US President Donald Trump’s climate criminality has been shocking. His administration’s contribution to worsening this existential threat to humanity will be remembered as his most damaging policy.
Largely in response to the president’s ‘spew more fossil fuels’ outlook Noam Chomsky described Trump as “the worst criminal in human history.” Pressed on the matter, Chomsky recently told the New Yorker that Adolf Hitler “was an utter monster but [he was] not dedicating his efforts perfectly consciously to destroying the prospect for human life on earth.”
So why is Ottawa trying to maintain one of the Republican’s worst environmental policies?
Incredibly, the Trudeau government’s immediate reaction to US voters rejecting Trump was to press the president-elect to break a direct promise and maintain the worst of the Donald. Soon after Biden was declared winner Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told CBC that persuading the incoming president to build the Keystone XL Pipeline was at the “top of the agenda” for Canada.
As the first global leader to talk to President-elect Joe Biden on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised a pipeline that would ship more than 800,000 barrels of heavy carbon emitting crude a day from Alberta to the US. In response to the Trudeau government’s bid to maintain the worst of Trump, Bill McKibben wrote to 350 Canada’s list, “It’s truly unacceptable that the Trudeau cabinet’s top agenda item is to weaken Biden’s position on climate.”
Under intense pressure from indigenous and environmentalist groups President Barack Obama denied TransCanada the permit for Keystone XL. But, immediately upon taking office Trump signed an executive order allowing the pipeline. In 2018 a federal court judge in Montana halted the project after concluding the US State Department hadn’t properly considered the pipeline’s environmental impact. In response, Trump signed a new order last year that bypasses the judge’s ruling and granted permission for construction.
During the election Biden promised to cancel Keystone XL within his first 100 days in office. But now the Trudeau government, Alberta and other oil interests are pressuring Biden to break his promise. This is not an idle threat. In response to a question on the matter Alberta’s lead representative at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, James Rajotte, told the CBC on Monday that he’s already lobbying aggressively on the matter. The Stephen Harper government established an oil sands advocacy strategy that, noted Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson, “put Canada’s entire diplomatic apparatus in the US behind the Keystone campaign.” In a 2011 series dubbed the “The War for the Oil Sands in Washington” The Tyee described the intensity of Canadian lobbying efforts on behalf of Keystone XL. One congressional aide compared Canadian officials to “aggressive” car salesmen. It “was the most direct encounter I’ve had with a lobbyist representing a foreign nation,” a congressional staffer told the Tyee. Canada’s 22 consular offices in the US were ordered to take up the Keystone cause.
The Keystone XL decision is in keeping with Trudeau’s support or indifference towards Trump’s climate policy. While Trump was “dedicating his efforts perfectly consciously to destroying the prospect for human life on earth”, Trudeau sought to avoid conflict with the president over his administration’s climate criminality. Spiegel Online reported that the Canadian prime minister rejected a proposal by Chancellor Angela Merkel to support a German initiative at the 2017 G20 summit to pressure Trump on climate change. The Liberals also refused to commit Canada to improved automobile fuel mileage standards the Obama administration negotiated with the auto industry. Against the wishes of even some carmakers, Trump announced the US would freeze planned fuel-economy targets at 2020 levels, which prompted a bitter battle with California and a number of other US states. With Canada, the collection of dissident states represented 40 per cent of the North American auto market, enough to push the (divided) auto industry to follow the previously agreed fuel mileage standards. But the Liberals failed to publicly commit to push forward with steadily improved fuel mileage standards.
Despite claiming to take the climate crisis seriously, the Trudeau government has failed to put the country on track to meet even dangerously insufficient targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Expansion of the tar sands guarantees that Canada will flout its international commitments to reduce GHG emissions.
As the climate crisis worsens, it’s outrageous that Trudeau would press the president-elect to break his promise to voters and maintain the worst of Trump. Makes one wonder what level of climate criminality posterity will assign to the current Canadian prime minister.
The backlash may be more revealing than the film itself, but both inform us where we are at in the fight against climate change and ecological collapse. The environmental establishment’s frenzied attacks against Planet of the Humans says a lot about their commitment to big-money and technological solutions.
A number of prominent individuals tried to ban the film by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore. Others berated the filmmakers for being white, male and overweight. Many thought leaders have declared they won’t watch it.
Despite the hullabaloo, the central points in the film aren’t particularly controversial. Corporate-industrial society is driving human civilization/humanity towards the ecological abyss and environmental groups have largely made peace with capitalism. As such, they tout (profitable) techno fixes that are sometimes more ecologically damaging than fossil fuels (such as biomass or ethanol) or require incredible amounts of resources/space if pursued on a mass scale (such as solar and wind). It also notes the number of human beings on the planet has grown more than sevenfold over the past 200 years.
