October 1, 2023

Canada is on fire, and big oil is the arsonist

4 min read

Canada is on fire from coast to coast to coast. Thousands have been evacuated, millions exposed to air pollution, New York a doom orange and even the titans of Wall Street choking.

Catastrophic flooding in Pakistan, back-to-back cyclones in the Pacific islands and droughts in Africa haven’t been enough to create a tipping point for action. Now that climate impacts have hit the economic capital of western power, will it spur governments in the global north to get serious?

The cable car from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan last week, when haze from the Canadian wildfires shrouded New York.

A lack of scientific knowledge about climate change is not the barrier. Nor is a lack of cleaner, safer, cheaper energy alternatives. The IPCC said as much last year – the barrier is vested fossil fuel interests putting their profit above our safety.

We know exactly which fossil fuel companies are robbing us of clean air and a secure future. We can now measure which oil companies are responsible for wildfires (13 operate in Canada), but oil executives are still calling the shots.

Internationally, big oil has been flooding the climate talks for decades. The result? The Paris agreement doesn’t even include the words fossil fuels, oil, gas or coal. And today we are on track to produce 110% more oil, gas and coal by 2030 than the world can ever burn, or it will burn us. If we are going to manage the decline of fossil-fuel production in an equitable and fair way we need our governments to stand up to big oil and start negotiating a new international agreement on fossil fuels to complement the Paris agreement.

Back at home, as the smoke rolled in, the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, promised to do whatever it takes to keep people safe. But Ottawa just backed another loan guarantee for the Trans Mountain Pipeline. “Whatever it takes” – except tackling the industries stoking the flames.

Trudeau is not alone in refusing to acknowledge the need to stop expansion of oil and gas. That same attitude – “we must act on climate change but my expansion of fossil fuels is OK” – is alive and well south of our border where Biden has recently approved the Willow project and more.

These are scary times. Global leaders declare a climate emergency while approving projects to expand oil and gas. In Canada and around the world, fossil fuel proponents are still being elected. Alberta’s premier, Danielle Smith, used her victory speech to rally her constituents against the federal government’s plan to clean the grid as her province burns.

For more than five decades, oil and gas companies have muddled the truth and blocked progress. They’ve spent millions on PR campaigns to convince the public that expanding fossil fuels is safe, reasonable and unavoidable and that the alternatives are problematic and unreliable. It’s working. Canadians are alarmed about climate change yet are largely unaware that most of Canada’s carbon pollution comes from fossil fuels like oil and gas. Half of the public say they’re unsure whether “solar panels emit more greenhouse gases during manufacturing than they end up saving”.

These messages and those who peddle them have an impact on politics. Canada subsidises oil and gas more than any other G20 nation, averaging $14bn annually between 2018 and 2020. Now big oil is getting tax breaks for carbon capture and storage – an unproven technology that won’t change the fact that Canada needs to phase out fossil fuels. Funding the industry to continue is like giving arsonists a tinderbox to play with.

Fossil fuel companies and their executives don’t need our money. In fact, they use it against us. Take the Koch brothers, who have funded anti-climate and anti-clean energy campaigns. Or the fossil fuel industry’s Pathway Alliance in Canada that is running “Let’s Clear the Air” misinformation ads to an audience coughing and choking on their product.

Fossil fuel companies’ net-zero pledges are meaningless and we need to stop pretending we can negotiate with them. We need to start regulating them.

John Valliant, homing in on the recent Alberta election, puts it more provocatively: “Alberta politics is still a largely and wholly owned subsidiary of the petroleum industry.” And: “The petroleum industry is a wholly owned subsidiary of fire.”

Governments need to represent us, not fossil-fuel profiteers. We need plans to phase out fossil fuel production and emissions. Plans that include protections and support for communities and workers dependent on oil, gas and coal.

But that’s not enough. Wealthy fossil-fuel producing countries like Canada must support countries in the global south to be part of the transition to clean energy so it can happen in a fast and fair way.

Oil, gas and coal are burning us. Politically and now literally. That’s why 101 Nobel laureates and over 3,000 scientists are calling for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. Six countries and 84 subnational governments have already endorsed it. It’s time for yours to get on board, too.

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