November 2018 will have a special place in the history books — assuming, that is, the future has any time for history, or books. The month of record began right here at National Observer, when a tip from Reclaim Alberta’s Regan Boychuk resulted in one of the greatest Canadian revelations ever… of something that was already self-evident: a century of oil and gas development in the province of Alberta has left a mess that will take at least a quarter of a trillion dollars to clean up.
The month ended with GM announcing the end of a century of automotive production in Oshawa — a crisis for 2,500 workers and their families, for which, it rapidly became clear, no level of government had any solution whatsoever. It’s as if the $10.8 billion dollar public bailout of the company less than a decade ago never happened. And while this ritual of deindustrialization was playing out — highlighting how little public interest is ever purchased with even epic levels of corporate welfare — Rachel Notley was in Ottawa, demanding more.
Since the direct gift to Kinder Morgan of $4.5 billion of public money for a controversial pipeline didn’t reap sufficient political dividends, the premier has been dominating headlines with her latest plans to win the upcoming Alberta election. Her gambit is, quite simply, to establish and control the narrative of the “crisis” of the oil price differential. In this story, hardworking Albertans are dying on the vine (pitted resentfully against those Oshawa autoworkers, apparently blessed with more than their share of political sympathy) because oil from Alberta bitumen is worth so much less than West Texas Intermediate. In this narrative, Ottawa is cruelly indifferent, while Premier Notley is in full emergency leadership mode, now enforcing production cuts and planning to buy 80 locomotives and 7,000 rail cars (read: more corporate welfare) to increase oil exports by 120,000 barrels a day.
It is also true that November was not without its silver lining. In the United States, hundreds of young climate activists, in league with newly elected progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been occupying offices on Capitol Hill and bringing the transformative proposal of a Green New Deal into mainstream debate. Of course, this ambitious vision of a holistic response to climate, inequality and racism is not new — it has been nurtured over many years in climate justice circles by the communities who need it most. At The Leap it has been our prime directive since the launch of the manifesto three years ago. While it is gratifying to see climate groups in Canada finally engage, we have a major fight before us all: it is the battle of crises.
This is the terrain on which the great struggle of our time is being waged: who defines crisis, who benefits from it, and what is made invisible in the process. And we are not yet winning: this very same month saw plenty of genuine crises, all connected to climate breakdown, which made only time-limited appearances in our national debate.
On November 8th, the Camp Fire began - the U.S.’s most devastating climate change-intensified fire of the last century. It claimed at least 88 lives, many thousands of homes and most of a town in California. In the wake of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report detailing the extent of planetary dystopia that two degrees of global warming would bring, a study in Nature Communications revealed that if every country in the world adopted Canada’s current level of climate ambition, we’d be headed for more than 5 degrees. It is surely a crisis when self-styled climate champions in a country like Canada have crafted policies that put us in league with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
These real crises stand in stark contrast to the invented ones. They are actually happening, transforming our physical world, costing lives and treasure. Whereas the crises that capture headlines day after day — looking at you, oil price differential! — turn out to be wildly exaggerated for cynical political ends.
Take the alarming, endlessly repeated “fact” that lack of pipeline capacity is hammering the price of Alberta’s oil, and is costing all of Canada some $80 million dollars a day. ("We will lose that $80 million tomorrow and the day after and the day after, as long as this price differential remains in place," says Premier Notley.) Despite the fact that this assertion is dutifully recorded and repeated in countless media reports, the number is simply an invention. And from a politician as well-versed in oil pricing as premier Notley, how could it not be a willful one? In fact, as economist Robyn Allan has demonstrated with her usual incisive argument and persuasive evidence, only one out of five barrels of Alberta oil is even subject to that price differential. Three of the Big Five oil sands producers are effectively not exposed to the price differential at all, and the other two only partially so. The price differential is undoubtedly costing some oil producers dearly. It is definitely costing some jobs, which is a crisis for those families. It is not costing the Canadian economy anywhere near $80 million per day.
But the oil industry is still on its knees, right? Isn’t that why more than a thousand protesters held a noisy demo outside Trudeau’s last Calgary speech? (Cries of “drill baby drill!” were all that was missing.) Well, November 2018 also brought a study from the Corporate Mapping Project that found that last year alone, those same five companies booked $46.6 billion in profits. That gusher of extracted wealth is precisely what is being protected by these manufactured crises. In a right-side up world, a large chunk of those profits would be redirected to put thousands of workers back on the job, cleaning up the looming crisis of aging oil infrastructure in Alberta. Real crises, when met at scale and in the public interest, contain real opportunities.
But that’s not the world we’re living in. In fact, since Justin Trudeau’s and Rachel Notley’s chief advisors met in a Byward Market restaurant, just three days after the 2015 Liberal election victory, to strike a deal in which Notley would get the Trans Mountain pipeline and Trudeau would get his climate deal, we have been subjected to a message as perverse as it has been persistent: the “crisis” of Alberta’s desire to export ever more oil must be solved before Canada can address the climate crisis.
"This is the terrain on which the great struggle of our time is being waged: who defines crisis, who benefits from it, and what is made invisible in the process," writes @avilewis
Even for those of us who have not yet experienced personal loss and trauma from climate catastrophe, the juxtaposition of our genuine planetary emergency with cynically manipulated fake crises is getting painful. It’s gaslighting on a national scale. We are bombarded by endless coverage of the fake crisis in the oil patch while the real crisis of all life everywhere is so often rendered invisible.
We are living in a state of planetary emergency. It has been declared by scientists, Indigenous leaders, social movements, and communities that were already living in a state of daily emergency long before the extent of the climate catastrophe became clear. We have solutions that will truly benefit everyone — especially those most marginalized and under attack by the current extractive system, and those currently working in industries that need to be wound down.
But we can’t get started until this emergency is felt — viscerally — by a great many more people, especially the hardest to reach: our political leaders. That’s precisely what is happening in the United States, where a generation of complacent corporate Democrats is suddenly being challenged by a crowd of impatient millennials, bursting with the urgency of their generation, creating an emergency for the political status quo. Apparently, losing power is the only crisis that politicians can really understand.
Avi Lewis is Strategic Director of The Leap