Keith Stewart is senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada. He’s been focusing his pandemic response on directing government bailout funds to a green and just recovery, at a time when much of what “seemed natural and normal and inevitable about the way the world works” no longer does.
The Energy Mix: What are you doing differently, and what can the climate community do differently, in light of the pandemic?
Stewart: The pandemic has obviously turned everything upside down. A lot of activities, like support for student marches and protests and demonstrations, has had to be called off. No one really knows how long this is going to go on, so we’re all playing it by ear.
At the same time, there’s been a shift in focus to the billions if not trillions of dollars we’re about to spend globally, and certainly tens of billions in Canada, on trying to recover from the economic recession we’re heading into, and we want to make sure this is a green and just recovery. When you think back to the 2008 financial crash, the people who caused the crash walked away rich, and everyone else got stuck with the bill. So you see that in the joint letter from environmental groups and the petition telling the federal government to bail out people, not oil companies.
There’s also an increased recognition of the value of workers who previously were devalued, looking at supermarket checkout people and health care workers a little differently. Just a month ago, the Kenney government was still at war with its doctors and nurses, saying these people were just greedy and the oil companies were heroes. And right now, I think that’s been reversed.
So that points to some of the bigger policy shifts we can make in light of this crisis, when the things that seemed natural and normal and inevitable about the way the world works have proven to be none of those things. This is a time when we can expand our imagination of the possibilities for responding to climate change, and a lot of the measures we’re going to take to get out of this pandemic crisis can help with that. Even the International Energy Agency, which is a pretty conservative organization, is saying the recovery packages should be green. We would also say they have to be just, they have to be fair, so that we’re not just putting money into Suncor and its executive pay packages. We have to be offering workers across the country a sustainable future.
The Energy Mix: For the fossil economy, it’s been a double hit—plummeting demand due to the coronavirus, and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. What should people be thinking about when they hear that Alberta is just a victim of circumstance and needs a bailout?
Stewart: The easy thing for the oilpatch would be to say we just need to hold on until the price comes back, but the reality is that it’s not coming back, because COVID isn’t the only thing causing the price crash. It’s also because the Saudis ended their self-imposed restrictions on production. They recognize the world is transitioning off oil, demand is going to drop, and there’s going to be fierce competition for a larger share of that shrinking pie. So Saudi Arabia is advertising that they’ve got really cheap production, and they’re trying to produce as much as they can and push out some of their competitors.
Canada has some of the most expensive oil in the world, which is why 85% of the projects cancelled in the last recession were Canadian. And the current price crash is a preview of what’s to come as the world begins to transition off fossil fuels.
It’s been interesting to see the industry’s storyline evolve over the last five years. They used to say every drop of oil would eventually come out of the ground, and the resource would last forever. Then when their shareholders began asking more questions, some of the companies started saying some of those assets would be frozen, just not theirs. But that can’t be true of everyone. So the smart thing for Canada is to reduce our vulnerability to that future of declining oil, with oil having a lower price than a few years ago, and get people back to work building the alternatives that will also help counter climate change.”
The Energy Mix: What’s the next step?
Stewart: We’re seeing the carbon bubble on fast forward. We’ve been pushing for a Green New Deal for about a year and a half now, but for a long time we were pushing a solution when no one thought they had a problem. Now, it’s pretty clear we have a problem, a big one, and there’s an openness to big solutions.
The Energy Mix: What are the best ways for climate organizations to connect with wider community concerns in this time and draw the links between the two crises?
Stewart: We have to recognize that people are hurting right now, and it’s not an easy time. You can’t rush past that. It’s not something that if you just don’t talk about it, it’ll go away. But we can still try to point to how a green and just recovery will help the people who are hurting right now.
A bunch of the things governments are doing right now are good. The income supports to people who’ve lost their jobs are great, but a lot more needs to be done to reach the people who are falling between the cracks, folks like renters.
But one thing is to recognize that there is a lot happening in peoples’ lives right now, and to show that climate change isn’t entirely separate from these things. Solutions to climate change can put people back to work and deal with economic insecurity.
Follow up: @GreenpeaceCA, @climatekeith