Retired Simon Fraser University professor Donald Gutstein’s most recent book, The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada, delivers a dark and uncomfortably common message: stopping our trajectory toward climate disaster requires a radical upheaval of prevailing corporate and government practices and personal consumption habits. For Gutstein, this begins by understanding the forces driving public opinion and government decision-making.
Using documents and second-hand information gathered over more than 30 years, Gutstein presents a compelling investigation of how corporations and businesses — particularly Big Oil — have manipulated us and our governments to serve their best interests.
“The corporate sector is always concerned about managing public opinion,” Gutstein said when we sat down to talk about his book. “And that goes through different phases and different forms… The risk for corporations in a democracy is that governments will do what the people want, which probably goes against what's best for big business, right? So, how do you take the risk out of that happening?”
The answer, according to The Big Stall, is to pour millions of dollars into neoliberal think tanks, public-relations firms and specialized university research institutes that will pepper the press with their “expertise” and cast doubt on the scientifically proven effects of carbon emissions on the climate. This propaganda has been so successful that a significant minority of Canadians don’t believe human factors are the cause of climate change or that there is solid evidence the Earth is warming, Gutstein found in a February 2018 survey.
The first Trudeau and Rachel Carson
The Big Stall begins with two stories: prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP) and the development of the international oil industry which undercut his plan; and Rachel Carson and the start of the environmental movement, and how she was targeted by an agricultural chemical producer even before her book Silent Spring was published. Aside from the beginning and end of The Big Stall, environmentalists like Carson have little presence. In Gutstein’s research, their power and that of environmental scientists have been eclipsed by opinions supporting Big Oil companies that spend millions of dollars to shape opinions and decisions both nationally and internationally.
Before Trudeau could implement his nationalization plan, the energy sector began creating disinformation campaigns to get ahead of governmental restrictions on the oil industry, much like what happened with Carson in the 1950s. Bruce Harrison, then at the Manufacturing Chemists Association, “launched an all-out attack on (Carson’s) credibility,” Gutstein writes. Later in this carefully footnoted book, Gutstein reintroduces Harrison — this time, as a leader of the climate-denial movement.
A long list of organizations and players
Gutstein has an investigative journalist’s ability to map and trace the movement of people from the private to the public sector, traversing from business to public-relations firms, think tanks, councils and academic and government posts. He draws a picture of intrigue in an interconnected Canadian web. His research covers prime ministers from Trudeau to Trudeau, with a particularly deep dive into Stephen Harper; and premiers — particularly in Alberta, focusing on Peter Lougheed and Rachel Notley. Other individuals who stand out are oil and mineral businessman Maurice Strong; former Energy Policy Institute of Canada co-chair Bruce Carson; past president of Calgary-based think tank Canada West Foundation Roger Gibbons; and B.C. premier Gordon Campbell.
Perhaps no one surfaces more in The Big Stall than Tom d’Aquino, who, Gutstein writes, became “an evangelist for national energy strategy, clean growth and carbon pricing” and head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. But his work behind the scenes began at the Business Council of National Issues (BCNI).
When Trudeau promised the NEP, or the Canadization of the energy industry in the 1970s, most of Canada’s oil was exported and owned by U.S. and other foreign oil companies. A consequence of implementing the NEP would be that economic benefits transferred to Ottawa and energy users, “especially Ontario and Quebec, at the expense of industry and producing provinces,” Gutstein documents. The backlash from Alberta’s Lougheed and the oil companies was swift and motivated the startup of the BCNI, “an organization created of petroleum, gas and pipeline associations.” BCNI’s name would change over the years, but it’s mission remained the same: to ensure the energy industry stayed out of government control and public policy pushed in the direction desired by business, Gutstein writes.
“A lot of people have heard of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, right?” Gutstein said in our interview, “but not the Business Council of Canada (formerly called BCNI). BCC doesn’t care what the public thinks, because their audience is government. They target the prime minister. The premiers. Senior bureaucrats.”
In The Big Stall, Gutstein writes: “If you want to find out what the federal government is planning for tomorrow, you need only look at what BCNI is advocating today.”
