Of course we need to phase out the tar sands over time. Prime Minister Trudeau was merely stating the obvious in his recent town hall remarks. To seriously suggest otherwise is to not only deny the significance of climate change, but also to completely misunderstand the dynamics and momentum of global economic and political forces (the upcoming disaster of a Trump presidency notwithstanding).
Even so, the uproar from some in Alberta and elsewhere was predictable as soon as the words left the Prime Minister’s mouth—predictable because it was, for the most part, knee jerk political grandstanding rather than seriously considered opposition. Unfortunately political grandstanding cannot just be dismissed as such because it serves as a dangerous distraction from the conversations and debates we actually need to have.
It is important to remember that the sun setting of the tar sands was proclaimed first, not by Prime Minister Trudeau, but by Prime Minister Harper when he joined the G-7 pledge to decarbonize by 2100. So the tar sands already had an end by date stamped on them by the Conservative government, some prominent members of which (Lisa Raitt and Jason Kenney come on down) are now contributing to the social media backlash and general gnashing of teeth.
Selective amnesia is, of course, common and not a damning accusation in politics (it can even be valuable). Grandstanding on this issue may also be a successful strategy. There are powerful economic and political interests who want to see continued exploitation of the tar sands and many people and communities that depend on that industry. There is thus political capital to be gained from being seen to support the tar sands and showing righteous indignation at any hint of a threat to this economic activity.
But this is a problem. Not necessarily because of the political grandstanding, though we are watching in real time the dangers to democracy from political grandstanding in the United States, but because it serves as a distraction from the real political conversation and debate we need to have—how will we effect the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels in a sensible, sustainable, and just way.
Make no mistake the transition to decarbonization is necessary, globally. It will need to take place relatively quickly. And it will be arduous. We cannot afford to be distracted by frivolous arguments about whether tar sand exploitation will eventually be wound up when it is clear that that is a question of when, not if. There is so much to talk about and debate (and make no mistake we need debates) over how the transition should take place (and here there is much to question the Prime Minister on, including pipeline decisions). What is the best way to catalyze the transition? What is the role for carbon taxes and cap and trade? What do we want a decarbonized Canada to look like? How can the transition be pursued in a way that is sustainable socially, economically, and environmentally? How can the transition be just for all Canadians, especially those that depend on fossil fuels and the fossil fuel industry?
We cannot be fooled or distracted by predictable political grandstanding. There is real work to be done and real debates to be had. Let’s get started.