In The Best Way to Combat Climate Change is Compromise, Chris Turner makes some great points that most thoughtful climate activists would agree with. Yes, it will take decades to make the transition to clean renewable energy. And no one is expecting the oil/tar sands to shut down immediately. What climate activists are calling for is alignment between energy policy and climate policy, which will inevitably lead to a managed decline in the oil/tar sands rather than the continued expansion that industry and government promote. Turner recognizes that “Canada has always tried to have it both ways.” That era is over, at least when it comes to the inherent contradiction between endless fossil fuel expansion and credible climate action.
What is troubling about this article is its framing that we are all complicit. Turner asserts that “I’m as fully complicit in the long rule of oil as anyone. As everyone.” There is some truth to this, but it conveniently ignores that some of us are more complicit than others, and some of us have benefited from the long rule of oil more than others. How are First Nations on the front lines of oil patch development in Alberta as complicit as investors who have become unimaginably wealthy from these projects, while escaping their immediate impacts? Aside from the “tics” that psychologically isolate us from the reality of climate change, beyond the politics that favour compromises over bold actions, there is a dark underbelly: a long campaign by fossil fuel interests to delay effective climate action by spreading misinformation and doubt about climate change science. This campaign was brilliantly described by Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes (recently interviewed on the CBC Radio program Ideas) and is helping fuel lawsuits alleging illegal behaviour by ExxonMobil and other big oil players. [Edit: For an eye-opening exploration of how Big Oil has captured democratic institutions in Canada, I strongly recommend Kevin Taft’s book Oil’s Deep State, summarized here.]
While this dark underbelly may not align with Turner’s historical narrative of Canadian compromise, it must be recognized and confronted before we can work together for an energy system that acknowledges natural limits and provides economic benefits for all Canadians. Perhaps looking to historic compromises is the wrong model. Instead, we could look to the “stretch collaboration” framework proposed by Adam Kahane in his book Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree With or Like or Trust. Stretch collaboration includes three dimensions. First, we need to embrace conflict and connection. We may have all benefited from fossil fuel development, but some have benefited more than others. We ignore this at our peril. The second stretch is to experiment a way forward. No living person has experienced the momentous shift in energy systems that we are going through. We need to have some humility and recognize no one has all the answers. Finally, as Turner points out, we are all in this together. We can’t change the behaviour of others, we can only change our own. In Kahane’s words, “If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”