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It was apparent Canada’s environment and climate change minister was making waves when the White House called Ottawa to ask if he knew what he was really saying.

In May, Steven Guilbeault became the first minister from a wealthy country to publicly support discussing a fund to compensate poorer nations for damages caused by climate change at the United Nations climate conference later that year. Until then, the idea had been consistently nixed by rich countries, including Canada, over concerns they might be held liable for a century of rampant fossil fuel burning.

After the story ran, the phone started to ring.

“The White House (was) telling our folks: ‘Uh, does your minister know what he's talking about?’” Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer. “It was raising some eyebrows.”

Guilbeault was not talking off the cuff; he had gained internal government consent before spreading the word. “When I started signalling to the department that I thought Canada should shift its position, it was a bit of a revolution,” he said. “I told the officials … I don't know where we'll land, but we need to start having a real conversation about loss and damage.”

Over the next six months, Guilbeault discussed the issue with his overseas counterparts, and gradually other wealthy countries climbed on board. At COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, a loss and damage fund was launched.

“I think it was such an important thing to do,” says Guilbeault with pride. “It was the only thing we accomplished in Sharm, really.”

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault in an interview with Canada's National Observer. Photo by Natasha Bulowski/Canada's National Observer.

The COP27 loss and damage fund is a showcase example of Guilbeault’s skill at securing environmental wins, at least on the international stage. He scored a second victory in December at the international biodiversity conference in Montreal using the same diplomatic approach. The result: a Paris Agreement-style pact for countries to conserve nature.

Environment Minister @s_guilbeault is using a playbook he honed in the environmental movement to push climate policy at home and abroad, but as the country's emissions keep climbing, will it be enough? #cdnpoli

Those international successes have earned Guilbeault considerable praise from some of the country’s toughest judges — climate activists, many of whom are his friends and former peers. They attribute Guilbeault’s international success to his negotiating and consensus-building prowess, skills honed in the trenches as an environmental activist with Greenpeace Canada and the organization he co-founded, Equiterre.

Among them is veteran climate advocate Louise Comeau, who has known Guilbeault since the first United Nations climate conference 30 years ago. She says his skill is the ability to pick the right issues and time his push to get what he wants. “There’s no point shoving hard against a door that’s closed and locked, but if there’s an opening, you go for it,” she said.

Yet for all the international wins, there have been disappointments on the homefront. Canada continues to pump staggering amounts of oil and gas out of the ground and has plans to extract even more. The approval of Bay du Nord — Canada’s first deepwater oil site, which Guilbeault signed off on — and the continued construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project are two very sore points. Both speak volumes about the limitations facing a climate minister in a country where fossil fuel companies and their financial backers remain important economic drivers with tremendous influence over the political system.

Guilbeault justifies those projects as the price of the job and keeps his focus on what he’s been able to win, both abroad and at home. For example, on the same day Bay du Nord was approved, Guilbeault reined in energy giant Suncor with a letter stating a planned oilsands expansion wouldn’t fit within Canada’s climate targets. He acknowledges he has compromised on some issues, but says in his first year in office, he’s done “objectively” more than all of Stephen Harper’s climate ministers combined.

Some of the accomplishments include publishing the country’s first-ever national adaptation strategy, banning single-use plastics and establishing new protected areas for conservation. Still, many climate advocates argue these are piecemeal initiatives that don’t meet the urgency of the climate crisis.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault in Canada's delegation office at the Palais des congrès in Montreal during COP15. Photo by Natasha Bulowski/Canada's National Observer

An incremental approach doesn’t play well with critics like Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who also started out in the environmental movement before turning to politics. “Incrementalism is the enemy of survivability, and incrementalism is the approach taken, certainly, by the current Liberal government of Justin Trudeau,” she said. “Steven Guilbeault is part of that cabinet.”

But Guilbeault says it's crucial for the environmental movement to have someone who is receptive inside the government. It “goes hand-in-hand,” he says. To maximize the chance of bringing greenhouse gas emissions down, a vibrant climate movement has to push the government from the outside, while someone on the inside pushes for good policy. Pressure on Guilbeault from environmentalists helps him to be more forceful around the cabinet table because his fellow ministers recognize there’s a well-co-ordinated constituency the government has to respond to or risk upsetting.

The price of power

Guilbeault was one of the country’s highest-profile environmentalists before the Liberals courted him to run in 2019. He knew there would be compromises when he accepted the nomination, number 1 being the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which the government had already bought. But he was tired of being on the outside and getting only scant results.