Altering ideas about carbon emissions
In the 1960s, scientists talked about carbon pollution leading to an increase of 2 C, 4 C or even 6 C of warming — information that was not exclusive to the scientific community. Shell Oil highlighted this effect in a 1979 coal-sector report and Imperial Oil, Exxon’s Canadian subsidiary, admitted “there is no doubt that increases in fossil fuel and decreases of forest cover are aggravating the potential problem of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Gutstein documents.
The financial support of fossil fuel companies and the foundations of a dozen billionaires “fuelled a 25-year campaign to manufacture doubt and undermine scientific evidence about the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming,” Gutstein writes. “Big Oil (followed) the playbook of the tobacco industry” as they set out to bury truths, mislead the public and destroy obstructions to their control of the energy sector.
Gutstein believes economists took the ideological lead, replacing scientists and carrying the neoliberal flag, which, if reduced to a slogan, would be “all problems must be solved by the market.”
“Climate scientists, with their doom-and-gloom scenarios of devasting floods, heat waves and mass migrations, could raise the alarm,” he writes, “but economists, with their soothing massage of cost-benefit analysis and the magic of markets, would be the first responders.”
Neoliberalism became the prevailing economic philosophy when Brian Mulroney replaced Trudeau, but neoliberalism had been creeping into the veins of political discourse before then, Gutstein writes. The core group behind the propagation of these ideas was the Mont Pelerin Society, with “a mandate to work toward a market state — an individualistic, non-egalitarian society, governed by market transactions,” Gutstein documents. Deregulation, tax cuts to support business investments in the tarsands and other energy-sector development would become the norm. The use of cost-benefit analysis was applied to climate control when appraising investment projects, with the effect that human life and biodiversity became secondary considerations to monetary gain, he writes.
With business interests guiding environmental decisions, Gutstein shows how economists and others have changed the game by claiming the environment can be saved by growth, or “sustainable development.” Neoliberal economic theory pushed for globalization, a concept incubated by the “Trilateral Commission, which included 250 financial, industrial, political, bureaucratic and media elite, carefully selected by David Rockefeller,” Gutstein documents. Other ideas emerged from economic theories — carbon pricing, cap and trade and carbon taxes. Even geoengineering can be viewed through a lens of economic advantage.
Public opinion is the driver
In order for government to support Big Oil’s interests, Gutstein, explained in the interview, Big Oil needs public opinion on its side. That means framing the climate change discussion. It takes an army of people to do this, and billions of dollars. Gutstein documents how think tanks, lobbyists, public-relations firms and academic institutions churn out ideas that are then fed to the press and the public. As an example, in 2008, Exxon alone donated $30 million to think tanks and astroturf groups (organizations made up members from varying sectors promoting an idea).
The strategy is simple, Gutstein writes, “bring the entire corporate sector together; recruit sympathetic academics to produce favourable research; influence media opinion; and persuade government officials to embrace the strategy.”
Neoliberal think tanks, “backed with funds from corporations and their owners, usually channelled through private foundations” churn out books and articles disseminated by the mainstream press. Gutstein believes one of the most influential Canadian think tanks is the Fraser Institute, launched in 1974.
“Behind the Fraser Institute’s anti-global warming, pro-industry work laid the support of most major oil, gas, petrochemical and coal companies in Canada,” he writes.
“They're still chugging along,” he said during our interview. “They get about $10 million a year in funding and they've got an incredible formula for success. Just repeat the same studies year after year after year. And then, gradually, that becomes part of our common, accepted knowledge.”
TV ads are another attack vehicle. After Lougheed left office in Alberta, “neoliberalism crept in the door with Don Getty and slammed it shut with Ralph Klein,” Gutstein writes. Tax writeoffs were increased for capital investments, creating what Gutstein calls, “welfare for capitalists.” By the time Canada signed the Kyoto protocol, $20.6 billion worth of oilsands projects were on the books for the next decade, Gutstein documents. Signing Kyoto threatened the success of these projects and “d’Aquino and the petroleum producers… saturating Ontario with TV ads that were estimated to cost $225,000 a week.” Support for Kyoto was successfully undercut.
