Skip to content Skip to footer

Five Things About Canada Every American Climate Activist Should Know

Canadians and Americans must unite in the name of climate justice and political action.

(Image: Nicola Jones)

When you ride a unicycle for four months over some 3,000 miles across North America to call attention to the climate crisis – and spend almost every static moment talking to strangers about your cause – you inevitably get a pretty good snapshot of the level of awareness in various parts of the country. Being Canadian, my main concern has been demonstrating the overwhelming willpower for climate action in my country, and to that end, I haven’t been disappointed. But when a detour to avoid the most dangerous and remote stretch of the TransCanada highway took me through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, I didn’t know what to expect. My overly rehearsed talking points and appeals were suddenly rendered irrelevant. Just a few miles beneath the Canadian border, my entire campaign was woefully out-of-context and I quickly realized how horribly ignorant I was about US politics and the effects of climate change on American society.

To successfully address the climate crisis, we must unite across our national boundaries, and recognize the complex intersections of Canadian and American government and corporate policies that are critical to our shared future.

I quickly learned a lot about global warming in the US of A. I also learned how the vast majority of Americans are equally ignorant about the issue’s impacts in Canada and vice versa. For being such a global issue – with the potential to unite across borders both physical and virtual – the climate movement remains shockingly isolated in domestic dialogue. What’s worse is that while the causes of climate change and the sources of denial propagate and thrive in a global economy and through companies and campaigns that reach around the world, the grassroots movement for sustainability and responsible action is both strengthened and limited by its community origins. To successfully address the climate crisis, we must unite across our national boundaries, and recognize the complex intersections of Canadian and American government and corporate policies that are critical to our shared future.

It took me a while to realize that my effectiveness in the United States as a Canadian climate activist wouldn’t be based purely on my knowledge of American politics (and that I could never shake my foreign point of view); instead, I needed only to explain my Canadian aspirations to reveal an important part of the international climate conundrum that could empower the American perspective. So, what did I end up talking to Americans about? Here are five facts about Canada’s climate change politics that every American climate activist should know.

1. You know the Keystone XL? The Canadian government wants six more of those things.

While the Keystone XL pipeline has the potential to move more crude from Alberta’s infamous oil sands than any other pipeline – facilitating the rapid expansion of one of the dirtiest, most resource-intensive oil extraction operations in the world – it’s only one of seven major pipelines proposed in Canada. Other pipelines reach south and southeast to other refineries or east or west to coastal communities for raw export. The sprawling Energy East pipeline crosses 961 waterways and half a dozen major cities in its 2,700-mile run to the Atlantic. The Northern Gateway reaches west to ship hazardous unrefined product through pristine-but-treacherous island-spotted waters of the wild British Columbia coastline to Asia. While environmental organizations condemn almost all these projects, and most political parties refuse to support the vast majority of them, both of Canada’s poll-leading political parties unabashedly support the Keystone XL. Both awareness of and resistance to the project is significant in Canada, but arguably underdeveloped compared to the American campaign.

Why It Matters to Americans

American allies to Canadian climate activists should be realistic about the effects of the Keystone XL. No doubt, since it crosses more US soil than Canadian in its 1,179-mile expanse, Americans have a very real ability to block the project despite Canadian apathy, and in doing so would hinder much of the forecast and relatively unregulated oil sands expansion. This can only be a good thing for the climate. But with so many other pipelines in the works – not to mention schemes to move more oil by rail – it will never be enough to plug the proverbial Fort-Mac tap.

What Americans Can Do

While resistance to extraction and transportation projects are vital for the climate movement, a longer-term solution is to recognize the externalized costs of the oil sands themselves and push for importers and industrial partners alike – including those in the United States – to refuse them on these grounds, no matter how they might get to market. This may well require the United States to use its political influence to condemn all exceptionally-greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive sources of energy, and there’s no better example of such energy sources than the Athabasca oil sands. Continued resistance to the Keystone XL and even political intervention in Canada is justifiable and necessary, challenging “progressive” Canadian parties to demonstrate their goodwill toward effected communities in Canada and our allied nation south of the border. But it’s by no means a comprehensive strategy for battling Canada’s growing GHG emissions.

2. The Canadian government and propaganda “think tanks” love to demonize “foreign influence.”

We cannot limit the stakeholders in preventing global warming, and likewise must not give government or the media the authority to decide who should be heard.

