When it comes to climate change, Donald Trump is usually painted as the villain of the piece.
Much of that opprobrium is deserved. The U.S. president has moved to take apart the Obama-era regulations designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired electricity generation plants. He has vowed to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate change accord.
At a United Nations climate change conference in Poland this week, U.S. negotiators joined forces with Russia, Australia and Saudi Arabia to promote the use of carbon-rich fossil fuels, such as coal and oil.
“The United States has an abundance of natural resources and is not going to keep them in the ground,” Trump adviser Wells Griffith told the conference, as environmental activists jeered.
“No country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.”
To the New York Times, it was evidence of Trump’s move from mere outlier on the climate change front to downright opponent of anything designed to constrain global warming.
And in some ways it was — particularly since it came only two days after the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia deep-sixed an attempt to have the conference endorse the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This report warns that the world is running out of time in the battle against global warming.
But the essence of the Trump critique — that nations cannot afford to leave their oil and gas reserves undeveloped, regardless of the effect on climate change — is not unique to him. It is shared by, among others, Canada’s own Justin Trudeau.
“No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” the prime minister said in Houston last year, in reference to Alberta’s oilsands.
“The resource will be developed. Our job is to ensure that this is done responsibly, safely and sustainably.”
How does this mesh with Canada’s stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels, and doing so by the year 2030?
The answer is that it doesn’t. The Canadian government admits that its carbon-reduction strategy — already modest to begin with — is not on target.
Indeed, the federal, Alberta and British Columbia governments continue to subsidize the oil and natural gas industries.
The federal Liberal government has purchased a pipeline for $4.5 billion and plans to expand it in order to move heavy oil from Alberta to the B.C. coast. Alberta’s New Democratic government has pledged to buy a fleet of rail tank cars to transport bitumen. The NDP minority government in B.C. wants to offer tax breaks to developers of a giant liquified natural gas project.
Unlike the Trump administration, all three governments are considered progressive. They are vocal in their concern about climate change. But like Trump, they are unwilling to undertake any action that might sacrifice jobs and the economy.
A report this week from two environmental groups calculates that rising emissions from oil and gas production won’t allow Canada to meet its global target.
The report by Environmental Defence and Stand.earth estimates that if Canada wants to reach that target without affecting oil and gas, the rest of the country would have to cut emissions almost in half.
The authors say this would be the equivalent of taking all vehicles off the road, shutting down all manufacturing and eliminating all greenhouse gases from non-petroleum industries.
In short, it is something no government would do. Similarly and regardless of climate change, no government would be willing to leave Alberta’s bitumen in the ground. The political costs would be too high.
In that sense, we are all Trumpians. Saving the planet is a fine idea. But not if it costs us.
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.