A review of Donald Gutstein’s The Big Stall
We recognize that climate change is a serious challenge and that we must transition to a new economy which dramatically cuts carbon emissions. To make this transition we need a strong economy and a united country. To have a strong economy we must allow our fossil fuel sector to continue to grow. And to keep our country united while we impose a modest price on carbon, we must also build new pipelines so that oil sands extraction can grow. That is why my government is proud to lead the way in reducing carbon emissions, by ensuring that the oil sands sector emits more carbon.
If you think that sounds absurd, then you’re likely not part of Canada’s financial, industrial, political or media elite, who for the most part applauded both the minimal carbon tax and the substantial oil sands expansions being pushed by Trudeau and by Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.
How did we get to a point where oil companies and governments are accepted as partners in devising climate action plans? And why did these climate action plans, decade after decade, permit fossil fuel companies to continue with business as usual, while carbon emissions grew steadily?
This is the subject of Donald Gutstein’s new book The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada. (James Lorimer & Co., Toronto, October 2018)
Though Gutstein takes a deep dive into Canadian politics, industry and academia, much of his story also concerns the series of international conferences which attempted, with very little success, to come up with strong international solutions for a climate crisis that knows no borders. Thus The Big Stall has relevance to climate change campaigners in many countries.
By the early 1990s, Gutstein says, the pervasive influence of neoliberal economic theory was leading to “a silent corporate takeover of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change”.
Neoliberal theory said that the “free market”, not government, should be relied on to solve the problem of climate change. That suited the oil industry, because the one thing they feared most was a hard-and-fast regulatory limit on carbon emissions.
Lessons from Big Tobacco
In common with many other historians, Gutstein pays close attention to the strong links between public relations campaigns used by the tobacco industry and the similar strategies employed by Big Oil, particularly in sowing public confusion about the scientific consensus.
But as Gutstein’s book makes clear, the mainstream environmental movement failed to absorb a key lesson from the decades-long struggle to combat tobacco addiction: the industry whose products are the root of the problem should not be relied on to devise solutions.
“Corporate participation in COP21 [Paris 2015] and in the conferences and talks leading up to and following it stands in stark contrast with the corporate role in the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. There, tobacco interests are excluded, a fact which helps explain that treaty’s rapid progress in curtailing tobacco use. … At the climate talks, in sharp contrast, there is no conflict between Big Oil’s interests and public health and environmental interests. The corporate sector succeeded in making itself integral to the process.” (The Big Stall, page 158-159)
Fossil fuel interests assured their seat at the table in part by sponsoring the negotiations. In Paris in 2015, Gutstein writes,
“Big Oil even partly financed the talks. France could have easily paid the C$255-million cost, but by allowing corporations to contribute 20 per cent, the host country encouraged the private sector to be part of the inner circle that was planning and organizing the event.” (The Big Stall, page 160)
The result was that in spite of inspiring rhetoric and lofty goals, the Paris Agreement contained no binding emissions reduction requirements. Instead countries were free to make their own reduction “pledges” with no penalties for missing their targets. This result was perfectly predictable, Gutstein says: “Paris was guided to its inevitable conclusion by the veiled hand of Big Oil and its corporate and political allies.” (The Big Stall, page 155)
He traces the pattern of corporate influence over climate negotiations back to the role of Canadian businessman Maurice Strong at the 1992 Rio Summit, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland at the eponymous Brundtland Commission in the 1980s.
Brundtland helped popularize the phrase “sustainable development” – a phrase which Gutstein says has come to mean little beyond sustaining the profits and asset values of major corporations. Thus fossil fuel interests can forge ahead with plans to extract even more nonrenewable resources while forestalling international action to reduce carbon emissions – and then sign declarations of support for “sustainable development”.
To tax or not to tax carbon
The story gets complicated, of course, because corporate figures do not always agree on the best ways to protect their bottom lines, and sometimes they respond to changing political winds in different ways.
Gutstein covers these shifts in corporate spin in great detail. Put simply, major fossil fuel interests went from denying that there was any scientific consensus on the reality or cause of global warming, to support for carbon-emissions trading markets, to support for a modest carbon tax.
In Canada in particular, a carbon tax was seen as a necessary concession to strong public concern that Canada wasn’t doing its part to mitigate global warming. Recognizing that the oil sands had a terrible reputation around the globe, oil interests hoped they could earn public favour by supporting a carbon tax. And politicians including Justin Trudeau pitched the carbon tax as an integral part of an indivisible package: we need to tax carbon to reduce emissions, while at the same time building new pipelines to ensure that oil sands extraction continues to grow.1
The common element in all of these fossil fuel corporation strategies is that there must not be any strict regulatory limit on carbon emissions – we must trust “the market”, in all its infinite wisdom, to arrive at emissions reductions. (When fossil fuel interests want subsidies, or need government help to get their products to market, then of course it is quite alright to deviate from free market principles.)
Gutstein makes clear that the level of carbon taxes advocated by fossil fuel interests is far too low to have a significant impact either on their profits or on national carbon emissions. Likewise, he says, the imposition of carbon taxes alone cannot substitute for the wide range of regulatory measures and incentives needed to make a rapid transition away from a fossil fuel economy. But he leaves unanswered another question: does he think carbon taxes could play an important role if they were set high enough to be effective, and were part of an appropriate package of other rules and incentives? In other words, if our political parties move beyond their fealty to neoliberal free-market ideology, should they enact effective carbon taxes?
The final corporate PR strategy that Gutstein discusses is the trend for fossil fuel companies to embrace the “market opportunity” of leading the transition to new energy systems. By publicizing their corporate efforts to buy wind turbines, study battery technology, or build heavily-subsidized prototypes of carbon-capture-and-sequestration plants, fossil fuel companies would like us to believe they are leading the way into a clean green future. But the important action happens behind the scenes, as fossil fuel companies continue to fight against any effective and compulsory limits on carbon emissions.
1 By the time The Big Stall was published, Trudeau’s grand bargain was in danger of failing on both fronts. Court cases and business decisions had delayed or cancelled most of the pending pipelines that would facilitate oil sands expansion. In the meantime the minimal carbon tax Trudeau has promised has been dubbed the “job-killing carbon tax” by the new Premier of Ontario and the federal Conservative Party, and the scheduled tax is now vehemently opposed by provincial leaders in about half of the country.