The vanishing: my search for a beloved animal, after millions of them die
A former biologist returns to the Alberta badlands, where the species he was captivated by...
Alberta: the land of wide-open prairies, the Rocky Mountains, salt-of-the-earth people and oil. Lots of oil. And it seems those vast quantities of oil have an insidious way of interfering with common sense, a trait Albertans tend to hold in high regard.
The latest news in the torrent of negative headlines about Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) is a taxpayer-funded attack on climate journalists, all part of an effort to bolster public perception of that beloved oil industry.
In the most recent public embarrassment, a UCP-funded report stemming from the public inquiry into “anti-Alberta energy campaigns” singles out media efforts to cover climate change. Journalists, it alleges, are engaging in a vicious “propagandizing” effort, part of what the report’s authors dub the “transnational progressive movement.” (More dirty deets on that later!)
It’s what the Science Media Centre of Canada is calling a “conspiratorial mischaracterization” of Canadian journalism.
This whole debacle has the rest of the country scratching our heads. How did Alberta back itself into this corner?
To bring this latest blunder into sharp focus you have to zoom out, to before the UCP existed: before Jason Kenney, before Rachel Notley, before Alison Redford, before Ed Stelmach, back to those halcyon days of Ralph Klein, who was in charge of my home province for 14 years until his retirement in 2006.
During Klein’s dynasty, the oilsands went from being virtually unknown to being a subject of international debate. By the end of his time in office, production had ramped up to one million barrels per day, with the assistance of low royalty rates, tax write-offs for capital investment and fast-tracked environmental reviews. In the meantime, oil prices had more than doubled.
As the price of oil increased, Klein created the “prosperity bonus,” more commonly known as “Ralph Bucks” — $400 for every Alberta resident not in prison, at a cost of $1.4 billion. This is the era when the Alberta economy became, for better or for worse, utterly entangled in the fate of the oil industry, which itself is subjected to forces that lie far outside any Albertan’s influence. These prosperous decades gave birth to the “Alberta Advantage,” an economic feedback loop that worked well when oil prices were high. But this era also made the province’s fortunes particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the oil markets.
For the last six years, Albertans have been living life on the downward slope of a rollercoaster, with no end in sight for low oil prices. The resulting economic outfall has meant real people have had real struggles. Fingers have been pointed. Bombastic columns have been written. Truck rallies have been held. But nothing is going to bring back the heyday of the oilsands.
Because not only has the bottom dropped out of oil prices, but amidst all the blame games, the world has fundamentally changed. While environmental concerns have been raised since the early days of the oilsands, global concerns about climate change have crescendoed to new heights in the last five years.
In 2016, 196 countries (including Canada) signed onto the Paris Agreement — a legally binding international treaty with a goal to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius, and preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with pre-industrial levels. To achieve this goal, greenhouse gas emissions need to peak yesterday-ish and we need a climate-neutral world by 2050.
While much ink has been spilled about U.S. President Joe Biden’s nixing of the Keystone XL pipeline, it’s just the tip of the iceberg: his administration also plans to rapidly accelerate the electrification of transportation and build new transportation infrastructure, such as high-speed rail, across the country — both policies that will dramatically reduce oil demand. On Thursday, General Motors announced it would stop selling gas-powered vehicles by 2035 in an announcement that’s likely to put pressure on other automakers to do the same.
The fact the world is moving away from burning oil may be inconvenient for those who rely on oil extraction to pay their bills, but it doesn’t make it any less of a fact. And coming up with conspiracy theories about how international environmentalists are picking on Alberta for secretive, nefarious reasons also won’t make the facts go away, unfortunately.
Enter Premier Kenney and his UCP. Riding a wave of anger about the faltering Alberta economy, he promised not just to stick his head in the sand, but to actually try to make the outside world disappear while his head was down there. He promised a “war room” would fight back against anyone who said mean things about the oilsands. But then the war room mostly tripped over its own two feet, despite $30 million per year of taxpayer funding. The next promise? A public inquiry into “anti-Alberta energy campaigns” at a cost of $3.5 million.
