To save Keystone XL, Canada needs leaders with the courage to lead, not simply pander to political correctness

Blog, Climate, Tom Harris

“Courage is rightly considered the foremost of the virtues, for upon it, all others depend.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
Canadians need leaders who have the courage to stand up to eco-bullies who, uncontested, will ruin a country that past generations suffered and died to build.

No one said leading a country was easy. At times, it takes exceptional courage, strength, integrity and intelligence to stand up to aggressive special interest groups and do what is best for the nation. That is why we try to elect extraordinary people to public office, parliamentarians we trust to represent our interests first and foremost, not just those of the loudest activists, even when it is politically and personally risky to do so. People who lack the attributes to be effective leaders, or who are not prepared to pay the personal price true leadership demands, should stay out of politics and instead go into safer professions such as library science. 

No where is the failure of many of today’s politicians to show effective leadership in the face of adversity more evident than in their handling of environmental issues. Rather than properly counter loud, ideologically-driven and usually unqualified activists, politicians across the world pander to them. Instead of clearly explaining that much of what extreme environmentalism stands for is scientifically and economically unfounded, even dangerous, most of our leaders are more concerned about boosting their “green credentials” so as to avoid overly negative press coverage.

This is a betrayal of ordinary citizens who count on politicians to use their special positions in society to speak out in support of issues important to our future. We need them to do what we do not have the power or resources to do ourselves. We need our leaders to stand up to eco-bullies whose policies are ruining our society, one which generations of Canadians sacrificed and died to build.

Our leaders’ collective failure of nerve is most evident in the climate change debate. Here, the fight to “stop global warming” trumps science, economics and common sense, no matter the impact on society. In the United Kingdom, this has led to a situation where energy poverty, once rarely seen in developed countries, is becoming commonplace due to the government’s fixation on hopelessly inadequate “green power” sources such as wind and solar. Sadly, this will soon worsen as coal-fired stations providing 1/6th of the country’s electricity supply were closed down this month to appease British climate activists.

Canada’s federal and provincial governments are following a similar path with respect to coal, the source of over half of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia’s electricity supply, for exactly the same reason – climate change abatement. Environment Minister Peter Kent even boasted last month that Canada is the first country in the world to ban the construction of coal stations that do not capture and store underground the carbon dioxide emitted. Since the technology to do this on a national scale will not exist until at least the 2020’s, if ever (sequestration projects are still in the demonstration phase, with outcomes uncertain), the Government has completely banned coal station construction to appease Canadian climate activists.

Now, threatened by an inept government and industry marketing strategy, Alberta’s oil sands, and particularly the Keystone XL pipeline, are at risk. The reason is obvious.

To this point in the XL debate, governments have ceded the moral high ground to those opposing the pipeline. This has happened because pipeline supporters are afraid to properly address the principle reason for opposition to the project: the believed impact of oil sands expansion on global climate. Consequently, while governments come across as highly practical due to their focus on jobs, wealth creation and energy security, they also appear disinterested, even immoral, to many people with respect to what is widely believed to be the most serious threat to the future of our planet – dangerous human-caused climate change.

On the other hand, pipeline opponents, while seen as impractical by those who understand our energy needs, appear highly moral to the public and the press.  For example, consider the March 9, 2013 letter to the editor in the Washington Post from Ivy Main, vice chair of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club:

Tackling climate

Regarding the March 5 editorial “The wrong fight”:

The Keystone XL pipeline has galvanized climate activists not merely because it is a tangible symbol of the threat fossil fuels pose to the planet but also because it puts into clear perspective the ethics of participating in a scheme that offers a short-term, large private profit at long-term, larger public expense.

The Post argued that the Canadian oil company behind the pipeline will find another way to get its oil to world markets if the United States stands in its way, so we may as well let U.S. companies profit from building the pipeline. This is the moral equivalent of arguing that you may as well profit from stolen goods because the thieves will find a fence elsewhere if you don’t.

It’s time for the United States to show moral leadership on climate change, and rejecting this pipeline is a good place to start.

To go forward, XL must be approved by Secretary of State, John Kerry and President Barack Obama, both of whom are highly ideological on this issue and more motivated by appearances of environmental morality than on practicalities of energy security. Besides Obama’s drive to destroy coal—America’s  cheapest and most abundant energy source—due to its hypothesized impact on climate, his State of the Union address and Kerry’s first address as Secretary made their impractical climate focus very clear. This spells trouble for the pipeline.

There is a way out, however. Governments and industries promoting the pipeline must take the moral high ground away from activists. There are several ways to do this:

  1. Properly address the science of climate change. The Keystone XL pipeline and the oil sands have essentially no known relevance to climate, symbolic or otherwise, since the science is too immature to be able to meaningfully forecast future impacts. I discussed how to demonstrate this to the public in a politically safe fashion in my OpEd in the Winnipeg Free Press last week (see here).
  2. Promote adaptation to climate change as a rational and compassionate alternative to vainly trying to stop climate change. Right now, of the roughly $100 billion a year spent internationally on the climate file, only 5% of it goes to adaptation. This leaves millions of people without adequate support in the face of real world climate change today, whatever the causes. People from across the political spectrum are waking up to the fact that this is immoral, ascribing more value to people yet to be born than those suffering right now.
  3. Focus on the impacts of climate policy-driven energy poverty, with a special attention to the poor and disadvantaged.

There is little chance any of this will influence groups like the Sierra Club. Their approach, and that of most other groups contesting the pipeline, is fundamentalist, unable to accept that functional policy decisions demand compromise between competing needs. But, for the rest of society, pipeline proponents must demonstrate that the oil sands and the pipeline are the moral alternative.

But time is running out. Our leaders need to change tack quickly or Keystone XL is at risk of being rejected by the Obama administration due to a colossal public relations mistake.

For politicians more fearful of media and activist criticism than the failure of one of the most important energy projects of all time, this common sense approach may seem unrealistic. After all, standing up to eco-bullies and doing what is best for our nation will require that our leaders endure considerable heat from anti-pipeline activists. But the answer to such timid souls is obvious – you are in the wrong job; “if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Canada needs leaders who lead.  


Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition, and an advisor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Note: For those who think that government must follow public opinion, instead of lead it, please see my FCPP piece here about the most recent social science research concerning this fallacy.