On day three of the current Alberta election campaign, the United Conservative Party released an attack ad accusing Rachel Notley and the NDP of making the most expensive campaign promise in the history of the province. Notley’s support for a shift to a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, they said, would have an “eye-popping” impact on Alberta’s finances. 

The whopping figure they quoted — $87 billion — was lobbed like a grenade from the party’s war room. But the shocking sum was quickly challenged by an unlikely source: Navius Research, the firm behind the report cited by the UCP. 

The figures, Navius said politely on Twitter, were not being used properly. 

The next day, Danielle Smith took to a lectern to field questions from reporters and doubled down on the numbers for virtually eliminating emission from electricity production, adding the federal government, in league with Notley, would take away everyone’s furnace in 12 years. There would be no apology and retraction, even if the party did issue a sort of clarification.

Wind turbines blanket southwest Alberta, part of a rush of renewable energy coming online in the province.
Wind turbines blanket southwest Alberta, part of a rush of renewable energy coming online in the province. The push for a net-zero grid will require significantly more investment, but won’t be as expensive as a recent election ad implies. Photo: Leah Hennel / The Narwhal

But that wasn’t the point. 

The numbers spread, and for many voters the $87-billion figure will stick (although maybe not the furnace thing). Unravelling the various caveats and assumptions built into the report, which was drafted at the request of the UCP caucus in March, is a complicated task. The net-zero grid policies haven’t even been unveiled yet. 

Saying things will get more expensive is easy. Having complicated discussions is hard.

Smith stands by her party’s $87-billion estimate, saying voters should read the report and “judge for yourself.” Notley, meanwhile, dubbed it “a $40-billion piece of misinformation.”

The attack ad and the emotional responses that followed are not isolated issues in what should be a complex discussion around where Alberta is heading and how it gets there. Alberta is the central battleground for climate policies in Canada, with global forces at play. But the debate remains divisive and blunt, fed by fear and anxiety in the face of change.

The next four years will be decisive for the way Alberta confronts its future. Increases to carbon pricing, net-zero emissions, emissions caps, just transition programs and more will hammer at assumptions built into the core of the province. 

President Joe Biden listens as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference.
The U.S. is aggressively pursuing incentives to transition to a net-zero economy and Canada is set to move forward on a number of new measures to curb emissions. The next four years will be critical for Alberta, whether it participates in those discussions or not. Photo: Andrew Harnik / Associated Press

“We can and must seize this opportunity without delay,” Smith wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in February, advocating for carbon capture and storage while pushing against emissions caps and just transition legislation. 

“Please come to the table and work collaboratively with Alberta on likely the most important economic issue facing this country in a generation.”

She’s not wrong.

Collaborative — and complicated — discussions are critical. But if the current Alberta election is any indication, we’re not there yet.

Climate change figures in the billions are nearly impossible to grasp

It’s impossible to grasp the scope of climate change and its impact in Alberta, let alone globally. There are reductions of multiple millions of tonnes of carbon, there are trillions of dollars in expenses to change the way we live, there are trillions more to lose if we don’t. The numbers don’t have meaning, we just know they’re hair-raisingly big.

That’s not even touching on the extinction of species and the innumerable ways our lives will change alongside the planet.  

Research has shown many people can’t quite grasp the difference between one million and one billion, or one trillion. The research also found those numerical blind spots impact how people interpret public policy. 

Albertans know the provincial budget sinks or swims on the value of a barrel of oil, but can anyone really grasp $20-billion swings and their impact on the social fabric?

Most people aren’t able or willing to dig into the report at the centre of the $87-billion claim and its projections of a 0.03 per cent reduction in GDP to 2040 with expenditures of $52 billion incorporated into the estimate, or understand the inflated cost figures on which the report is based. Many will likely re-read that sentence several times before giving up.

