What if Alberta actually planned for its future?
Climate action isn’t a matter of if — it’s when.
This story, originally published in 2020, is part of a three-part series by Taylor Lambert on climate change.
Imagine, if you will, that your elected leaders woke up one morning and suddenly recognized with incredible clarity the significance of the existential climate crisis before us.
Imagine that, after a somber moment of contemplation of the very real stakes of this moment and their role in it, they came to the conclusion that many citizens reached long ago:
This is an emergency, and we have to do everything we can to stop it.
What do you suppose they would do next?
Conversations about climate change policy often get bogged down with debates about what is politically feasible. Given that the fate of the planet is dependent on our actions in the present and near future, however, perhaps it’s worth suspending political reality for a moment and considering what we should do, what we need to do, rather than what we think would be easiest to sell.
What would it look like for Alberta to treat the climate crisis as a real emergency, to throw the considerable power and resources of this wealthiest of provinces into the fight while reinventing itself for a low-carbon future?
In other words, what would an Albertan Green New Deal look like?
If you don’t have a plan, Alberta’s just going to fall off a cliff.
You’ve probably heard of the Green New Deal, an idea that has been around for a while but really picked up steam in U.S. politics in 2018.
Referencing Franklin Roosevelt’s sweeping New Deal policies in the 1930s, it’s an argument for leveraging this perilous moment to make major social and economic reforms that genuinely address climate change as well as economic inequality.
It’s a big idea. But this is a big moment, and the stakes are high.
There is no single version of a Green New Deal, and there is likewise no single path forward for Alberta.
“If you don’t have a plan,” said political economist Gordon Laxer, “Alberta’s just going to fall off a cliff.”
Indigenous stewardship of the land
The reason we are staring down a climate crisis is because Western capitalism raised consumption and profit above valuing and understanding the natural environment. No plan to fight climate change will be successful without re-centring our natural environment—and any plan should include the traditional knowledge and leadership of the Indigenous people who understand this land best.
Jesse Cardinal, the executive director of the Indigenous-led conservation group Keepers of the Water, says that it starts and ends with the land itself.
In order to truly address and combat climate change, there needs to be more land returned to Indigenous people.
“In order to truly address and combat climate change, there needs to be more land returned to Indigenous people,” she said. One model she pointed to is the idea of protected areas administered by Indigenous people, such as the Edéhzhíe area in the Northwest Territories.
First Nations reserves and Métis settlements account for less than 2% of Alberta’s total area. Cardinal noted that the traditional symbiotic Indigenous relationship to the land, which sustained the environment for millennia, serves the goals of climate change far better than the Canadian model of resource exploitation and development.
“Instead of the economy always being the priority, it’s just one piece of the medicine wheel,” she said. “And if one thing is out of balance, the whole wheel is out of balance.”
Establish a clear timeline
For more than half a century, fossil fuel extraction has been the organizing principle of Alberta, its culture and its economy. We’ve long been told that this reality makes it undesirable if not impossible to change course in the massive ways that climate change demands.
The government needs to establish clear timelines for winding down fossil fuel production.
Culturally, this is a hollow argument to make, given that the myth of Alberta championed by many is one of hardworking, fearless mavericks willing to do whatever it takes to overcome a challenge.
But the economics are more important. The argument that a radical shift away from fossil fuels would cause massive disruption, job losses and economic pain is not wrong—it’s just a partial picture.
A better way to look at it is that massive disruption is coming regardless of what we choose to do, and while it would have been better to have taken more action far earlier, it is still overall less economically harmful to both the province and Albertans to manage that disruption now rather than be forcibly disrupted in the future.
In Alberta, that disruption centers on the fossil fuel industry.
“The government needs to establish clear timelines for winding down fossil fuel production,” said Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
“Right now, it’s not clear whether Alberta in 20 years will be producing twice as much oil or no oil.”
True diversification does not mean upgrading or refining oil, or expanding into petrochemicals. Alberta has to move away from oil.
What that timeline should look like is open for debate—but at the very least, it should include no increases in production or new infrastructure. But setting down a plan would solve some of the uncertainty.
“Having a sense of where we’ll be in five years or 10 years helps people make decisions today,” said Mertins-Kirkwood.
Saying that Alberta needs to diversify its economy is a fairly benign and widely accepted statement because it can mean different things to different people. Laxer argued that “true diversification does not mean upgrading or refining oil, or expanding into petrochemicals. Alberta has to move away from oil.”
Plan for an inclusive new economy
No one is saying diversification will be easy. But to Mertins-Kirkwood, it’s all about perspective. “What we should be looking at are the opportunities,” he said.
