Sunny ways vs. the laws of physics

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proven to be one of the savviest political operators in recent Canadian memory. Having ridden a wave of popular change into 24 Sussex, he and his team have proven remarkably adept at nurturing and leveraging this popularity into support for a host of Liberal platform promises.

But to govern is to choose, and even the sunniest of ways and most popular of prime ministers cannot transcend the laws of physics. Despite his extended political honeymoon, in the coming months Trudeau faces a stark, legacy-defining choice that will inevitably result in winners and losers.

2016 is already the hottest year on record, and climate change is proving more disruptive than even scientists’ most pessimistic projections. While climate-linked disasters are already costing Canadians billions of dollars, secret government briefings are warning the Prime Minister that climate change is causing disproportionate suffering for First Nations communities.

Now, with decisions looming on climate-warping mega-projects such as the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipelines or the Malaysian government’s fracked-gas terminal on Lelu Island, Trudeau must decide whether to double down on Stephen Harper’s vision of Canada as a climate-sabotaging fossil fuel superpower — or break with Harper’s legacy and steer Canada toward genuine climate leadership.

Trudeau can’t have it both ways. At this point in history, a true climate leader can’t approve pipelines that will massively expand production of some of the world’s cheapest, dirtiest crude.

Political consequences

Despite Canadians’ overwhelming support for science-based climate action, Harper consistently prioritized Big Oil’s financial priorities over a liveable future, and Canada’s international reputation was dealt a series of blows during his decade in power.

Recognizing Canada’s status as climate pariah, Trudeau’s election platform promised to break with Harper’s legacy on climate and take action to prevent the “catastrophic impact that a greater-than-two-degree increase in average global temperatures would represent.”

Last year Canadians turned out to polling stations in droves, propelling Trudeau into office on a “red wave”. Here in B.C. the tanker-loving Conservatives were cut down to just 10 seats. Elevated voter turnout was especially pronounced among young Canadians who will live with the consequences of radically changing climate, and for whom climate is a top-of-mind, vote-determining issue.

Shortly after being elected, Trudeau attended the Paris climate negotiations, proclaiming that “Canada is back”, as he signed the Paris Agreement which promised to hold global warming to below 2 degrees. To their immense credit, Trudeau and Minister McKenna also advocated for the safer, 1.5 degree climate target, reflecting the latest in climate science.

But that commitment can’t just be a sound bite. To keep global warming below the 2 degree mark will require a 90 per cent reduction in Canada’s CO2 by 2050. That is to say, in the next three decades Canada must essentially eliminate our CO2 output from all sources.

Yet nine months after the election, the only climate targets that Canada has on the books are those set by Stephen Harper, for a 30 per cent CO2 reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. And Trudeau’s government is not on track to meet Harper’s climate targets, not even close.

Since 2005, Canada’s climate pollution has decreased by only two per cent, as gains made by Ontario’s elimination of coal-fired electricity were completely eclipsed by Alberta’s massive oil sands-fueled CO2 increases during this period.

So now, even to hit Harper’s head-in-the-sand climate target, Canada must reduce CO2 by 28 per cent in the next 14 years. That’s the equivalent of eliminating all Canada’s transportation-related emissions in just 14 years. Let me make that crystal clear: we must reduce emissions equivalent to every single car, truck, bus, train, boat, and airplane in Canada, just to hit Harper’s embarrassingly low targets.

No middle path

Trudeau now faces a binary choice: embrace the math and live up to his promises, or throw out our only roadmap to a safe future. While approving new oil sands and fracking infrastructure may appease Bay Street bankers and Calgary oil executives, it will require Canada to abandon our solemn promise to the international community to do our part on climate change. This is not a matter of politics, but of physics.

So far, Trudeau continues to insist that we can have our cake and eat it too. In terms that would make Orwell’s Big Brother blush, Trudeau and his Ministers have gone so far as to argue that massive new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure will help Canada transition to a low-carbon economy.

Canadians are pragmatic people, prone to compromise, and the Liberals are attempting to present the idea of approving new export pipelines and taking action on climate change as a balanced and reasonable compromise.

But there is nothing balanced or reasonable about approving tens of billions of dollars in new oil sands investment when Canada has no plan to meet even Harper’s weak climate targets. By 2019 this could cause major backlash among progressives in key battleground ridings around Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. To millions of climate voters the approval of Kinder Morgan, Energy East and the Petronas LNG plant would represent an unforgivable rejection of Canada’s global responsibilities.

Further compounding Trudeau’s choice is the difficult reality that bitumen sinks in water. From tourism to technology to film to financial services to local seafood, the West Coast is an economic engine for the country. But if Kinder Morgan is approved, the low-carbon livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of British Columbians will be recklessly jeopardized by bitumen-laden tankers running through Vancouver and the Salish Sea. It’s the past vs. the future.

So what is Trudeau willing to sacrifice to placate the Texas oil barons, Chinese state-owned enterprises, and Malaysian billionaires who are the primary beneficiaries of these projects?

Our international reputation? Our coastal economy? His legacy? His majority?

Trudeau’s West Coast homie, Vancouver Mayor, Gregor Robertson, understands the political stakes. Robertson has been using all available resources to convince Ottawa that bitumen pipelines and oil tanker proposals like Kinder Morgan are not compatible with Vancouver’s “Greenest City in the World” aspirations, nor the region’s diversifying economy.

We’ll know soon enough whether Trudeau is listening, and whether his government believes in science or just in sound bites. With decisions due by the end of 2016, the next few months represent a watershed moment for the future of our country. If Trudeau does decide to double down on Harper’s legacy and approve Kinder Morgan, Dogwood will be ready.

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