The inquiry was meant to finally answer that vexing question: why are environmentalists so mean to Alberta? In the UCP narrative, it was all part of a global conspiracy to landlock Alberta oil, covertly funded by the competition and funnelled through environmental front groups. Apparently those who designed this investigation aren’t familiar with the adage: the simplest answer is usually the right one. Because the common-sense answer is simply this: the world is rapidly warming, species are disappearing at an alarming rate and it’s in the interests of every person on this planet to do something about it.
But that’s not the answer paid “experts” came up with for the inquiry, which has now become a laughing stock due to reports like this 133-page humdinger: A New Global Paradigm: Understanding the Transnational Progressive Movement, the Energy Transition and the Great Transformation Strangling Alberta’s Petroleum Industry.
Not only does it make far-fetched claims about a global plot to replace capitalism with “technocratic socialism,” but it also takes special aim at climate journalists.
“What is perhaps most troubling are the increase in, and open advocacy of, collective groups of journalists to coordinate and effectively distribute propagandized climate change issues in their reporting, such as the Society for Environmental Journalists, Climate Matters/Climate Central, Covering Climate Now, Climate Home News and Climate News Network,” reads the report.
According to this government-funded report, networks of journalists committed to sharing science with readers are nefarious groups, indeed.
It keeps going: “Having one collective organization of journalists to spread the climate change message throughout the media is insufficient for the Transnational Progressive Movement; more organizations not only allow the message to be spread more broadly, it also helps to protect and insulate journalists if criticism arises, especially as the critical moment arrives for the Great Transformation.”
The report’s author, British home-school teacher Tammy Nemeth, took particular exception to Covering Climate Now — a collaborative journalism project to bring more coverage to climate issues. The Narwhal is among the more than 400 partner news outlets.
“An unprecedented collusion of media organizations launched a ‘coordinated effort to change the media conversation,’ about climate change in 2019,” she wrote. “The Columbia Review of Journalism and the Covering Climate Now project stated that they would ‘work to organize as much of the news media as possible — large and small, national and local — to commit to one week of focused coverage of climate change this September .’ ”
If you’re sitting there furrowing your brow right now wondering whether you woke up inside the plot of a bad ’80s movie, fear not: you are not alone. The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) was swift to condemn the report.
“Journalists have a moral obligation to clearly inform the public of any catastrophic threat, whether it’s the coronavirus or climate change,” said the association’s president Brent Jolly. “Reporting on climate change should not be seen as an act of advocacy; it is the telling of a very real truth that is unequivocally backed up by scientific facts.”
The statement also notes that more than 11,000 leading scientists have expressly chosen the phrase “climate emergency” to describe the climate change, um, situation. Canada’s House of Commons, along with close to 500 municipalities, agrees.
The Science Media Centre of Canada also condemned all attempts by governments and third-party agencies to discredit the work journalists have undertaken to cover climate change in Canada.
The centre “rejects this conspiratorial mischaracterization of the work undertaken by Canadian climate journalists.”
Which brings us back to Kenney, and the grand pickle Alberta has found itself in. It reminds me of the ole saying: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Alberta’s economy is going to need to change in the coming decades and change is hard. Real families will face real hardship in the process. But that change is coming whether anyone plans for it or not.
At The Narwhal, our reporting recognizes that climate change is a global concern, that watersheds cross borders and that species don’t recognize international boundaries. Reporting on the environment, we’re faced with an everyday reminder that the local is global in all sorts of ways.
We’re also faced with everyday reminders of why people from around the world care about what happens within Canada’s borders — from the boreal forest to the peatlands to the Prairies. And we’re thrilled to attract more support every day to fund our independent journalism. In 2020, our membership program grew by 129 per cent, making our readers by far our largest source of support. We also proudly receive funding from several foundations, all disclosed in the transparency section of our website.
This doesn’t make us part of a global conspiracy: it makes us part of a global community. It also means we aren’t owned by a hedge fund and we don’t take money from oil and gas companies or other advertisers like traditional news companies do. Increasingly, this freedom to chart our own course means we’re focused on digging deeper, including into solutions: how can Alberta’s economy transition away from oil and gas without causing undue hardship for its workers? What skill sets from the oil field can be applied to other industries, like geothermal? What got us here and what kind of thinking can move us forward?
We all need to be asking ourselves what a responsible transition looks like — for the sake of the planet, but also for the sake of Albertans. The sooner Alberta’s politicians accept this, the more likely they’ll be able to help light the way forward for their beautiful, embattled province and its people.
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