It should not be controversial to note that the corporate consumption juggernaut is destroying our ability to survive on this planet. From agroindustry razing animal habitat to plastic manufacturers’ waste killing sea life to the auto industrial complex’s greenhouse gases, the examples of corporations wreaking ecological havoc are manifold. Every year since 1969 humanity’s resource consumption has exceeded earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources by an ever-greater volume.
It is a statement of fact that environmental groups have deep ties to the corporate set. Almost all the major environmental groups receive significant cash from the mega-rich or their foundations. Many of them partner directly with large corporations. Additionally, their outreach strategies often rely on corporate media and other business mediated spheres. It beggar’s belief that these dependencies don’t shape their policy positions.
A number of the film’s points on ‘renewable’ energy are also entirely uncontroversial. It’s insane to label ripping down forests for energy as “green”. Or turning cropland into fuel for private automobiles. The film’s depiction of the minerals/resource/space required for solar and wind power deserves a far better response than “the data is out of date”.
The green establishment’s hyperventilating over the film suggests an unhealthy fixation/link to specific ‘renewable’ industries. But there are downsides to almost everything.
Extremely low GHG emitting electricity is not particularly complicated. In Québec, where I live, electricity is largely carbon free (and run by a publicly owned enterprise with an overwhelmingly unionized workforce, to boot). But, Hydro-Québec’s dams destroy ecosystems and require taking vast land from politically marginalized (indigenous) people. Likewise, nuclear power (also publicly owned and unionized) provides most of France’s electricity. But, that form of energy also has significant downsides.
In the US in 2019 63% of electricity came from fossil fuels, 20% from nuclear and 17% from ‘renewables’. But, even if one could flip the proportion of fossil fuels to ‘renewables’ around overnight there’s another statistic that is equally important. Since 1950 US electricity consumption has grown 13-fold and it continues to increase. That’s before putting barely any of the country’s 285 million registered private automobiles onto the grid. Electricity consumption is growing at a fast clip in China, India and elsewhere.
Oil is another source of energy that is growing rapidly. Up from 60 million barrels a day in 1980 and 86 million in 2010, 100 million barrels of oil were consumed daily in 2019. That number is projected to reach 140 million by 2040.
On one point I agree entirely with critics of the film. It’s unfair to (even indirectly) equate Bill McKibben with Al Gore. Representing the progressive end of the environmental establishment, McKibben has engaged in and stoked climate activism. Gore was Vice President when the US led the destruction of the former Yugoslavia, bombed Sudan and sanctioned Iraq.
Still, it’s ridiculous for McKibben and others to dismiss the film’s criticism of his decade-long promotion of biomass and refusal to come clean on 350.org’s donors as divisive. “I truly hope that Michael Moore does not succeed at dividing the climate movement. Too many have fought too long to build it”, he tweeted with a link to his response in Rolling Stone titled “‘A Bomb in the Center of the Climate Movement’: Michael Moore Damages Our Most Important Goal.” Echoing this theme, Naomi Klein came to her 350.org comrade’s defence tweeting, “it is truly demoralising how much damage this film has done at a moment when many are ready for deep change.” Democracy Now, Common Dreams, the Guardian and other media picked up her remark.
If it is divisive to criticize McKibben’s positions, then the same must be said of his own criticisms aimed at those demanding the Pentagon be highlighted in decarbonization efforts. In a June New York Review of Books column titled “The Pentagon’s Outsized Part in the Climate Fight” McKibben pours cold water on those who have asked him about the importance of “shrinking the size of the US military” (the world’s largest single institutional emitter of fossil fuels) in the fight for a sustainable planet. In fact, his piece suggests the Pentagon is well-positioned to combat the climate crisis since right wingers are more likely to listen to their climate warnings and the institution has massive research capacities to develop green technologies. McKibben seems to be saying the green movement should (could) co-opt the greatest purveyor of violence and destruction in the history of humanity! (In the Wrong Kind of Green blog Luke Orsborne offers a cogent breakdown of McKibben’s militarism.)
McKibben’s repeated advocacy of the private electric car could also be considered divisive. In Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? McKibben calls for “millions and millions of electric cars and buses” (alongside “building a hell of lot of factories to turn out thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind turbines the length of football fields.”) Does anyone believe the planet can sustain a transportation/urban planning system with most of the world’s 7.8 billion people owning 3,000-pound vehicles?
When an electric car is powered from a grid that is 63% fossil fuels the GHG it contributes per kilometer of travel is generally slightly less than an internal combustion engine. But the production and destruction phases for electric vehicles tend to be more energy intensive and they still require the extraction and development of significant amounts of resources. Additionally, the private car underpins a land, energy and resource intensive big box retail/suburban economy. (For details see my co-authored Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay.)
