Bill McKibben is on the warpath. The famous anti-Keystone activist has seen the future, and it's even worse than he suspected. Climate change is speeding up. In order to prevent catastrophic global warming, we have to stop drilling new oil fields, building pipelines and digging coal mines – right now. "Given the new math," he tweeted the other day, "from now on anyone proposing a new pipeline, coal mine, oil well is effectively a climate denier."
Thousands of indigenous people are on his side. Some are camped out on a Sioux reservation to block a U.S. oil pipeline through the Dakotas. In Canada, 50 indigenous communities have vowed to oppose any new developments – pipelines, rail projects, tanker terminals – that would get Canadian heavy oil to market.
Well, you can't please all the people all the time.
Still, Justin Trudeau's "social licence" strategy isn't going very well. The idea was that the Trudeau government would obtain a broad buy-in for new energy development (and especially new pipelines) by proving that it takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. This means tougher regulation, more consultation, ambitious CO2 reduction targets, and some kind of national price on carbon with all the provinces on side. It means signing on to the Paris climate accord. Premier Rachel Notley hoped the same thing would work for Alberta.
New carbon taxes and commitments to green energy would show the world that Alberta is not a climate outlaw any more, so why not build a pipeline for a change?
Unfortunately, these good intentions haven't changed very many minds. The mayor of Montreal and most of the province of Quebec flatly oppose a new pipeline. So does the mayor of Vancouver and much of the population of B.C. Some indigenous groups do want energy development, but you don't hear much from them. Others are bitterly divided. Last month, two Haida chiefs were stripped of their positions for supporting a pipeline project.
Mr. Trudeau can never placate these groups because their objections are absolute. There are no conditions or compromises that would satisfy them. They do not believe him when he says there's no inherent conflict between economic growth and serious action to reduce CO2 emissions.
Climate policy expert Mark Jaccard believes that most politicians are cynically faking it on climate change. They know the measures they're proposing won't make a difference, and that the far-off targets they commit to can't be met.
But Justin Trudeau is different. He's not cynical. He deeply and sincerely believes what he says. The trouble, as Bill McKibben put it, is the math.
The Trudeau government has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 36 per cent by 2030 – a target it inherited from the Harper days, and initially described as a "floor." But there's no way to get from here to there that voters would accept (to say nothing of the provinces).
"Are we willing to tell consumers that their energy prices will need to go up by 100 per cent or more … ?" Michael Cleland, chair of the Canadian Energy Research Institute, said earlier this year. "Are we willing to absorb or mitigate the effects on high energy intensity industries that are already subject to pressure from cost and global competition?"
The answer is plain. No, we are not. Nor is it politically possible to put a tax on carbon that's high enough to do the trick.
That tax would have to rise to about $200 a tonne by 2030, Prof. Jaccard figures – and voters, he argues quite correctly, would never stand for it. (The highest carbon tax right now is $30, in B.C., and Christy Clark, the Premier, doesn't dare to raise it further).
In a policy paper released last week, Prof. Jaccard argued that the only way to do it is by stealth – through a series of stringent (and admittedly inefficient) regulations that are too complex and too opaque for anyone but the experts to understand.
Prof. Jaccard believes that even under the best of circumstances, reaching our Paris targets will be all but impossible. He's right. Even Mr. Trudeau's optimism won't change that. And what he may wind up with is the worst of all worlds – reviled by environmentalists for betraying them, by voters for costing them too much and by the people who used to believe in him for letting them down.
It was Mission Impossible from the start.