“We so often focus on what we’re losing, like fossil-fuel industry jobs or conventional car manufacturing. We don’t talk enough about what we’re gaining—not just environmental benefits, health benefits and reduced risk of climate change, but also the benefits to our economy.”
An upheaval of the economy also presents an opportunity to address the soaring economic inequality rooted in our current system.
Moving away from fossil fuels means refocusing our energy needs and production towards renewables. Given Alberta’s wealth of expertise in energy, engineering and natural resources, many of these jobs will be a natural fit.
“The one goal [of a transition] that should be non-negotiable is complete de-carbonization,” said Mertins-Kirkwood.
But “green jobs” doesn’t just mean renewable energy. Any low-carbon occupation can fit the bill, from teaching to the service industry. With this mindset, there are endless possible routes to diversifying the economy.
The focus cannot be solely on GDP and returns for shareholders. We should consider not merely how to create jobs, but how to solve other problems: industries like seniors’ care or child care don’t just employ people but offer much-needed social support.
An upheaval of the economy also presents an opportunity to address the soaring economic inequality rooted in our current system. It would be appalling if we went through such a massively disruptive transition only to reestablish the same concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
Changing jobs or industries means many people will require new training, and the cost of that should be factored in as well. Strengthening unions and ensuring living wages would provide economic security for workers and their families.
The fossil fuel industry’s legacy is not just the prosperity it created for some Albertans, but also the mess it has left behind.
And if ever there was a time for a serious conversation about a universal basic income, it would be in this context—not only would it prevent widespread suffering, but it might provide some political cover.
“It’s very important that people be taken care of,” said Laxer. “It’s important from a humanitarian point of view, but it’s also important politically: If you don’t have a plan, those workers and those communities are going to fight like hell to hold on to those industries.”
Support Albertans during the transition
Investment in social services including health care, mental health resources and some kind of economic support will also be critical for ensuring people have the assistance needed to get through tough times.
There is some low-hanging fruit to create jobs in the short- and medium-term.
The fossil fuel industry’s legacy is not just the prosperity it created for some Albertans, but also the mess it has left—and continues to leave—behind.
The thousands of abandoned wells, toxic tailings ponds, and other facilities will take decades or centuries to clean up and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The industry is supposed to pay for this, but oversight is poor and many wells have been orphaned.
This government is not likely to move on its own to get ahead of the curve on climate change.
Some work on this has begun, and the government should use every means to force corporate dollars into the undertaking.
But, inevitably, the public will have to pay for most if not all of this cleanup, and since the work requires the same skills as many existing oil and gas jobs, we might as well create thousands of jobs in the process.
Innovate to minimize GHG emissions in all sectors
This represents another significant opportunity to create jobs in the near-term.
The second highest-emitting sector in Alberta, after fossil fuels, is transportation. Investing in public transit projects would create thousands of well-paying construction jobs to help bridge the transition while reducing emissions and making transportation more equitable.
Other ideas could include retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and reforming agricultural practices—anything to help us reach net-zero carbon emissions within the next couple of decades.
This is, of course, a simplistic version of a plan: ambitious but light on details.
Given how the current governing party approaches the COVID-19 crisis—eschewing proper shutdowns for fear of hurting the economy, thereby perpetuating the pandemic and attendant economic pain—this government is not likely to move on its own to get ahead of the curve on climate change.
But it’s useful for understanding the ways in which we could be thinking about these challenges, and what steps we could be taking.
Albertans have to radically change their mindset away from the golden goose provided by luring in foreign oil to carry off Alberta’s resource bounty.
Global climate change does not hinge on Alberta’s economic policies. But given that we have benefited tremendously from exporting the stuff that caused this crisis, we have a moral obligation to be among the leaders rather than the laggards.
“Albertans have to radically change their mindset away from the golden goose provided by luring in foreign oil to carry off Alberta’s resource bounty,” said Laxer. But we have to do it in a way “that’s going to provide jobs in the future.”
“We’ve been trained to think ‘economy equals money equals food, clothing, shelter,’” said Cardinal, pointing to food sovereignty as just one example of a different approach. “Continuing to operate on this false system is ruining the planet.”
“Decarbonisation is possible in the current system,” said Mertins-Kirkwood.
“But that model does not solve the inequality crisis and all of its components, which include Indigenous reconciliation, racial injustice. I don’t see how you solve those problems in the current capitalist system.”
Taylor Lambert is a freelance journalist based in Calgary.
Support in-depth Calgary journalism.Sign me up!
We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can't do it alone. We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!