“After being an environmental activist with the NGO world for 25 years, I thought maybe I should try to continue being an activist but using different tools, using different tactics,” he said. “I've seen very disappointing environment ministers over the years, and I figured if I ever become environment minister, for sure I can't be worse than these people.”

He agreed to run on one condition: he would not support Trans Mountain. He still does not agree with the pipeline being built, but nonetheless, construction continues on his watch.

If compromising on Trans Mountain was Guilbeault’s first political tradeoff for power, Ottawa’s approval of the Bay du Nord oil project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in April was the second.

If built, Bay du Nord will produce 200,000 barrels of oil per day that, when burned, will add 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. This raises vital questions about the influence Guilbeault wields in Trudeau’s government. What good is it having a climate minister who genuinely understands and cares about the climate file if carbon bombs will still be approved?

It’s not good enough for May, who says simply being better than the Conservatives isn’t good enough for the crisis at hand. She said she doesn’t know how Guilbeault rationalizes either fossil fuel megaproject.

“The appropriate position for someone who understands the climate crisis, and as the minister of environment in a Liberal government, is to resign,” she said. “Because if you're not prepared to resign, and they know you're not prepared to resign, once you swallow enough Kool-Aid that you approve the Bay du Nord drilling, it's really hard to know how you can pretend the actions taken by your government are (something) other than actions against the interests of your own children.”

Comeau takes a less hardline stance. She argues politicians can hold personal views but are still required to work within the limits of regulations, legislation and cabinet decisions. “You may not like it but … somebody's got to be there, and I would prefer it was somebody like Steven than somebody else,” she said.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault on an escalator at the Palais des congrès in Montreal during COP15. Photo by Natasha Bulowski/Canada's National Observer

Style and substance

Guilbeault’s background as an activist holds him in good stead in his current position. Activists look for the best opportunities for change and Guilbeault uses the same strategy, Comeau says.

Campaigners identify either a war of position or a war of movement. A war of position is like trench warfare. Each side is dug in and slugs it out for incremental gains. A war of movement is storming the gates with massive change when the moment is right.

Guilbeault uses both tactics. His push for a global loss and damage fund came at a time when evidence of the climate crisis — floods in Pakistan and deadly heat waves in Europe, China and here at home — were fresh in people’s minds. Guilbeault counted on his timing being right and rallied tremendous global support that broke through established positions.

“Once you have one or two countries who are willing … it just pivoted very quickly, in a matter of months, on something that hadn't moved in 30 years,” Guilbeault said.

But here at home, Guilbeault is mired in a war of position. He is not making headway to phase out oil and gas production at a pace climate scientists agree is necessary to avoid catastrophic warming. Instead, he’s stuck chipping away at the edges, racking up incremental improvements, like a cap on oil and gas sector emissions, clean electricity regulations or zero-emission vehicle mandates.

Greenpeace activists Steven Guilbeault, right, and Chris Holden are led by officials from the CN Tower in Toronto on Monday, July 16, 2001. Guilbeault and Holden scaled 346 metres on the world's tallest free-standing structure to protest Canada's role in changing the world's climate. CP PHOTO/Aaron Harris

Guilbeault’s trajectory has taken him from the radical demonstrations of his past with Greenpeace Canada, like scaling the CN Tower to force a spotlight on Canada’s climate record, to a more policy-focused approach with Equiterre that had him working with governments to craft regulations, to joining the government itself.

“The essence of the work is the same. We have to convince people to do things differently than what we're doing,” Guilbeault said. “That's what I did for 25 years in the environmental movement and that's what I'm doing now inside government.

“So I don't climb towers anymore but I push for stuff, and I have tools. Before I had a rope and … now I can get $9 billion of investment when we announce the (emissions reduction plan),” he said. “I can get laws adopted, I can get regulation passed, I can host the world in Montreal for an international conference on nature.”

That conference, called COP15, produced a landmark agreement to conserve nature. China served as president of the summit, which thrust the two countries into collaborating while they navigated tense geopolitical differences. Guilbeault said despite the political risks, he believed climate diplomacy could prevail to deliver meaningful policy changes.

The China-Canada collaboration to land the historic Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework is a perfect example of the “Guilbeault Doctrine,” said Eddy Pérez, an expert in climate diplomacy, in an interview with Canada’s National Observer on the heels of COP15. Pérez was speaking in his capacity as international climate diplomacy manager with Climate Action Network Canada, but he’s since accepted a post as a senior adviser to Guilbeault, suggesting he believes in the doctrine’s effectiveness.