Moreover, as Death by Car recently pointed out, “electric vehicles are haloware — a product that exists to distract attention from continuing SUV and pickup sales. If this thesis is correct, then it is a huge mistake for progressive forces to express enthusiasm” for electric vehicles. Of the 86 million new passenger and light commercial vehicles sold globally in 2018 about 1.2 million of them were powered by battery-only electric engines while 37 million were pickups and SUVs. In other words, for every new battery-electric car there were 30 new SUVs/pickups sold. Alongside growing buzz about electric vehicles, the number of SUVs increased from 35 million to 200 million between 2010 and 2018.
McKibben and associates’ ability to frame the film as divisive rests on the stark power imbalance between the ‘green’ capitalist and degrowth outlooks. While there are few profits in the consume-less worldview, McKibben is situated at the progressive end of a network of organizations, commentators and media outlets empowered by hundreds of billions of dollars of ‘green’ capitalism. This milieu has counterposed solar, wind and biomass to the hyper fossil fuel emitting coal, natural gas and oil industries. But, they aren’t keen on discussing the limitations of their preferred energies and the fundamentally unsustainable nature of limitless energy (or other) consumption. And they certainly don’t want any spotlight placed on environmental groups ties to the mega-rich and an unsustainable model.
But, in reality it’s not the criticism that bothers. Death by Car, Wrong Kind of Green, Counterpunch and various other small leftist websites and initiatives have long documented McKibben and associates’ concessions to the dominant order. Often more harshly than in the film. What is unique about Planet of the Humans is that these criticisms have been put forward by leftists with some power (Michael Moore’s name and the funds for a full-length documentary, most obviously.) In other words, the backlash is not a response to the facts or argument per se but the ‘mainstreaming’ of the critique.
The environmental establishment’s ability to generate hundreds of hit pieces against Planet of the Humans suggests the movement/outlook has amassed substantial power. But, it’s not always clear to what ends. Most indicators of sustainability are trending in the wrong direction at the same time as top environmental figures have risen to the summits of power. Québec’s most prominent environmentalist, Steven Guilbeault, recently became a cabinet minister in the Liberal government while the former head of World Wildlife Fund Canada, Gerald Butts, was Justin Trudeau’s chief of staff. These individuals happily participate in a government that oversaw a 15 million tonne increase in Canada’s GHG emissions in 2018 and then decided to purchase a massive tar sands pipeline.
The incredible popularity of Planet of the Humans — seven million views on YouTube — suggests many are worried about the ecological calamity humanity is facing. Many also sense that the solutions environmental groups are putting forward don’t add up.
The lesson to be learned from the film and the frenzied attacks against it is that questioning the system — be that capitalism or the mainstream environmental movement — won’t make you friends in high places.
While governments’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic proves significant resources can be marshalled quickly in a crisis, there is little evidence official Canada sees global warming as a comparable emergency.
Even though Justin Trudeau’s Liberals say they take climate change seriously, Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are actually increasing. According to the inventory report the government filed with the United Nations last week, Canada’s emissions grew to more than 729 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and its equivalents in 2018. This represents a 15 million tonne increase over 2017.
Incredibly, the editors at the Globe and Mail decided this information deserved a 75-word brief in the bottom corner of page 15. While Canada’s paper of record buried the story, it deserved front-page attention. The situation is dire. Temperatures are increasing steadily and so too the frequency/intensity of “natural” disasters. In 2019 there were 15 natural disasters linked to climate change that caused more than a billion dollars in damage. Seven of them destroyed more than $10 billion. Hundreds of thousands have already died as a result of anthropocentric climate disturbances and the numbers will grow exponentially.
At the 2015 Paris climate negotiation the Trudeau government committed Canada to reducing GHG emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (a major step backwards from Canada’s commitment under the Kyoto Protocol and 2009 Copenhagen Accord). But, this target is unlikely to be achieved. In December Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, said Canada was expected to emit 603 million tonnes of GHG in 2030, far above the 511 million tonnes agreed to in Paris (to meet the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Canada would need to reduce its GHG emissions to 381 million tonnes by 2030).
A November Nature Communications study seeking to reconcile the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5-to-2 C concluded that if the rest of the world flouted its commitments in a similar way to Canada temperatures would increase between 3 C and 4 C by the end of the century. A Climate Transparency report card release that month found that Canada’s plan to meet its GHG targets was among the worst (along with Australia and South Korea) in the G20. The November study found that the emissions intensity of Canada’s buildings, transportation and agriculture were all above the G20 average and that Canadians produced nearly three times more GHG per capita than the G20 average.
