Image credit: Shepard Fairey ‏@OBEYGIANT

Image credit: Shepard Fairey ‏@OBEYGIANT

The other day I had a treacherous thought as I reviewed a report on how far away Canada is from meeting our climate targets. Where would be today if those of us who condemned the Harper governments “Turn the Corner” climate plan years ago (2007) had instead encouraged the government to implement it? It was a plan that was widely ridiculed by the environmental community because it would not result in the scale of emissions reductions that were clearly required if our country was to do its fair share to address climate change. 

The Harper government responded to criticism by turning away instead of turning the corner. Not a single policy to reduce emissions was introduced at the federal level in the six years that followed. Of course hindsight is 20/20 but the basic strategic questions remain the same for those who work on environmental policy, even now that we have a federal government publicly committing to world leading climate policy. How do we encourage policy action when the scale of the problem is so much greater than the scale of change that is seen to be politically and economically feasible at any particular moment? Can we be both carrot and stick? How do we create the right amount of push and pull so that we create greater political space for ambitious action?

It is a fine line to walk. Of course, we want to ensure that our vision is clear and that we are asking for changes that reflect the science, policies that are in line with our no more than 1.5˚C warming as a level of climate ambition. Yet, it’s a mistake to assume that any government can go from here to there in one policy, one decision or one plan. The Alberta Climate Plan is a good example of this dilemma. The plan Alberta put in place in November is historic – and insufficient. It is historic in that it is the first climate plan in the history of the province and a massive shift in direction after 44 years of majority Conservative rule and climate denial. The fact that oil companies stood with the Province of Alberta and acknowledged the need to act on climate change, to price carbon, to phase out coal, scale up renewables and limit expansion of emissions from the oilsands changed the game on climate policy in Alberta and nationally. Some say it changed the outcomes of the Paris negotiations as the Alberta plan gave the Trudeau government the confidence to be a leader on climate on the world stage. 

An entire generation of environmentalists have spent the whole of their adult careers hitting their heads against a brick wall only to fall forward when the wall disappeared."

There is little doubt the Alberta plan will have ramifications in other oil supply regions around the world and has created a more robust conversation on carbon pricing across North America. However, limiting oilsands expansion to 100 megatonnes allows further expansion at a time when we should be doing everything we can to stop fossil fuel expansion and reduce emissions. However, given that over seven million barrels per day of oilsands production is already permitted or in the approval process, the Alberta Climate Plan, with current technology essentially mothballs half of these Oilsands permits. In that respect it is the first “keep it in the ground” legislation of an oil producing jurisdiction. Could any government facing a recession have done more in one policy?

Watching the responses, the praise and criticism of the plan, I realize that in many ways we are a movement in Canada that has gotten used to a simplistic, polarized conversation and tone. For 10 years we have “raged against the machine,” perfecting our ability to communicate scandal and outrage. In fact, an entire generation of environmentalists has spent the whole of their adult careers hitting their heads against a brick wall, only to fall forward when the wall disappeared. 

Call it our “Obama moment” – the Trudeau and Notley governments have changed the politics and possibility of the climate and energy challenge in Canada. And now we need to find a way to craft a more sophisticated and complex inside and outside game – a radical pragmatism. 

The good news is that in the dark years, we have done some of the best organizing in the history of the environmental movement. Having no access to the halls of power focused us on organizing outside in the streets and with others who were on the margins. Having no chance of policy development refocused us on project development, which engaged new allies from all walks of life because, let’s be clear, it’s way easier for most people to get excited about pipeline spills than an emissions target that has the wrong baseline year. 

We are more diverse and stronger than we have ever been, and it will serve us well to remember that we need those new muscles as much as we need the access, connections and commitments from new progressive governments. Let’s not forget that if it wasn’t for hundreds of thousands of people marching in the streets and millions of people submitting public comments, Obama would never have rejected Keystone or blocked new oil drilling.  

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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