An "I heart Canadian energy" sign from Canada Action is seen posted to a pole.
Political affiliations and group identity are strong motivators for how people perceive threats and public policy. In Alberta, the oil and gas industry is deeply enmeshed in the cultural fabric, complicating conversations about how to move forward and how quickly. Photo: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Is it $87 billion? No. It’s not even $35 billion. And according to the report commissioned by the UCP caucus, even with those numbers, investment across Alberta as a whole goes up if a net-zero grid is implemented compared to staying the course. In short, it’s complicated.

But it’s not just our ability to understand big concepts and big numbers that gets in the way of the conversations we need to have. Group identity and political affiliation have a big impact on the way we perceive risk and interpret information. 

One study even found those who have the ability to understand and contextualize those bigger numbers were more likely to use their quantitative reasoning skills to twist scientific findings to fit their political outlook. 

Alberta is a perfect lab for that sort of reasoning. 

Dead tie between Albertans who prioritize climate change and those who prioritized defending oil and gas

The current political reality in Alberta requires walking a fine line between environmental protection, climate goals and support for industry. Any politician has to tiptoe between the seemingly contradictory views of the electorate. 

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There is strong support for industry, and that can reach fever pitch when oil and gas is struggling, ripping its impacts through the larger provincial economy. But Albertans show a strong connection to protecting the environment. 

Case in point: when the UCP tried to open the eastern slopes of the Rockies to coal mining or close some parks, the outcry was decisive.  

Meanwhile, polling conducted by Janet Brown Opinion Research on behalf of CBC Calgary last year, showed a majority of Albertans wanted to move away from oil and gas, but an almost identical number thought it would continue to be Alberta’s top industry 25 years from now. 

And more recently, Abacus Data showed a dead tie in the number of respondents who put climate change as a top priority and those who prioritized “defending those working in the oil and gas sector.” Both, however, were well below concerns about the cost of living. 

The cost of living, however, isn’t detached from the future of Alberta’s energy sector. 

two ranchers on horses drinking from a stream
Alberta ranchers, including Laura Laing and John Smith, were among those who pushed hard against a UCP government plan to open the eastern slopes of the Rockies to open pit coal mining. The outcry eventually forced the government to back down on its plans. Photo: Leah Hennel / The Narwhal

There are almost 100,000 Albertans employed directly in the oil and gas sector, from the downtown towers of Calgary to First Nations and rural communities. If you have a big enough family dinner in the province, odds are someone has a job in the patch. 

Those workers can’t be ignored in the conversations about where Alberta is heading. 

The wealth generated by the industry has transformed Alberta, and through good PR, political partnerships and the power of paycheques, it has embedded itself in the provincial identity. 

The provincial government follows the booms and busts of the sector, spending lavishly while the royalties pour in and slashing when they dry up. The money has allowed it to eschew a sales tax, but has deepened the political and financial dependence on oil wealth. 

Smith: ‘We can hit a net-zero target, and we can get there faster than anyone, anywhere else’ 

The election in Alberta hasn’t focused on the oil and gas industry. It hasn’t focused on the environment or climate change. There has been little in the way of substance. 

The brief dust-up over the cost of a net-zero electricity grid was soon buried under the latest controversies. The UCP is playing defense against a near-constant wave of old videos and statements made by Smith. The NDP is busy releasing or amplifying them. 

Another video of Smith, one that hasn’t been central to any controversies and campaigning, features her comments on a net-zero future, made during the first UCP leadership debate last summer. 

“I remember getting hit by Graham Thompson years ago in 2012 when I talked about how the science wasn’t settled on climate change,” she told the crowd, referring to the political columnist and long-time Edmonton Journal contributor. 

“I’ve come around full circle on that, and I am now probably the first and early adopter of thinking that we can hit a net-zero target, and we can get there faster than anyone, anywhere else.”

That version of Smith extolled the virtues of innovation and the economic rewards that come from finding a new path forward. It’s a conversation that has to be prioritized by any Alberta government over the next four years, but so far the campaigns have avoided it. 

It doesn’t bode well for such a critical election. Alberta needs to have a nuanced and complex conversation about building a new economic foundation and moving thoughtfully through the inevitable process of decarbonization. 

The costs of inaction will truly be too great to understand. 

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The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

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We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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