce deep suffering for those who can afford it the least, including workers.

Canada needs an industrial strategy that ensures we can meet or exceed climate goals, pattern behavior for other states, protect workers, and transition to sustainable energy. This task also requires that the working majority — the 99 percent — are not made to disproportionately carry the weight of the systemic change that the future demands. Working people have spent their entire lives without any power to shape or control the commanding heights of the economy.

Achieving necessary goals — such as reaching a net-zero grid by 2035 — will require that we recognize the stopgap role of the oil and gas industry in decoupling ourselves from the oil and gas industry. We need to be able to produce the green tech that will free us from fossil fuels. Canada feels the need to bring industry henchmen to COP at exactly the moment when the industry should be made to understand that, to the extent that it is allowed to continue to exist, it will only be allowed to stay in the game briefly — and only to ensure its own demise. The oil and gas industry’s last gasp will occur when we shift the power to decide what future energy and production approaches look like away from the industry. Democratic principles must replace endless lobbyists on Parliament Hill and at COP and in our op-eds.

Energy Democracy or Bust

In the spring of 2022, Ipsos Reid found that 34 percent of Canadians “worry a great deal/a fair amount” about climate change. That’s lower than the global average of 48 percent, but high enough to make it a routine issue of concern for people. Given that most top issues for folks tend to be immediate pocketbook stuff, this is notable. And yet, as the polling firm found, Canadians also demonstrate “a lack of faith that the country has the necessary plans in place and will make significant progress in tackling climate change in this next decisive decade.”

If COP27 was a mixed bag, it reflects climate action more generally, which is routinely just that. In a sense, it’s remarkable that the states of the world can coordinate any action on climate, given a global multilateral history marked by intransigence, bullying, backstabbing, and the narrow pursuit of self-interest.

We have collectively mobilized before to tackle problems, but the scale of climate change is something particular — an instance where the size of the challenge takes on a particular quality of exception. Getting to the heart of this matter may require us to accept the immediate need for the fossil fuel industry, but only as a prelude to ensuring that an industrial-scale decarbonization plan is truly and fully in the hands of the people. The decision cannot be in the hands of the industry who played a central role is getting us into this mess in the first place. The government is allowing fossil fuel delegates a spot at the table when they should be out in the hall, being apprised of the imminent program for the end of the industry.

Tackling the problem of carbon emissions requires us to reject the narrative of Canada as a climate champion, even if some in government earnestly wish that to be the case. There is nothing to champion while our per capita emissions run high, the fossil fuel industry runs the table, and our efforts to combat climate change rank “highly insufficient.” Bringing the industry to heel through the creation of energy democracy is the only way forward.