Chris Turner’s latest book, How to Be a Climate Optimist: Blueprints for a Better World, won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.
As wildfires raged across Alberta and clouds of smoke turned the province’s skies an apocalyptic orange, Danielle Smith and Rachel Notley took to the airwaves on May 18 for their only debate of the election campaign. In an hour of rhetorical battle, they said little about the wildfires themselves and nothing at all – at least not directly – about the climate crisis that has helped create the freakishly hot and dry spring that is feeding those fires.
The silence on the issue came as no real surprise. Not talking about climate change is a strange sort of maxim in contemporary Alberta politics. The issue is seen as political quicksand from every approach on the ideological spectrum. Ms. Smith nevertheless did take a moment to bash Ms. Notley for her support of carbon pricing and other climate policies the NDP government brought in during its tenure, most of which have remained in place despite the four years Ms. Smith’s United Conservative Party has spent in power. (Jason Kenney ran and won back in 2019 on, for example, bringing back coal-fired electricity, but it turned out few people other than Jason Kenney thought that was a smart move. The Pembina Institute predicts that Alberta will shutter its last coal plant later this year, and the province has become Canada’s leading jurisdiction for new renewable energy development.)
Ms. Smith’s reticence to dig deep on climate-change policy is understandable, because her track record on the issue spins like a greatest-hits playlist of the past 15 years in climate-denial talking points. There’s no need to speculate about her thoughts on the topic – she has spent much of her career broadcasting them. In recent weeks, Ms. Smith’s brazen disregard for basic facts and sound science – on everything from vaccines to Indigenous history – has unleashed a steady stream of negative headlines and called her basic judgment into question among many voters. The origin of this glib indifference to reality can be found in her long-standing, kneejerk-contrarian relationship with climate science.
On climate change, as on many topics, Ms. Smith is as pure a product as Alberta politics has seen of the “Calgary School.” This coterie of conservative ideologues in the University of Calgary’s political science department – led by Tom Flanagan, Barry Cooper and Ted Morton – has helped shape the world views of Alberta conservatives since the earliest days of the Reform Party.
Ms. Smith emerged from her undergrad in the mid-1990s as a staunch libertarian. As Alberta’s booming oil patch came into deepening conflict with the global push for climate action in the years to follow, she nurtured a performative and ahistorical stance on the province’s most powerful industry – shallow, combative, wounded and nostalgic. And like many Alberta conservatives, she has never understood climate action as anything but an unprovoked attack on that industry.
When Ms. Smith visited the oil sands hub of Fort McMurray in 2010 as the newly minted leader of the hard-right Wildrose Party, she greeted the city as “the ethical oil capital of the world.” This was an echo of former University of Calgary classmate Ezra Levant’s book Ethical Oil, which argued that Canada’s oil industry should be favoured in world markets because Canada is governed more ethically than, for example, Saudi Arabia – a line of reasoning that captured the imaginations of Alberta conservatives and few others in those years. Ms. Smith explained then that she was “tired of being a victim” and “apologizing” for Alberta’s oil and gas wealth, adopting as her own the oil patch’s deep sense, nurtured on old grievances with Ottawa and the ire of climate activists alike, that it has few defenders outside the province.
On the campaign trail in 2012, just as Ms. Smith seemed certain to become Alberta’s first Wildrose premier, she insisted that the “science isn’t settled” on anthropogenic climate change. This might have been a banal line at the time across the tables at Calgary’s Petroleum Club, but it was met with a chorus of boos when she shared it with a debate audience in Edmonton. After losing the election, Ms. Smith made a public mea culpa, acknowledging climate change as “a reality” at the party’s convention the following year.
Whether or not the sentiment was heartfelt, Ms. Smith carried on during the years to come – more of them spent as pundit than politician – amplifying the arguments of climate contrarians as they moved past outright denial to a grudging acceptance coloured heavily by glib indifference to its gravity. She dismissed the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which accelerated the global energy transition that has emerged as an existential threat to Alberta’s oil patch, as “peak absurdity.” Responding to Justin Trudeau’s 2020 throne speech, Ms. Smith fashioned her climate skepticism into a Calgary School fantasia, in which Alberta’s natural gas exports would cause the world to forgive the oil patch for its rising emissions and Canada would soon be recognized as a “carbon sink” because the country has a lot of forested land.
In a 2019 column in the Edmonton Journal, she described an obscure website called Climate Discussion Nexus as a “reality check” on climate science. The site is run by John Robson, a history professor at a small Christian college in Ottawa, who publishes a weekly newsletter of climate skepticism, has a recurring series on his YouTube channel mocking the notion of anthropogenic sea-level rise, and recently introduced a video on Mr. Trudeau’s “unjust lack of transition” with an image of the Prime Minister flanked by Stalin and Mao under the banner “Trudeau’s Climate Communism.” Ms. Smith’s thinking on the “reality” of climate change, it seems, runs meme-deep.
Ms. Smith does appear to understand that reconciling Alberta’s oil patch and the movement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions rests very near the top of an Alberta premier’s agenda. Indeed she has written that it is the “biggest wedge” between the province and the rest of Canada. But nothing about her analysis of the climate crisis before assuming that office indicates the barest hint of effort to truly comprehend the magnitude and seriousness of the issue. She clearly sees the personal legal troubles of rabid anti-vaccination activists, for example, as a far more important matter for the premier’s office.
Ms. Smith’s smirking indifference to the climate crisis is the cornerstone of the nostalgic alternate reality she is trying to sell to Albertans – one where Justin Trudeau controls the Alberta NDP, ivermectin is a viable substitute for a COVID vaccination, and Alberta can selectively opt out of the Constitution on the premier’s whim. Raised on reflexive defence of the oil and gas sector against all comers, Ms. Smith appears entirely blind to the massive shifts in the global energy marketplace and the international political landscape that have placed climate change at the top of the agenda for the very industry she thinks she is protecting. She is not so much the standard bearer for the oil patch as a figurehead for a subset of Albertans who want to believe the industry’s long boom can be revived by memes alone.
Ms. Smith has made an all-in wager that enough of the province’s voters can be convinced to back her play to give the UCP one last chance at reversing the flow of time and erasing the hard facts of the global energy business. Next week, we will find out if she wins that bet.