Expansion of the tar sands guarantees that Canada will flout its international commitments to reduce GHG emissions. According to the Parkland Institute, “bitumen production grew 376% from 2000 through 2018” and is projected to grow by another 1.41 million barrels per day by 2040. To expand extraction of heavy carbon emitting Alberta oil, the Liberals are spending $9 billion on the Trans Mountain pipeline and related infrastructure. Last week the government announced $1.7 billion to clean up orphan wells in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. While energy workers should be offered work cleaning up environmental devastation, the initiative is, in effect, a subsidy to a historically profitable industry that should be covering the costs.
This was not the first time the Liberals broke their pre-election promise to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. Ottawa continues to offer billions of dollars (as much as $46 billion, according to one IMF working paper) a year in assistance to oil, gas and other fossil fuel firms. While Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s 2015 mandate letter from the PM said he should “work with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to fulfil our G20 commitment and phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry over the medium-term”, there was no mention of this objective in either Morneau’s or Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s 2019 mandate letters.
Despite claiming to take the climate crisis seriously, the Trudeau government has failed to put the country on track to meet even dangerously insufficient targets for reducing GHG emissions. This is largely because of the oil industry’s power. The profits from oil and natural gas flow to their producers and distributers, as well as the banks that finance them, and other investors whose portfolios include these stocks. These are the people who, under the current economic system, mostly determine government policy.
During a rally/press conference before the September 27 climate strike/protest in Montréal a friend interrupted the Prime Minister to label him a “climate criminal”. When Trudeau joined the enormous march, I dogged him yelling “criminel climatique/climate criminal”. A week later I was detained and given a $150 ticket for yelling “climate criminal” outside a café where Trudeau was holding a press conference. While some might consider it hyperbolic, the case for labeling Trudeau a “climate criminal” is overwhelming:
The Liberals spent $4.5 billion on the Trans Mountain pipeline and related infrastructure. This important government intervention is designed to expand extraction of heavy carbon emitting tar sands oil that must stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate disturbances.
Two years ago Trudeau told oil executives in Houston, “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” With these words the PM made it clear his government chose business (and profits) as usual over the survival of human civilization.
The Liberals broke their pre-election promise to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. Ottawa continues to offer a few billion dollars a year in different forms of aid to oil, gas and other fossil fuel firms.
The Liberals eliminated the planned toll on the recently opened $4.4 billion Champlain Bridge to the South Shore of Montréal. The move tells suburbanites the federal government will aggressively subsidize the most costly, unhealthy and ecologically destructive form of land transport for every metre of their 10, 40 or 80 kilometre daily drive (alone) into the city.
The Liberals spent tens of billions of dollars on heavy carbon emitting fighter jets and naval vessels. In the best-case scenario, these weapons will only emit greenhouse gases during training. In the worst-case scenario, they will spew GHG as well as destroy lives and ecosystems. Additionally, militarism is intimately tied to nation state competition, which undercuts the international cooperation needed to mitigate the climate crisis.
By themselves any one of these acts should be viewed as a form of climate criminality. Heck, I’d label as a climate criminal a prime minister who didn’t buy a tar sands pipeline, declare support for extracting tar sands, break its promise to end fossil fuel subsidies, eliminate an important auto toll or spend on arms procurement. Simply failing to declare, legislate and fund a massive justice-based transition off of fossil fuels should be viewed as an act of climate criminality.
The situation is dire. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is growing precipitously, increasing temperature and the number of “natural” disasters. Hundreds of thousands are already dying as a result of anthropocentric climate disturbances and the numbers are projected to grow.
The other reason it is criminal for a PM to fail to pursue a justice-based transition is Canada’s large current and accumulated carbon footprint. Per capita emissions in many African countries amount to barely one per cent of Canada’s rate. Even more startling is the historical imbalance among nations in global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2009 Guardian comparison, Canada released 23,669 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 1900 and 2004 while Afghanistan released 77 million metric tons, Chad 7 million metric tons, Morocco 812 million metric tons and Egypt 3,079 million metric tons. Canada’s contribution to global warming over this period was more than the combined total of every sub-Saharan African country.
A sense of ‘carbon equity’ demands a rapid cut in Canadian GHG emissions. So does economic justice. The wealthiest countries should be the first to leave fossil fuel wealth in the ground. Only a sociopath would suggest the Congo, Haiti or Bangladesh stop extracting fossil fuels before Canada. Additionally, Canada has far greater means to transition off of fossil fuels than many other places.
Is Andrew Scheer worse than Trudeau? Of course. But does acknowledgement that someone is worse make you less guilty?
Wherever he speaks Trudeau should be tagged as a climate criminal.