Skip to main content

Ed Whittingham is an environmental policy expert, former executive director of the Pembina Institute and co-founder of the Academy for Sustainable Innovation.

The final United Nations climate change conference of this decade has now come and gone – but rather than feeling united, many Canadians would be forgiven for feeling at loggerheads with one another.

On one hand, recent reports by the UN Environment Program and Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission highlight the gap between what the science tells us we need to do on climate change, and how far current policy will get us. That concerns a lot of Canadians, increasingly younger ones, who rightfully worry about inheriting a mess if the world doesn’t bridge the gap soon.

On the other hand, many Western Canadians are feeling beaten up as of late. The federal government chose to play catch-up on climate policy during its first term after a decade of little action by the previous government. That was the right call, but the actual implementation resulted in a lot of change over a short period for the energy industry, a period that was already difficult enough because of challenging global economics.

As a result, rather un-Canadian behaviour abounds in our country. Canadians who are normally congenial and quick to engage in thoughtful dialogue on issues are feeling anger toward compatriots in other regions. Cross-provincial dialogue has eroded to jeers, counterjeers or worse.

To their credit, governments have not sat back complacently. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland went on an extended listening tour. Multiple senior federal bureaucrats have added “defuse Western alienation” to their to-do lists. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was unusually sedentary last month while playing host to umpteen premiers and mayors in Ottawa. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney even travelled to Ottawa with key ministers this week to play Let’s Make A Deal around fiscal stabilization, with one eye toward the Wexiteers and their search for a charismatic leader.

What Canadians need now are quick wins and common ground. Co-investing in clean energy and oil and gas decarbonization are on the quick wins list, and are certainly going to be part of any deal that Alberta and Ottawa make. Common ground is a bit harder – but the answer may lie in professionalizing transition management.

Transition management is an emerging branch of management science. It tackles the necessary and inexorable shift to a low-carbon and socially inclusive global economy. Students and practitioners of transition management develop skills to help organizations adapt to and leverage intense social, environmental and technological shifts in our economic system.

Through consultation with a broad range of professionals, academics and students, a list of transition management competencies is surfacing. Some have to do with the ability to navigate ambiguity and uncertainty as public, private and civil society sectors respond to demands such as the climate crisis, energy poverty and the continuing technological revolution. Some involve identifying trends and how they facilitate or inhibit transition. Drivers of change span the political (think hardening borders after Donald Trump and Brexit), economic (China’s rising affluence), social (urbanization in the developing world), technological (AI, drones and blockchain) and ecological (climate destabilization). Others are more inwardly focused, such as reframing and shifting one’s mental models, building personal resilience, staying grounded and avoiding burnout.

Transition is a scary word for many working in mining, forestry and oil and gas, because it can come across as “transitioning me being out of a job.” It is especially threatening in Alberta, where the most recent downturn has been sharp and prolonged. Some avoid the term altogether, preferring “transformation” or “evolution.” Others speak of an “equitable transition,” one that cannot leave workers and their industries behind.

Alberta is well placed to develop transition management as a profession. Working for Uber or Tesla may sound sexy and very transition-y, but if you want to change the world, you’ll have more opportunities with major established energy firms, with their huge R&D and engineering capabilities and transition-management opportunities, from new products (advanced biofuels, hydrogen and synthetic fuels from atmospheric CO2) to new integrated energy solutions, combining renewables with natural gas or energy storage. There are opportunities in energy trading, wholesaling and retailing to help the world electrify personal mobility, decentralize generation, and connect to energy customers through apps and digitization. All this opportunity is happening at a scale unimaginable in other sectors; it’s easy to forget that the Shells and Petro-Canadas of the world have daily customer volumes that would make most burger chains envious.

This progress, however, would be accelerated through industry, governments and civil society jointly demanding the creation of a new set of competencies, and for Canadian academia to formally respond. This means establishing a transition management credentialing system, and accrediting different academic programs at universities and colleges to feed into that credential. It means having a professional organization to be the guardian of the credential, as the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada, Canadian Dental Association, Canadian Institute of Management and others do for their professions.

The timing is right for this to happen. It’s fruitful common ground for federal-provincial co-operation on energy and climate challenges. And it sure would be a great way to transition into a new decade.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe