Trudeau Is Less Liberal Than You Think

Canada's newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "We remember what happened," write Klein and Lewis, "when progressives de-mobilized after Obama was elected and we won't make the same mistake." (Photo: Canada 2020/flickr/cc)

Trudeau Is Less Liberal Than You Think

Many environmentalists rejoiced when Stephen Harper’s government was thrown out of office in Canada. But Justin Trudeau is no savior.

Our inboxes runneth over with congratulations from American friends. "Pleasure to be able to look north without wincing," "we're all thrilled to have regained our sensible neighbors to the north," "Goodbye Stephen 'Keystone XL' Harper." And then there was this from England: "you now officially have the hottest Prime Minister EVER!"

Like us, our friends tend to spend a lot of time thinking about climate change, so you can understand their euphoria. Among other crimes, Stephen Harper shredded environmental protections, re-fashioned our country as a petro-state, and made us climate criminals on the world stage. Now after the ugliest decade in recent Canadian memory, he is gone at last.

So why are we not breathing more easily?

Perhaps it's because of a few things we learned about our new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, during the election--details that didn't exactly make national news south of the border.

Trudeau consistently lambasted Harper for failing to sell the Obama Administration on Keystone XL. His campaign co-chair was caught advising oil industry execs on how to win quick approval from the new government for the biggest proposed tar sands pipeline in Canada. And Trudeau himself waved off questions about specific emissions cuts by saying, "what we need is not ambitious political targets."

Granted, there are also some potentially positive signs from our new PM: his promise to run deficits for three years as he spends billions on infrastructure could, if executed with real imagination and integrity, start Canada on the road to a post-carbon economy. And under Trudeau, Canada is less likely to be a belligerent, obstructionist force at the UN climate talks in Paris next month.

But that just puts Trudeau in the same camp as most heads of state heading to Paris--and it hardly deserves to be described "leadership." The fact is that politicians, because of their need for approval (both personal and political) consistently cling to the fantasy of an "all of the above" energy policy, which essentially means saying yes to more renewables, but refusing to say a clear "no" to opening up new fossil fuel frontiers.

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So while Barack Obama makes climate his great legacy, with EPA regulations on coal plant emissions and fuel efficiency standards, he continues to authorize a historic gush of domestic gas and oil production. Angela Merkel presides over an impressive energy transition towards renewables, but has done little to curtail coal. Even California Governor Jerry Brown, despite recently signing one of the world's strongest clean energy targets into law, can't bring himself to say no to fracking--even in the middle of a devastating drought. None of this will get our emissions down quickly enough to avert further climate disaster.

But that does not mean that the world is without visionary climate leadership--on the contrary. In the five years it took to make our documentary, This Changes Everything, we met with and learned from scores of climate leaders, people willing to say "no" to dirty infrastructure no matter what economic enticements were on offer, while actively building the post-carbon future, right now. We found these figures not in houses of government, but embedded in communities that are on the frontlines of both fossil fuel extraction and climate impacts. And what they showed us has filled us with hope.

In the United States, thanks to powerful new coalitions of indigenous, rancher and urban communities from the Powder River Basin to the Pacific Northwest, a vast new export network of coal mines, railroads and export terminals has been stalled for years.

Thanks to a parallel movement north of the border, led by First Nations from Alberta's tar sands region to the British Columbia coast, not a single new major pipeline has broken ground. And in a number of those Indigenous communities, solar projects are sprouting like sunflowers.

Thanks to the fossil fuel divestment movement, institutions representing $2.6 trillion in capital have pledged to pull out of fossil fuels, and the global investment community is inexorably moving towards renewables.

And thanks to courageous anti-coal movements in India and surging protests against pollution in China, those governments are being pushed to embrace stronger climate policies--and consequently, our narrative about these major developing economies is changing. It's clear in the Global North, we can no longer use China and India as an excuse to let ourselves off the hook.

But these victories are not enough. People power can stop big dirty projects and start small clean ones. But for a true transition--on the scale and with the urgency that climate science demands--we need policies. Big, bold, ambitious policies that can transform our economies on a deadline. And we need them at every level of government, from municipal to national to international.

To get there, throwing out fossil fuel-addicted governments won't be enough. Even electing progressive leaders won't be enough. It will take a combination of electoral change and pressure (as well as vision) from below to disperse the smog of Big Carbon's influence that shrouds our political systems.

And that means we need policies that will galvanize huge numbers of people--people who see direct benefits in advocating such transformative change. That's the only way we will build the massive constituencies necessary to exert sufficient pressure on governments.

All of this is why, in anticipation of our recent change in government, we helped launch The Leap Manifesto in Canada. Written and endorsed by a broad spectrum of social movements--from First Nations and green groups, migrant rights and anti-poverty campaigners, big labor and small business--The Leap is a set of policy demands that could get us off fossil fuels and shift us to an economy based on caring for the earth and each other. It's a vision of our country that we think has mass appeal.

It calls for massive new public investments in low-carbon housing and transit, no new fossil fuel infrastructure, a shift to 100% renewable energy for electricity in two decades (which dozens of Canadian experts have said is entirely doable) and a totally clean economy by 2050.

In demanding that we respond to the climate crisis in a way that benefits the majority, the Leap Manifesto re-defines the whole concept of green jobs. They're not just guys with hardhats putting up wind turbines: they're the backbone of the entire existing low-carbon economy. Health care, education, daycare, long-term care, the arts and public interest media are all low-carbon activities that need to be re-funded and revived after decades of neglect and endless cuts.

Most importantly, the Leap Manifesto calls for justice in the way we transition off fossil fuels. In other words, the communities who had the worst deal in the extractive, polluting economy should be first in line for the clean jobs and renewed social support of the next, clean economy. That means implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and respecting treaty rights. That means welcoming many more migrants and refugees to our privileged shores, acknowledging Canada's role in the wars, trade deals and climate crisis that are collectively driving people from their lands around the world. It means a coherent policy approach that addresses multiple crises at the same time.

Granted, this is not the kind of platform that emerges from the narrow box of what mainstream politicians consider pragmatic. And that's a good thing, because we don't need more tweaks to a broken status quo. We need to expand what is possible, stretch our political imagination, speak to the deepest aspirations of citizens, and offer a truly inspiring vision of the kind of countries we want to live in.

And it seems that many others agree. We were stunned by the outpouring of support when the manifesto was launched. Almost thirty thousand signatures, and a star-studded initial signatories list, including Canadian celebrities (people--it's not an oxymoron!) from Leonard Cohen and Neil Young to Ellen Page and Donald Sutherland. People started asking us for Leap lawn signs. Most satisfyingly, right wing pundits went crazy. Former media baron Conrad Black wrote three columns about our modest proposal, which was also excoriated in editorials in our national newspapers--both of which went on to endorse Stephen Harper's Conservatives, proving just how out of step the establishment is with the public at large.

And that was really the point. The manifesto has highlighted the inspiration gap between what is on offer in elections, and the deep change so many of us know is required in the face of multiple overlapping crises. It was a clear rejection of the shortcomings of a system that encourages us to wake up, vote, and go back to sleep. To wait for saviors.

So by all means, admire our new Prime Minister in his shirtless, boxing-gloved glory. We are grateful to be rid of the most destructive government in modern memory. And we will not be churlish--we'll endeavor to enjoy our Obama Lite moment.

But we are also determined to learn from your experience. We remember what happened when progressives de-mobilized after Obama was elected and we won't make the same mistake. Instead, a huge and growing movement of Canadians is determined to give our young prime minister the best gift any new government can receive: relentless pressure from below.

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