“He says, ‘How about we agree on a higher vision that then leads to you and me co-operating together on something that goes beyond our differences … and at the same time, maybe lead towards an outcome that is bigger than you or me?’” he said. “It's that very simple doctrine that he applies, and he's been applying for the past year, which is paying off.”

And when Guilbeault can’t bring others to his side, like with Bay du Nord, it’s because he hasn’t been able to convince his cabinet colleagues there’s a higher purpose worth pursuing, Pérez added.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault in Canada's delegation office at the Palais des congrès in Montreal during COP15. Photo by Natasha Bulowski/Canada's National Observer

Political climate crisis

Depending on your perspective, Guilbeault, who represents the downtown Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie, is either building legitimacy for Trudeau’s climate agenda or helping greenwash it. Regardless, as climate change increasingly becomes important to voters, having credibility on that file will be crucial to win elections, meaning Guilbeault represents an important political base for the Liberal Party of Canada.

“We all know which way Alberta is going to vote, we know which way Saskatchewan is going to vote, no one knows how Quebec is going to vote election to election,” Greenpeace Canada senior energy strategist Keith Stewart said. “This is one of the reasons the Alberta government dislikes him so much … because they know it's not just that he's a smart guy … he's also representing a strategic interest for the Liberal Party of Canada to win elections.”

But Liberals are losing a grip on Guilbeault’s riding. In 2019, he won the seat by nearly 9,000 votes and a 15-point lead; two years later, he won with just over 2,000 votes, and his lead over the NDP was cut down to just five points. Because Guilbeault holds sway over the party’s performance in Quebec and is at risk of losing his seat in the next election, Liberals will have to throw him some wins to maintain credibility.

Despite a banner year for international climate work, Guilbeault’s real test will be bending Canada’s emissions curve at a pace needed to avoid catastrophic warming. The country is still a long way from reaching its goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

“We are starting to make transformational changes in Canada, but it can't happen overnight,” Guilbeault said.

He intends to push as much environmental legislation as he can before the next election, like capping oil and gas sector emissions and introducing clean electricity regulations, but with limited political capital, the Liberals are starting to play defence to lock in policies they’ve already launched ahead of any potential change in government. From Indigenous-led conservation to reshaping auto manufacturing to defending the price on pollution, Guilbeault says he “sincerely doubts” future governments will be able to roll progress back, but he still wants more time to make sure.

“Even doing a lot in a year is great, but I think we need more time to try to maximize the chances that what we're doing, there's no coming back,” he said.

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This circumstance is incredibly frustrating, but it points - as everything does - to the need for activists to build pressure for the change we need.

It's always activists. I was hopeful when SG got the position but it shows us how little anyone can do and how much power oil and gas has over every policy in Canada. If we'd come up with a comprehensive energy strategy 6 years ago, as the Libs should have, we could have something to work with but there's nothing. No meaningful transition in the works.

I think that another summer with heat domes might do more than anything else. People react more viscerally to that than anything else.

Or another summer of cross-Canada fires (written in August 2023). :-(

He is us.

It's true. Big picture is that the public is way ahead of the politics on this (like with gun control in the States) and it's beyond frustrating to have to contend with such stubborn intransigence at ALL, but welcome to democracy. One of its many shortcomings is how not enough people seem to be able to see the big picture of either democracy or climate change.
It's become increasingly dangerous to view politics as a game and elections as horse races or personality contests.

"'I think it was such an important thing to do,' says Guilbeault with pride. 'It was the only thing we accomplished in Sharm, really.' The COP27 loss and damage fund is a showcase example of Guilbeault’s skill at securing environmental wins, at least on the international stage."

And yet…
At the same COP27 meeting in Egypt, Guilbeault initially refused to back a motion to phase out fossil fuels, flip-flopping only at the last moment.
-"Canada refuses to back COP27 call to 'phase down' oil and gas production' (CP, Nov 17 2022)
-"After COP27, where does Canada stand on phasing out fossil fuels?" (National Observer, Nov 23 2022)

The "win" at COP27 was on the adaptation side. The loss and damage fund does nothing to mitigate climate change, reduce emissions, or improve Canada's own dismal performance.
A loss and damage fund does little to help developing nations so long as industrialized nations continue to worsen global warming.

Sure, we can compensate the poor for burning their houses down — but what we really need to do is stop burning their houses down. The "only thing" Guilbeault accomplished in Egypt is effectively undone by Canada's intransigence on emissions and fossil fuel production.
The left hand does not know what the right is doing.

