Disrespect Existence; Expect Resistance: A Discussion on Trump’s Green America, Canada’s Climate Potential, and Environmental Racism

Anna-Kay Russell

Ever since the Paris Agreement was signed on October 5, 2016, there have been many conferences, workshops and panel discussions devoted on the topic of environmental action and the role that governments play.

Most recently, the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, in partnership with the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, held an event entitled “Pipelines, Paris, and Decarbonization: The Future of Canadian Energy and Climate Policy” on March 3, 2017. Of all the discussions related to the Paris climate accord that I have attended, this particular event appeared to be the most comprehensive, particularly in the Canadian context. The line-up of presenters was varied and distinguished: Professor Jutta Brunnee of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law; John Drexhage, founder of Drexhage Consulting and former Climate Director at the International Institute for Sustainable Development; Erin Flanagan, Director of Federal Policy at Pembina Institute; and Ben Powless, renowned Climate Justice and First Nations Rights Activist.

Jutta Brunnee, John Drexhage, Ben Powless and Erin Flanagan

Each panelist presented on a certain topic of interest in front of faculty and graduate students from the University of Guelph, McGill University, and York University, along with members of the Ontario Ministry of Energy and MaRS, to name a few. First, Professor Brunnee drew on the conversations from a previous workshop that prompted discussion on concerns about the changing role that the American government is expected to play in the climate movement. “We should expect to see possible pullback from the US government,” Brunnee reiterated, “on their climate action plans. If not [total retreat?], at least pullback from their leadership and initiative-taking behaviour.” This came rather unsurprisingly as Mr. Trump made several news headlines for immediately removing nearly all references to the environment from the White House website upon his entry into office.

What was more surprising to hear, however, was the suggestion by faculty and graduate students at the previous workshop that Canada has now been presented with a unique opportunity to take over that leadership role and create a strategy to promote climate change globally. Canada can play a larger role by investing in funding projects worldwide to promote climate action.

Mr. Drexhage, who was next to present, spoke about this idea in the context of finance. “Finally we broke through. [The Paris Agreement] was a significant achievement. Now why did we break through? […] As with everything, it was money”. He approached this part of the discussion with a glass half-full/half-empty analogy: the glass half-full view proposes that the reason why so many countries signed on to the climate deal is because all the energy investments made by international banks (e.g. World Bank, IMF) were in environmental investments. The glass half-empty view illustrates a forthcoming danger: the Executive of the World Bank is always a US-born citizen. The current executive, the Honourable Matthew T. McGuire, is an Obama-appointee – Drexhage’s fear, however, is that the fate of these environmental investments will now depend on the Trump administration’s new appointee. Drexhage, who has been a player in the Canadian climate movement for over two decades, admitted that he has become “reserved on what public policy can achieve” in this industry.

Erin Flanagan of the Pembina Institute countered Drexhage’s pessimism by noting, “policy makes strategy real.” Her presentation emphasized the importance of strategic implementation when it comes to a “just transition” to national decarbonization. According to Flanagan, that is the current challenge facing the federal government. Reducing carbon emissions is a priority for all provinces, but especially for Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, the country’s highest emitters, Flanagan explained. However, Canada has such a diverse landscape, with regions of varying needs, and “decarbonization does not look the same from province to province.” The Pembina Institute’s recent report card, Canada’s Policy Support for Clean Technology Exports, gave Canada a low grade for its current climate initiatives. “A lot of things are in discussion,” Flanagan stated, “but not much has been done as of yet: Implementation is key. And accountability is needed to push for this.”

Jutta Brunnee, John Drexhage, Ben Powless and Erin Flanagan

Many of the events discussing the Paris Agreement would have stopped the conversation right there. However, this event took the subject a step further by including a very important voice. Specifically, Mr. Powless spoke of the continued challenges faced by Indigenous communities in regards to climate action in Canada. He touched on the hypocritical label assigned to Indigenous communities as traitors for earning a profit from oil companies in order to make use of their communal lands, also highlighting the fact that the continued support for pipelines by the federal government goes against both Canada’s mandate for Reconciliation, as well as its role as a leader in environmental action. He also mentioned the fact that oftentimes, supposed climate solutions (e.g. dams or national parks) hurt communities rather than help them, a note similarly stated in an article from Outside Online, regarding rooted environmental racism in America:

“Environmental nonprofits […] historically have not had to account for the systemic imbalances that discrimination brings—like the fact that polluting facilities are more often located in communities of colour or, on the other side of the spectrum, the fact that “greening” spaces can also have a lot of the same effects of gentrification, displacing the communities that live nearby.”

This is one of the most integral parts of climate discussions that has been missing in many cases. As global and diverse as the issue of climate change is, it is also important for Canada to focus on the various dimensions of the issue at home. Powless raised several significant challenges and misconceptions that are often overlooked in terms of Indigenous communities (a diverse community in and of itself) and their opinions on these matters.

A riveting Q&A session from a likewise diverse public audience, the event concluded with one particular question directed at policymakers, which left even some of the panelists speechless: “How can public policy address the other outside forces working against climate policy, like the media who frames high electricity bills as a result of renewable energy costs?”  Definite food for thought.

Those looking to further breakdown the intricacies of the Paris Agreement or discuss Canada’s role in greening the future, take note.

Anna-Kay Russell is a first year Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto. She completed her international bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology at Glendon College, York University. Her policy interests include, but are not limited to, environmental policy, implementation, municipal affairs and public opinion. An advocate for diversity, her hobbies include travelling, learning new languages and trying new recipes. Anna-Kay hopes to continue exploring these interests during her policy internship at Natural Resources Canada this summer.