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Canada's Climate Emergency Declaration Is Just Empty Words

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On Monday, Canada’s Liberal Party voted en masse to declare a climate emergency in the House of Commons. Then on Tuesday, the Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion that, when completed, will pump 590,000 barrels of highly-polluting tar sands oil from Alberta to British Columbia.

Producing and processing the tar sands petroleum before sending it chugging down the pipeline will emit 13-15 megatons of carbon—the equivalent of adding 212,000 new cars to the road every year—according to the Canadian government’s own estimates. Burning that oil will release still more carbon dioxide. In short, it’s as if words have no meaning. While declaring a climate emergency is becoming somewhat vogue, the world continues to act like it’s business as usual ensuring more calamity is ahead.


Canada made a little bit of history on Monday, becoming the second country to declare a climate emergency after the UK did so last month. The resolution text had four main points, but here’s the one most germane to our discussion (with emphasis added):

“That the House recognize that...action to support clean growth and meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all parts of the economy are necessary to ensure a safer, healthier, cleaner and more prosperous future for our children and grandchildren; and, therefore, that the House declare that Canada is in a national climate emergency which requires, as a response, that Canada commit to meeting its national emissions target under the Paris Agreement and to making deeper reductions in line with the Agreement’s objective of holding global warming below two degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.”


Like the UK, Canada’s declaration approved by a vote of 186-63 in the House of Commons is also, crucially, non-binding. (Trudeau wasn’t even present for the vote—he was busy feting the Toronto Raptors at their victory parade.) That means it’s a bunch of nice words with no enforcement mechanism compelling the government to act. Still, the fact that it includes language advocating for Canada to make bigger cuts to greenhouse gas emissions is a worthy goal!

The thing about climate change, however, is that it is binding. Human governments can bend to constituents’ changing needs and desires, but the climate is only beholden to the unbending laws of physics. Carbon dioxide traps heat, the planet warms, and that warming works its way through the system like a horrifying Rube Goldberg machine that could leave society and the natural world hanging on for dear life.

Canada’s pledge to the Paris Agreement and the policies its put in place to meet its goal have been deemed “insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker. The country isn’t committed to doing its fair share and if all governments followed Canada’s lead, we’d be looking at catastrophic global warming of about 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. Canada’s emissions also rose in 2017, the last year with data available. The country clearly needs to redouble its efforts.

And yet the government turned around less than 24 hours after declaring a climate emergency by announcing it would move forward building a pipeline to transport some of the world’s dirtiest oil to market. In his announcement saying the project would go forward, Trudeau said any profits the pipeline delivered would be put back into clean energy projects. The whole thing is like a doctor declaring you need emergency quadruple bypass, then driving to McDonald’s for a Big Mac with fries.


The story of how the Canadian government ended up with the pipeline project only adds to the hypocrisy of the climate emergency declaration. Kinder Morgan, the original pipeline builder, dropped its plan to complete the expansion after many of First Nations in British Columbia and Alberta whose land the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion would cross opposed the project and engaged in direction action against it. Ditto for tribes in Washington state, which is likely to see an increase in the number of oil tankers pushing off from the pipeline’s terminal in British Columbia and cruise through the Salish Sea, home to endangered orcas, salmon, and other wildlife the tribes hold dear and depend on for their livelihoods.


“Canada can’t be a climate leader and support this pipeline,” Brian Cladoosby, Washington’s Swinomish tribe chairman, told Earther in a statement. “You can’t respond to an emergency by continuing to approve projects that are causing the emergency.”

As opposition swelled last year and Kinder Morgan got cold feet, the Canadian government stepped in to buy the pipeline project for $3.5 billion and weighed what to do next. We now know what next is. It’s a bitter irony that the Canadian climate emergency declaration frets (rightly) that First Nations are “particularly vulnerable to its [climate change’s] effects” while the next day it ignored their voices by approving the pipeline.


The whole episode shows that governments—for all their high-mindedness about climate action—are still acting like there’s no emergency at all, that the economy (energy production fuels 10.6 percent of Canada’s GDP) takes precedence over a habitable planet, that this is the last pipeline, and that the taps will be shut off eventually.

In her speech before the global elite at Davos, Swedish climate active Greta Thunberg imparted this advice: “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” Canada’s climate emergency declaration acknowledged that reality. Then it threw another can of gas on the flames.


Earther has reached out to Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna’s office for how the declaration (which she voted for) and the pipeline fit together. We will update this post if we hear back.