Under PM Harper, Canada walked away with several "Fossil of the Day" awards for climate obstruction. "Awards given by Climate Action Network to the countries who are 'doing the most to achieve the least' in terms of the progress on climate change."

Trudeau's Liberals carry on that noble tradition at COP and elsewhere:
-"New Fossil of the Day Award: Canada back in climate bad books" (CBC, Dec 09, 2015)
-"Canada wins 'Fossil of the Day Award' at the COP21" (National Observer, 10-Dec-15)
-"Canada leads G20 in financing fossil fuels, lags in renewables funding, report says" (CP, Oct 28, 2021)
Climate Action Tracker's 2022 report rates Canada's efforts overall as "highly insufficient". Same rating since 2011 -- in every year but one.

Few, if any, key climate decisions are made in the Environment Minister's office. With or without Guilbeault's approval, billions of public dollars will continue to pour into fake climate schemes in the oilsands: carbon capture, SMRs, blue hydrogen. Add billions more for clean-up and reclamation.
The Liberal Party's plan to fail on climate is going full steam ahead with or without the Environment Minister. Did McKenna or Guilbeault have ANY power to shape or influence policy in their own ministry? Or are Canada's Environment Ministers mere ciphers?

"[Guilbeault] acknowledges he has compromised on some issues, but says in his first year in office, he’s done 'objectively' more than all of Stephen Harper’s climate ministers combined."
Which is to say nothing at all. Damning with faint praise.

Canada's goal is to "green" (i.e., greenwash) its fossil fuels, not get off them.
When the IPCC issued its latest report, then-Environment Minister "Wilkinson reaffirmed Canada's commitment to phasing out fossil fuels and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but said achieving that target will require money generated by fossil fuels."
"Ottawa says it must maximize revenue from the Trans Mountain pipeline to fight climate change" (CBC, 9-Aug-21)

The Liberals' climate plan is criticized across the spectrum for its duplicity.
"Federal watchdog warns Canada's 2030 emissions target may not be achievable" (CBC, Apr 26, 2022)

Bottom line: After seven full years in office, Canada has not reduced its own emissions, while grossly under-reported oilsands emissions climb year after year. In the first four years of Trudeau's govt, emissions increased year after year. Canada's under-reported emissions were higher in 2019 than they were in 2015. The highest emissions total since 2008.

Canada remains a climate laggard. McKenna abandoned federal politics, leaving it to Guilbeault to greenwash Liberals' failure. Hard to wish him success.
A vote for either of Canada's two major parties is a vote for climate disaster.

Good luck with the Green Party then.

Did you even read the article? About having to work within a system, which everyone does? And how he was an "activist" for 25 years with little result, but in government has more TOOLS? Have you not noticed since covid how gut-level fear makes people behave i.e. with vociferous denial and unbelievably convoluted rationalizations? Convoy anyone?
So this is far from being a simple thing AT ALL in that context, although the truth of course IS. Speaking of truth, the Liberals do NOT have a "plan to fail," quite the contrary. That's a churlish, conservative-style assessment.
And you quote the "Climate Action Network" but ignore that Eddy Perez has left that organization to become an adviser to Guilbeault, probably for the same reason Guilbeault did.

A climate plan premised on fossil fuel expansion is a plan to fail.

Buying and building new oilsands export pipelines to fight climate change is a plan to fail.
Promises to fund climate action by selling more oil is a plan to fail.
Betting on costly, inefficient, unviable, and unproven technologies (carbon capture, SMRs, and grey/blue hydrogen) to reduce grossly under-reported oilsands emissions is a plan to fail.
Under-reporting upstream O&G emissions is a plan to fail.
Shovelling billions of public dollars into the pockets of largely foreign-owned multi-billion-dollar oil companies reporting record multi-billion-dollar profits to pay for emissions reduction, clean-up, and reclamation is a plan to fail.
Oilsands expansion is premised on global failure to take action. In defiance of the IEA and every IPCC report. A plan to fail.

Trudeau put it in a nutshell:
Trudeau (2016): "There is growth to be had in the oilsands. They will be developing more fossil fuels while there's a market for it, while we transition off fossil fuels."
Trudeau (2017): "No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there."

With climate leaders like these, who needs obstructionists?