Institutes and schools are also part of the arsenal, Gutstein contends. The Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC) “was created to be industry’s chosen vehicle to promote a business-friendly national energy strategy and have it adopted by federal and provincial governments.” It was formed in 2009 with backing from the largest fossil fuel companies like Shell Canada, Imperial Oil, Canadian National Resources, Suncor Energy and pipeline companies. In order to support development of the tarsands, the Harper government created a campaign, and one gambit was the “The Carson/Canada School of Energy and Environment… to resuscitate the oilsands’ reputation and demonize environmental opponents,” Gutstein documents. The school would “disseminate messages about how clean the oilsands really are.”
Justin Trudeau’s 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change “twisted and turned through academia, federal and Alberta government bureaucracies, political parties, corporate lobbies, media and think tanks as Big Oil amassed support for the project,” Gutstein writes. To add academic credibility, Roger Gibbins — president of Canada West Foundation and a professor of political science from the University of Calgary — argued that energy development and climate change worked together, “yoking climate change to the energy policy cart and (having it steered) by a western Canadian driver, ensuring the combined policy formation would head in a direction desired by Big Oil,” Gutstein documents.
In 2016, when the University of Ottawa’s Sustainable Prosperity Network rechristened its academic wing as the Smart Prosperity Institute, the result was, “an organization that blurs the lines between government, academia and business,” Gutstein writes.
COPs and the future
The Big Stall traces events and influencers through the Conferences of Parties (COPs) from Rio to Kyoto to Copenhagen to Paris, documenting ineffectual outcomes, and energy-sector business influence on decision-making. Time and again, The Big Stall illustrates how the environment and humans are sidelined or their best interests stalled to accommodate economic interests.
“Madrid was really about Article 6, or carbon trading,” Gutstein explained when we met. Carbon trading means “never really giving up producing fossil fuels because you can find places to buy credits. It's a bait-and-switch strategy. There should've been restrictions, mandatory limits rather than allowing carbon trade.” And it’s a corrupt system, he explained, with “enormous impacts on Indigenous people and on the environment. You get a credit for building a dam, but in the meantime, you flood the lands of thousands of Indigenous people.”
At the end of the book, Gutsein offers several ideas about how we can turn things around. One is to give legal rights to the environment, as the Maori have done in New Zealand. Another is to restore stewardship of their lands to Indigenous Peoples.
“The Indigenous view of the land, the Indigenous law and legal orders, are slowly being incorporated into judicial decisions. I think you can see over the last 20 years a steady progress in a very positive direction,” Gutstein said.
The promises of clean growth and sustainability, the plans to create technologies that will reduce or eliminate carbon emissions, seem mostly empty, in Gutstein’s analysis. They are simply another “business” stall to the final solution.
For instance, Gutstein shows that when Shell abandoned tarsands for natural gas development, the decision was driven by financial — not environmental — factors. In the emissions-trading game, the switch was advantageous. Natural gas produces 25 per cent less carbon emissions than oil, and tarsands oil emits even more carbon than clean oils. Also, pipeline development had become complicated, and extracting bitumen from the sands is a difficult and costly process.
But switching is not the solution, as far as Gutstein is concerned. “By investing heavily in natural gas, the company (Shell) ensures fewer resources will be available for renewables, which in contrast to natural gas are the only path to a low-carbon future.”
Clean energy — wind and solar — and the push to develop technologies to capture or alter carbon emissions can be viewed problematically as well, Gutstein argues. They use all use natural resources and energy.
“Some environmental economics still believe growth can continue ad infinitum because we are transforming valueless objects into things with value... like new commodities, new materials. But there are other economists who are saying we have to develop a no-growth economy. And I think that's where we have to look because too many people think all we have to do is substitute wind and solar for fossil fuels and we can just carry on.”
Someday soon, he said, we will have to realize the change must take place in the way we live and consume.
The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada was published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Toronto.
Book Cover art courtesy of James Lorimer & Company.