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Will Joe Biden Betray the Climate Movement Like Justin Trudeau Did?

Canadian activists are warning their American counterparts not to get complacent.

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press/AP
Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden during a meeting in Ottawa in 2016.

Tzeporah Berman has some words of warning for climate advocates elated that Donald Trump will no longer be president: Don’t do what Canadian activists did five years ago.

Just as the American left celebrated Trump’s defeat, environmentalists in Canada felt a profound sense of relief when Liberal leader Justin Trudeau defeated Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the 2015 election. Trudeau, like Biden, wasn’t climate activists’ dream choice—he was a political moderate with advisers linked to oil and gas companies. But electing a seemingly progressive leader who acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, after years of federal officials refusing to take even this basic step, was so thrilling to Canada’s environmental movement, Berman said, that it let down its guard at a time when the country’s fossil fuel industry was aggressively expanding.

“We could be in danger of repeating that with the Biden administration,” said Berman, the international program director of the climate advocacy organization Stand.Earth, which has offices in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. “Just because you have a more progressive administration, doesn’t mean that outside pressure should stop.”

Others who watched what happened after Trudeau’s election victory agree. “Had there been a groundswell of mobilization when Trudeau first came into office, I definitely think the Liberal government would have had to give a whole lot more than they did,” said Martin Lukacs, a Montreal-based journalist and author of The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent. “I think the same goes for Biden.”

For nearly a decade, Canada was run by a leader whose disdain for science and the environment was comparable to Trump’s. Harper, the son of an oil executive, prevented government scientists from speaking to the media, led aggressive tax audits of green groups, removed Canada from the Kyoto Accord, and rolled back dozens of environmental laws.

After those dark years, having Trudeau campaign for prime minister while saying things like “Canada needs to show the world that it is serious about addressing carbon emissions” was the hope many climate activists desperately craved. As with Biden, it wasn’t so much that Trudeau was viewed as a galvanizing left-wing hero. It was more that he was the best option available to defeat Harper. There was even a grassroots campaign called “Anything But Conservative.”

The joy of getting Harper out was intoxicating. Berman knocked on doors for the Liberal Party in Vancouver and was elated when Trudeau formed a government promising to implement a national price on carbon dioxide. “Many progressives felt tremendous relief,” she said.

A handful of activists kept mobilizing: The day that Trudeau moved into the equivalent of the White House, a residence in Ottawa known as 24 Sussex Drive, climate activists organized by the group and others presented their demands outside the front door. “Number one,” Clayton Thomas-Muller explained, “that we freeze the expansion of the Alberta tar sands,” the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves and a longtime target of the Canadian environmental movement.

But most such groups scaled back their activity. “When Mr. Harper’s Tories were defeated, there was a period of euphoria and a laying down of arms among activists,” the Globe & Mail later wrote. Lukacs recalls reporting from the 2015 climate change negotiations in Paris—where Trudeau famously proclaimed that “Canada is back”—and witnessing “the leadership of the mainstream environmental movement just like getting wasted at wine and cheeses with the Liberal government.”

Berman saw colleagues taking high-ranking positions in the new government. Marlo Raynolds, former executive director of a clean energy think tank called the Pembina Institute, became the chief of staff for Canada’s new environment minister, Catherine McKenna.* Berman herself was appointed to a climate change panel in the oil-producing province of Alberta. Several months prior to the federal election, that province had elected the carbon price-supporting leader Rachel Notley following decades of conservative premiers who had little interest in addressing the climate emergency.

“Having a progressive majority government in Alberta that believed in climate change and working with a federal government in Ottawa that believed in climate change, I think a lot of us had huge hopes,” Berman said. What happened next, she thinks, “is a really important lesson for those in the U.S.”

First, Trudeau approved a $1.26 billion liquid natural gas plant on the west coast of Canada. Then he signed off on a major tar sands pipeline expansion from Alberta to Vancouver. When the project’s owner Kinder Morgan balked at the political risk involved in building a project opposed by First Nations people all along the route, Trudeau’s government effectively nationalized the project and vowed to build it instead. The project is now expected to cost almost $10 billion. His government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2019, less than 24 hours after declaring a climate emergency in Canada. Tar sands producers continued to have the fastest growing emissions in Canada, making the country’s Paris targets unachievable.

Trudeau this December announced a $12 billion investment in clean energy, along with steep hikes to Canada’s carbon price, but is still pushing forward with Trans Mountain, which will result in nearly 600,000 additional barrels of tar sands being exported each day.

“You don’t build a major piece of infrastructure for a year or two, you build it for 30 or 40 years,” Berman said. “While we were all focussed on carbon prices and emissions reduction, the fossil fuel industry had been planning to dramatically expand.”

But in hindsight, Trudeau’s true feelings toward oil and gas should have been obvious. “In many cases, people just weren’t paying attention,” Lukacs said. The day after becoming Liberal leader in 2013, for instance, Trudeau flew to Alberta and gave a speech to the Calgary Petroleum Club. “Keep an open mind,” he told the room of oil executives after affirming his support for new oil pipelines along with a carbon price that would make those projects more environmentally palatable. “You can find friends in the most unexpected places.”

Trudeau’s campaign cochair was a lobbyist for the pipeline builder TransCanada, and his chief of staff was a former lobbyist for companies like BP. On the campaign trail Trudeau called the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline “one of the most important infrastructure projects of our generation.”

Shortly after the 2015 election, Lukacs argued in The Guardian that “Trudeau’s promise of bold change may have been a ruse,” pointing to these and other anecdotes. He now thinks American climate activists should have the same skepticism of Biden, who despite his progressive rhetoric is also entering office with advisors tied closely to oil and gas. Many of the fossil fuel industry’s leaders are “actually cautiously positive” about Biden, one oil and gas consultant told NPR.

The Democratic leader may have promised $2 trillion in green spending, Lukacs said, but this ambitious commitment was in part caused by pressure from groups like Greenpeace, the Climate Justice Alliance, and the Sunrise Movement, along with politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “They forced him to take action,” Lukacs said. The same goes with Biden’s decision to drop Mary Nichols as a top contender to lead the Environmental Protection Agency after dozens of environmental justice groups objected.

There’s little risk of this leftist pressure dissipating. But Berman worries the climate mainstream, some of whose leaders are being eyed for administration positions, could make the same mistakes her cohort made in Canada. “There’s this idea that now we can swap our boots for suits, we can put down our clipboards and placards and get in there and help them put together the right policy,” she said. “I’m hearing that now from colleagues around the Biden administration.”

Guiding government from within on climate policy is important, she said, but advocates can’t forget that their true leverage comes from outside the halls of power. “It’s a mistake that access equals influence,” Berman now believes, “which it absolutely does not.”

* This article originally misstated Marlo Reynolds’s and Cathering McKenna’s positions.