The Liberals' plan to fail was set in motion long before the current crew came to office:
"Justin Trudeau's grand bargain with Big Oil exposed in Donald Gutstein's The Big Stall" (The Georgia Straight, 2018)
"The Rise and Fall of Trudeau's 'Grand Bargain' on Climate" (The Tyee, 2018)
"How Trudeau's Broken Promises Fuel the Growth of Canada's Right" (The Tyee, 2019)

A plan to fail now fronted by former environmental activists who have sold their integrity. To what end?
The Pembina Institute's former executive director, Marlo Raynolds, served as chief of staff to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. In 2021, McKenna resigned in frustration and left federal politics altogether.
Where is Marlo Raynolds now? Working for Canada's largest energy-focused private equity manager. ARC Financial provides "growth equity capital for energy companies with a core focus on the Canadian oil and gas industry."
Is Guilbeault working from within to drive change? Or is he simply filling a chair, playing a role, putting a green stamp on the Liberals' plan to fail?

Tris Pargeter: "That's a churlish, conservative-style assessment."

An assessment shared far and wide:
Climate Action Tracker
Oil Change International
UN Secretary General António Guterres
Canada's Environment Commissioner: "Federal watchdog warns Canada's 2030 emissions target may not be achievable" (CBC, Apr 26, 2022)
"Cracks appear in Liberal-NDP alliance as Singh condemns Ottawa's climate 'failure'" (CBC, Apr 27, 2022)
"Speaking to reporters after the federal environment commissioner released five reports critical of the government's climate policy, Singh said he's deeply concerned about the Liberals' approach to the environment, adding there seems to be a disconnect between rhetoric and reality.
"'The Liberal government is a failure on the environment,' Singh said.
"'The environment commissioner was scathing, and we believe him. It's not a surprise. Under the Liberals, every single target that's been set has failed to be met. They're not taking this seriously.'
"In response, Singh said the government's emissions plan is 'a complete mess.'"
The Observer's own Barry Saxifrage: "Canada's fossil-fuelled sprint away from climate safety" (National Observer, July 27th 2022)
Paris Marx: "Justin Trudeau's smoke and mirrors climate policy" (Canadian Dimension, Nov 8, 2021)
Seth Klein: "The New Climate Denialism: Time for an Intervention" (The Narwhal, 2016)
"Thomas Gunton: Canada's new climate plan contains serious gaps" (Vancouver Sun, Apr 07, 2022)
Sabaa Khan & François Delorme: "Canada can and must get out of fossil energy" (National Observer, May 3rd 2022)
Martin Lukacs: "How Trudeau learned to stop worrying and love the Alberta carbon bomb" (Breach Media, Sep 9 2021)
Paris Marx: "Justin Trudeau's smoke and mirrors climate policy" (Canadian Dimension, Nov 8, 2021)
David Gray-Donald: "The Liberal Climate Plan Is New Denialist Trash" (Media Co-op, Sep 16, 2021)
Angela V. Carter and Truzaar Dordi, University of Waterloo: "Correcting Canada's 'one eye shut' climate policy" (April 14, 2021)

These endless apologies for the Liberal Party are wearing thin.

Nonetheless, all pales next to the Convoy Party of Canada.

The Convoy Party of Canada -- and any other bogeymen you care to name -- are not to blame for the Liberals' failure on climate.
That's on Trudeau, Wilkinson, McKenna, Guilbeault, O'Regan & Co..
And all their backroom advisors and Liberal Party power-brokers. And the Liberal faithful, who uncritically vote Liberal election after election. Given their unqualified support, the Liberal Party has no reason to change.

Thank you for this overview of the situation. At this point, I'd rather have Guilbeault as Environment Minister than have him resign. Yes, progress has been incremental, and much more needs to be done. This article suggests that we need public pressure to show Government that Canadians want more action on Climate Change. Where is that public pressure? We need more people in the streets demanding change...

Folks like May don't seem to appreciate the value of incrementalism - think compound interest or for those mathematically inclined logarithmic change. Starts off really slow, and then, whoosh!
Politics is the art of compromise - we should keep [incrementally] moving the goal posts on the government but also keep voting for politicians like Guilbeaut [there are lots in the NDP] who can work from the inside too.

We should have had a comprehensive energy grid enhancement and transition plan at least 5 years ago. The Green Party has had a (broad strokes) plan for a good decade. The other massive sector that is given zero attention is agriculture, we should have a plan to transition conventional farming and agri-business to regenerative farming/ranching. Every environmental NGO knows steps to take to mitigate climate and increase environmental health. This shouldn't take decades to figure out.

We do. Google this: Regenerative agriculture funding stream added to revitalized Canada-B.C. program.

On Agriculture....I do know that the Fed Gov't is backing a green hydrogen project up-start which looks very promising, but is in the testing phase. I looked into it for my own agriculture project. It's very exciting. It will replace poisonous fertilizer as well as fossil fuel for running equipment.