Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
My mom has always loved the Alberta foothills, and this past summer, I took her there one last time.
I grew up in this prairie city, with the Rocky Mountains a constant presence on the western horizon. But in August, as we drove toward the town of Pincher Creek, a thick haze of forest fire smoke hung from the sky.
“Where are my mountains?” my mom cried.
Then, like white knights on horseback, dozens of towering windmills appeared, their long blades slicing through the smoke, driving turbines engaged in an actual battle.
Every watt of electricity produced from Alberta’s frequent winds reduces the need for coal, oil and gas – the fossil fuels that have caused the climate crisis, thus contributing to the increasing number and severity of forest fires.
The windmills are fighting for our future.
In the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, an international team of scientists and Indigenous elders reported that climate change was advancing faster in the Arctic than elsewhere.
Receding sea-ice was allowing more sunlight to enter the ocean, warming the water, which then caused the ice to recede further, and so on. Increasingly severe and expansive forest fires were thickening the blanket of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, driving up temperatures and drying the remaining forests. Melting permafrost was releasing methane, another greenhouse gas, trapping more heat on the planet and melting more permafrost. Each of these feedback loops was its own process, but all had been set in motion by humanity’s burning of fossil fuels.
The message was clear: Human beings, through our day-to-day activities, were unwittingly destroying our only possible home. I had trouble accepting this. I needed to learn more.
In October, 2006, I boarded Canada’s research icebreaker, the CCGS Amundsen, at Kugluktuk, Nunavut, at the western end of the Northwest Passage. It was late in the shipping season and the crew expected to encounter lots of sea-ice on the long voyage home to Quebec City. They were particularly worried about thick, hard “multiyear” ice in Bellot Strait, the narrow passage around the top of the Boothia Peninsula, the northernmost part of the North American mainland.
Almost everyone on board was gathered on the front deck three days later, as the ship turned into the strait. I still remember the collective gasp as, instead of ice, we saw nothing but open water. Eighty sailors, scientists and technicians, most of them with decades of Arctic experience, all understood the implications. In the Canadian Arctic, at least, climate change was advancing faster than anyone had feared.
Growing up in Lethbridge in the 1980s, I was aware of the tar sands but had no cause to think about them. They did not pay for the Alberta Heritage Scholarship that I received after high school. Those funds came from the modest royalties that then-premier Peter Lougheed was charging on conventional oil and gas, and using to build a financial reserve for the benefit of all Albertans.
Unlike those easy to extract-and-refine resources, the tar sands were a speculative project that depended on large subsidies, tax holidays and the lowest possible royalties. Still, one could argue that exploring different production methods made sense – in those days before a scientific consensus on climate change, when it seemed the world might run on oil forever.
Also, back then, everyone called them the “tar sands.” The rebranding exercise came later, when concerns about climate change made it necessary to obfuscate the very high energy inputs and greenhouse gas outputs involved in accessing this so-called “oil.”
Raw bitumen is asphalt, used for paving roads. Before it can power a car or an airplane, it must be mined, refined, diluted with natural gas condensate, forced through thousands of kilometres of pipe to another country and then refined some more.
In the summer of 2008, Jack Layton, the federal NDP leader, invited me on a fact-finding trip to Nunavut.
We visited Auyuittuq National Park, the “land that never melts,” where an Inuk warden showed us receding glaciers, overflowing rivers and species of birds and insects from southern latitudes that were suddenly present in the Arctic. Jack was deeply affected by what he saw. We spoke about the need for major policy changes, and how these required a change in government.
After I returned to Vancouver, I picked up the phone and told Jack that I wanted to run for the NDP.
I became a candidate in the riding of Vancouver Centre in mid-August, just three weeks before Stephen Harper called a snap election. I was learning basic political skills on a very short timeline – and discovering that one essential skill was beyond my reach: I’m incapable of keeping my opinions to myself, which makes it difficult to toe a party line.
I took part in 22 all-candidate debates during that campaign. Media was often present, but nobody expected a camera crew from CBC to appear at a small event organized by a journalism class at UBC.
My political downfall began with what should have been a harmless question: What kind of animal might each candidate imagine themselves to be? My mind flashed back to the Arctic. A polar bear, I replied, because they’re at existential risk from climate change.
It was then that I dropped what, at the time, became known as the “Byers bomb.” To save the bears, I said, “We need to shut the tar sands down.”
Everyone gasped. The CBC cameraman gave a thumbs-up to his producer. The Green Party candidate called my position “radical.”
I quickly explained that I was not proposing to padlock the tar sands. We just need to stop the subsidies and tax breaks, I said, and the industry will phase itself out.
Ultimately, I told the students, there was no choice. “If we are burning oil and gas in 20 and 30 years, this planet is finished.”
Afterward, my BlackBerry rang. It was Jack.
“Shit happens,” he said. “Besides, I’ve been wanting to talk more about the tar sands.”
He probably did. But then, the NDP team in Alberta demanded that he denounce my comments. And being a very good politician, Jack split the difference and said nothing at all.
Jack was struck down by cancer in 2011. I missed the funeral, because I was back on a ship in the Arctic. This time, I was a lecturer on an “eco-cruise,” trying, with mixed results, to educate wealthy tourists about the climate change they could see outside.
After I returned home from that trip, I threw my support behind Tom Mulcair for the NDP leadership. I knew that during his time as environment minister in Quebec, Tom had acquired a reputation for standing up to corporate lobbies and taking meaningful action.
After Tom became leader, he flew to Fort McMurray and spoke about sustainable development. Predictably, this generated lots of negative media. What was not predictable, at least to me, was that Tom would then go silent, just as Jack had.
