28 Apr 2016

Justin Trudeau: Will he be remembered as the man who saved Canada or the Prince of Selfies?

By not telling Canadians the truth about the governments' almost certain inability to control future carbon emissions, Justin Trudeau is guilty of downplaying the greatest issue ever to face the country and the world - an issue that will have dire consequences for our children and grandchildren.

So far Trudeau has avoided the seriousness of the issue by talking in generalities. Starting with the UN Climate Summit in Paris and again in New York last week, the Prince of Selfies assured Canadians that the Liberal government will wrestle those troublesome carbon emissions to the ground.

In New York, there were the all-too frequent pretentious statements: "Today, with my signature, I give you our word that Canada's efforts will not cease."

And just to prove that he is a self-styled world leader in this area, Trudeau added: "Climate change will test our intelligence, our compassion and our will. But we are equal to that challenge. I encourage other signatories to move swiftly to follow through on their commitments."

Smiling generalized speeches are good for the ego and opinion polls, but Trudeau should be using his powerful position to motivate Canadians to take part in a massive national campaign to tackle global warming.

But while critics say much of Canada's non-renewables must be left in the ground if we hope to meet our emission targets, Trudeau refuses to take a firm stand either way. Questioned by reporters at the Liberal Party retreat in Alberta last week, Trudeau said he would not comment on a "hypothetical" new route for Gateway but stated "the Great Bear rainforest is no place for a ... crude pipeline."

Meanwhile, Canadians continue to pollute the atmosphere at a record pace.

The government's own figures, released in February, show that, unless a miraculous effort is made to tackle carbon emissions, what we can expect.

At current levels of activity, emissions will hit 768 megatons of carbon dioxide by 2020. That's way above Canada's minimum target of 622 megatons.

By 2030, emissions will have jumped to 815 megatons, compared that year with a target of 524 for that year.

Now newly-released scientific information puts even more pressure on Canada and other countries. Until now it was generally held that life on the planet could continue without disastrous consequences if the overall temperature increase was held to 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

Research published in the journal Earth System Dynamics last week showed that the 0.5 degrees increase between 1.5 and 2 degrees would mean many more disasters - longer heatwaves, greater droughts and threats to crops and coral reefs.

Global temperatures have already reached 1 degree C compared to pre-industrial levels. So, if we believe the new research, we don't have far to go.

To paraphrase a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 70s, the wonderful world we have known is "slip slidin' away."

While it's theoretically possible for Canada to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets, getting even close to meeting the goals appears practically impossible. "To meet any of the 2030 national targets being bruited about implies a change in trajectory which is probably impossible under any circumstances," says Michael Cleland, chairman of the board, Canadian Energy Research Institute.

To get there, the regulations of provincial carbon programs would have to be increased considerably, making it more expensive for business to operate. The cost of gas at the pump and many other services and products would be increased considerably. Much of the oil and gas would have to stay in the ground.

Then there's public reaction to overcome: While most people say they want to see climate change brought under control, many will rebel when their living expenses, but not their incomes, escalate.

Says Conservative critic Ed Fast: "The Liberals are misleading Canadians by saying everything is a win-win, while not accounting for the true economic costs."

Whenever Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna talk about the challenge ahead they do not mention the possibility that people will experience hardship. They claim that new technologies will mean that carbon emissions can be decreased and the economy and lives improved at the same time.

While other Canadians, such as the provinces and environmental organizations, are not doing enough to fight climate change, the Prime Minister is the only person who has the power and credibility to demand a national campaign.

Trudeau needs to have an old style fireside TV chat with Canadians, explaining how his government will engage the country in a massive campaign to protect our environment into the future.

Action needs to be taken on many fronts, from Canadians conserving energy in their everyday lives to funding the switch from non-renewables to renewables.

Trudeau has a limited window during which he can take serious action that is bound to upset many Canadians. He needs to act now because in two years it will be too late with another election right around the corner.

Perhaps Trudeau lays awake at night thinking about whether he wants to be remembered as the Prime Minister who helped Canadians overcome the country's worst ever threat, or whether he should be content to be remembered as the Prince of Selfies.

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  1. Nick, there's quite a fascinating twist to this that has yet to get very much play. The massive gap between Canada's 2030 target and its Harper-era trajectory was reported in a National Energy Board release that *left out* the GHG reductions in the Alberta climate plan, as well as pre-Paris announcements by (if I remember correctly) Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba. Which showed that accusations of being hopeless and unrealistic apply not to Trudeau's promises, but to the NEB's pathetic modelling ability (and deeply-embedded, fossil-driven assumptions).
    Last week, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project put the actual gap at just 91 megatonnes by 2030 (http://smartershift.com/energymix/2016/04/29/canada-falls-short-of-climate-target-and-its-not-alone/), with analysis that factored in the provincial commitments. They still have to deliver, and there's vastly much more that we can and should be doing. But frankly, from the one-step-removed view I've had of low-carbon modelling, 14 years to make up a gap of 91 Mt. is not nearly as daunting as it might sound. In fact, in my mind, it gives credence to Trudeau's and McKenna's statements that 30% by 2030 is a floor, not a ceiling -- that they want to do better than the Harper target if they can.
    We should all be watching the pipeline debate very closely and critically, because if they get it wrong, they'll get it very wrong. But notwithstanding the latest storm and fury, that hasn't happened yet. The climate plan consultations have opened up an organizing opportunity around this, and if the packed house (and fantastic conversation) in Ottawa Centre Thursday night was any indication, ENGOs are going to be putting it to good use.

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