Alberta tar sands

Alberta tar sands by Howl Arts Collective \ CC BY-SA 2.0

Dear friends, 

As we head through the Paris Climate Summit (COP21), I hope those who have worked tirelessly to stop the expansion of tar sands, tar sands pipelines and oil trains are taking a moment to be proud and to rejoice.  We are in a better and more hopeful position on climate policy than many of us thought possible even six months ago.  That’s because our work has ensured that climate change is on the top of decision-makers agenda and created diverse and effective coalitions across North America.  It’s because we didn’t just research, organize, march and lobby – this time we slowed them down.  Our focus on pipeline and oil train infrastructure successfully slowed down tar sands development and cost the fossil fuel industry billions of dollars.  It made the climate fight real and tangible to millions of people and created a new urgency to the development of climate policy in Alberta and Canada, as well as the development of new important policy precedents like Obama’s Georgetown ‘climate test’ on infrastructure.

Over the past several years I have linked arms with ranchers and indigenous leaders, I have marched with scientists and fisheries workers, I have strategized with faith leaders and mayors. This is a movement that has made climate change tangible to people from all walks of life.  It is a movement that has built political pressure and created political space for doing the right thing.  It is a movement that has connected the dots between our current energy systems, Treaty rights, workers rights, community health and climate change. 

This month that work paid off and we saw some of our first tangible victories – the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline by President Obama and the mandate letters of Prime Minister Trudeau that will result in new climate policy for Canada, end the attack on environmental groups, unmuzzle our scientists and bring back our environmental laws.

Most shockingly last week Premier Notley in Alberta announced a new globally leading climate policy that will phase out coal, build renewable energy, put a serious price on carbon and cap emissions from the tar sands. Most importantly we saw oil industry leaders standing on the stage supporting those policies

That’s because of you and we cannot underestimate the importance of that, both in Alberta and globally.  For years many of us have documented the impact of the fossil fuel industry in holding back climate legislation and policy

Follow the failure of cap and trade, carbon taxes, and even the United Nations Climate Change Conferences, over the last twenty years and you find big powerful fossil fuel companies opposing those policies and progress. In an economy 70 percent dependent on oil, these policies could not have been introduced without some industry support.  The industry supported them because of you.  Because we successfully created a problem that they and the government had to fix. 

The struggle now is that the ‘fix’ does not address the full concerns of the movement.  Our job now is to figure out how to build on this, how to acknowledge success while shifting the narrative again, supporting decision makers like Notley and Trudeau while ensuring they continue to feel pressure to keep moving the needle.  I know, I can already hear some of you outraged, “supporting them?! But X is still horrible and Y has not been addressed!”  Agreed.

But to say a policy is great does not mean there is not more work to be done.

To say congratulations to a decision maker for doing something that is right and brave does not mean that you support everything they are doing or think they don't need to do other things.

To say there is a limit on emissions doesn't mean in the future it can't be adjusted or that emissions need to grow that high. It's a ceiling not a floor.

A year ago you couldn't say the words 'climate change' in the Alberta legislature. A year ago people laughed at you if you suggested Alberta should have a carbon tax like BC. A year ago if you talked about shutting down coal in Alberta people looked at you like you had lost your mind. A huge cultural and economic shift is taking place in Alberta - this is a fossil fuel dependent economy re-imagining itself in the climate era.

I appreciate that this is a movement that in the climate era drives to do more, to change the narrative and expand the art of the possible. That is as it should be, the planet needs us to drive policies to align with the science, to keep the world below 2 degrees. I appreciate that in the largest industrial project on earth so much damage has been done that one announcement, one set of policies, is not nearly enough. I have walked through the Tar sands, visited with elders in Fort McMurray and Fort Chipewyan and I know that there is so much more work to do to heal the land, our communities and ensure justice and respect for Treaty rights.

I also know that Premier Rachel Notley and Minister Phillips just did a courageous thing. They fully accepted the work of Andrew Leach and the panel as well as placed a hard limit on emissions - ensuring that the tar sands with existing technology cannot grow more than what is already being produced and what is under construction. Ask yourselves this: if you were in Rachel Notley’s position what would you have done? Any stronger and you would have shut down what's under construction, thrown thousands out of work and set up the government for massive industry compensation claims. And these policies will stick, unlike former Premier Redford’s proposed “40:40”  - a small increase in tar sands carbon price or former Premier Stelmachs royalty review because of the power of protest. Because the industry knew it needed to bite the bullet and support serious climate policy because they were getting hammered. We created the political space for a government to do the right thing. Does this mean they still want a pipeline? Probably. But they sure don't need four of them now. And while this is strong climate policy it doesn't take away community concerns about oil spills, tankers, water safety or Treaty rights.

This is not the end. It is, however, a new beginning.

We will all need to get smart and creative and build new narratives and strategies. It's easy to get locked into the frame and discussion of the past but the urgency of the climate era demands that we move past that. That we progress. That we take our victories and build on them. We pivot to solutions and use our new found citizen power to lock in some policies that will reduce demand for fossil fuels and build out renewables.  We build on the conversation and start to develop policy agendas like a ‘climate test’ or social cost of carbon metrics within environmental assessment processes. These can stop Canada from locking into fossil fuel infrastructure and make the ‘keep it in the ground’ campaign message a practical policy solution.  Internationally we begin to develop a conversation that recognizes national commitments to keep fossil fuels in the ground and not just progress to reduce domestic emissions.  And we find ways to support leadership when people stick their necks out and use it as a model to encourage other jurisdictions.

Is what we have achieved in the tar sands campaign to date enough? No. Is it historic leadership in an Alberta economy that is 70 percent dependent on oil. You bet it is.  It is also a testimony to the hard work, creativity and persistence of thousands. 

Tzeporah Berman BA MES LLD (honoris causa) has been designing environmental campaigns for 20 years. She is a Co-founder of ForestEthics and former Co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate Unit. She is the author of This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge published by Knopf Canada and an adjunct professor of Environmental Studies at York University. 

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