Tom’s silence left the climate change issue available for a new Liberal leader to pick up in the next election campaign. And between 2011 and 2015, about a million young Canadians, many of them greatly concerned about the environment, reached the voting age of 18.
When I was born in 1966, atmospheric carbon dioxide was at 321 parts per million. By 2008, the year I ran for Parliament, it had risen to 385 ppm. In 2015, when Justin Trudeau embraced the climate change issue and won the election, it was at 401 ppm.
To the new Prime Minister’s credit, he asked for a public briefing by climatologists. Greg Flato, a senior research scientist with Environment Canada, explained that “Warming is unequivocal and human influence on the climate system is clear.” Dr. Flato was just as emphatic about the required policy response: Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were needed to stabilize Earth’s temperature.
Mr. Trudeau vowed to take the matter seriously.
Just two years later, in 2017, the Prime Minister told a gathering of oil industry executives in Texas that “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.”
The next year, the Trudeau government bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline. The purchase included a project to build a second, larger pipeline alongside an existing pipeline from the tar sands to the coast of British Columbia.
At the time, the cost to taxpayers was believed to be $4.4-billion, with a further $7.4-billion in estimated construction costs. Those estimates were badly off the mark. The total cost is now projected to exceed $30-billion.
The pipeline expansion was needed to deliver bitumen to world markets, where it would command a higher price than that available in the United States – or so we were told. Nobody knows whether this will actually be the case when the project is finally complete.
We do know that there are lots of energy sources around the world that are cheaper to access than tar sands oil. In other words, the $30-billion pipeline is not supported by market principles. It’s just another politically-driven subsidy for tar sands production. Were it not for all that taxpayer money, the project would have died.
Last spring, Alberta held an election as forest fires raged across the northern half of the province. Smoke was ever-present, yet Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley refused the chance to talk about climate change. She claimed the Trudeau government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline as a critically important achievement, delivered when she was premier.
The leader of the United Conservative Party, Danielle Smith, also avoided the topic of climate change. Her response to the fires was to launch an investigation into the role played by arson, rather than asking why the forests were tinder-dry so early in the year.
Since winning the election, Ms. Smith has been fighting to protect oil and gas companies against the already more economically competitive alternatives of wind and solar power. She even introduced a seven-month moratorium on new renewable energy projects.
Anyone who is paying attention will realize that climate change effects are growing worse. Whether it’s forest fires, heat domes, floods, hurricanes or melting permafrost, our country is already feeling the strain. Similar things are happening around the planet. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned in September, “Humanity has opened the gates of hell.”
I aspired to be a cabinet minister once, before realizing that outspokenness disqualifies me.
Jonathan Wilkinson is the federal Minister of Energy and Natural Resources. We knew each other as university students in Saskatoon and later Montreal, back when he was a New Democrat and I was a Progressive Conservative. He later led an environmental technology company in Vancouver. I expect that his personal views on climate and energy align with mine, but in public, he toes the party line.
Steven Guilbeault, the federal Minister of the Environment, was once an uncompromising activist. He’s planning to eliminate some of the subsidies to fossil fuel companies, while creating some new subsidies, including for carbon sequestration. Designed to allow the continued extraction of oil and gas, these projects are a form of harm reduction – not so much for the environment, but for the companies themselves.
Mr. Guilbeault has recently defended a three-year suspension of the carbon tax on heating oil, a move that sacrifices climate policy for the crass political purpose of retaining Liberal seats in Atlantic Canada. Soon, he’ll attend the COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates.
Don’t expect anything to come from that. Earlier this month, Jerry DeMarco, the federal Environment Commissioner, reported on the government’s lack of progress in meeting its own targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Indeed, in the 18 years since the COP11 took place in Montreal, Canada has done worse in this regard than every other Group of Seven country, including the United States.
As one might guess, Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Guilbeault both support the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Both insist that working with industry requires trade-offs. Politics is about compromise, after all.
The problem is that atmospheric chemistry does not compromise. If the response to climate change isn’t commensurate with the threat, it’s not a response; it’s an evasion of responsibility.
A proposal to drill three exploratory oil wells within Lethbridge city limits was met by strong local opposition over the winter of 2013-14. Part of the pushback was of the “not in my backyard” variety. Another part, however, was based on concerns about climate change.
My mom joined a group of “Raging Grannies” who stood alongside a major road each day waving placards. I remember how proud I was of her, and how skeptical I was about the chances for success. After all, how many oil projects are shelved because of protests in Alberta?
Yet as the protests went on, and more people joined, local businesses and politicians came on board. In May, 2014, the project was cancelled, with the company stating that “the barriers here did not justify the costs.” My mom, with her hands-on approach, had more success fighting climate change than anything I’d done.
On our summer drive to the Alberta foothills, we stopped for sandwiches at the Bear Grass Café, and chatted with some elderly men in cowboy boots. After lunch, as we drove toward the hamlet of Beaver Mines, the grassy hills gave way to sweeping forests of trembling aspen and lodgepole pine.
At Lundbreck Falls, I held my mom’s hand as we walked along the Crowsnest River. The chokecherry bushes were heavy with fruit. An osprey dove into the crystal-clear water and flew away with a fish. The mountains came into view.
“It’s still beautiful!” my mom exclaimed.
My mom is losing her final battle. Just days after our trip, she entered a care home for Alzheimer’s patients. It makes her happy when, on a clear day, she can see the mountains out the window.
As for the rest of us, we must not concede the future. So, let’s change our behaviours. Let’s insist on truly brave and bold policies. Let’s do the previously unimaginable. Let’s shut the tar sands down.
Our beautiful planet is still worth fighting for.