For a crisis recognized to have impacts that indiscriminately affect the entire globe, you’d think the Canadian government would be prepared for backlash to its chosen path of environmentally destructive policies. Nonetheless, the current administration has made a habit of avoiding the debate by “discrediting” foreign and domestic campaigns and organizations alike, on the basis of “foreign influence.” “Advocacy organizations” with ties to the oil industry have also got in on the action. Their proof of this? Well, they have none, really, but they love to cite individual donations from Americans as “evidence” that the resistance to their agenda is entirely born of a foreign “elite.” The fact that many prominent Canadian environmental organizations – such as Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Citizen’s Climate Lobby and 350 – also have American branches is further fodder for their illogical and hollow dismissal. Canadian organizations and environmentalists have fought back by trying to prove that these attacks are categorically false. Sadly, the rebuttal falls on deaf ears in the right-wing media like SUN News (“Canada’s FOX”), in which even the most passive protestors become “radicals” or even “terrorists” and scientists becomes “self-interested ideologues.” These fear-mongering tactics are used as an excuse to spy on environmental advocates and organizations.

Why It Matters to Americans

Understanding this political dynamic could affect the way that American activists participate in campaigns with a Canadian connection, such as Resist XL and Stop the Tar Sands. It’s good to be cognizant of the myth of “American elitism” and prepared to justify the involvement of Americans in Canadian climate campaigns, or campaigns against Canadian projects.

What Americans Can Do

Rather than being intimidated by these attacks, fearful of corrupting the patriotic unity of homegrown Canadian campaigns or of treading on our toes, Americans should proudly and transparently state their motives and concerns with the Canadian government and our fossil fuel industries (as should all citizens worldwide). We cannot limit the stakeholders in preventing global warming, and likewise must not give government or the media the authority to decide who should be heard. Rather than dispute the dubious legitimacy of this line of attack, American and Canadians alike need to vocalize that Canada’s actions are having a global impact and consequently, the world is responding.

3. Canada likes to say it’s staying in lockstep with US climate policy. It isn’t.

Although the United States never ratified Kyoto, it came relatively close to meeting its would-be commitments. Canada, meanwhile, became the first and only nation to abandon its legally binding Kyoto promise and fell far short of its targets. The Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed at the time that we needed to be more aligned with the standards of our American allies, and it has continued to use that excuse as further climate initiatives have been abandoned or choked of funding. Now, when pressed on why Canada is drastically off-target for its Copenhagen commitments, has failed to regulate the booming oil sands, and has neglected its G20 agreement to remove subsidies for fossil fuel corporations, the only response is that somehow despite these unbelievable inadequacies, Canada is acting to mitigate climate change based on the American model. It’s true that Canada’s coal standards and increasing independence from coal power plants have outpaced the United States (never mind the fact that this is largely thanks to provincial – and not federal – initiatives). The problem is Canada isn’t the United States. The highest source of emissions in the United States is coal, but in Canada it’s oil and gas extraction. On this count, Canada’s regulations have lagged behind.

Why It Matters to Americans

When I complained about Canada’s world-leading obstruction against climate action and our growing emissions while in the United States, Americans – even those vaguely aware of the oil sands developments – were shocked about Canada’s plummeting environmental record. “We’re just used to Canadians gloating,” they said. When it comes to government climate mitigation, Canadians have nothing to gloat about, and Canada cannot be used as a model for “sustainable development” or “ethical oil” as our PR firms will have you believe. More importantly, Americans should know that their own government policies are informing those of other countries in the Western world without adaptation or consideration for the unique geographical challenges at play.

What Americans Can Do

International agreements based on per-capita emission reductions, and linked to truly universal and widely adaptable greenhouse gas reduction schemes like fee and dividend, are more important than ever. Building the political willpower for these commitments – and encouraging your country to condemn national governments that resist them – is far more valuable for the global climate movement than assorted domestic policies that target particular industries. Obama’s commitment to eliminate electricity derived from coal is bold and commendable, first and foremost because it paves the way for the kind of UN Conference of the Parties agreements demanded by the dire predicament of climate change.

4. The Canadian government is paying for your oil sands sympathy.

They may rail against “foreign influence” when US citizens put their hard-earned $5 bills towards anti-pipeline campaigns, but the Canadian government has no qualms about spending millions of taxpayer dollars to try and buy out the American public. Commuters in Washington, DC are bombarded by pro-oil sands posters commissioned by the Canadian government. A survey revealed the first run of such posters were ineffective at replacing the infamous connotations of the “tar sands” with the desired warm and fuzzy feelings, but that hasn’t stopped the government from continuing the campaign. It would be nice to believe it’s merely aimed at educating the public about important policies, or generating important debate about energy security. But those excuses are hard to swallow, especially when some of the material used doesn’t come from the government’s communications department or even a third-party advertising firm, but from none-other than TransCanada itself – the private company that’s desperate for American approval of the Keystone XL.

Why It Matters to Americans

If you’re a climate activist, there’s probably no danger of you succumbing to the vague, deceitful persuasions of these campaigns. But you may find this and other Canadian-funded propaganda seeping into the great debate over the Keystone XL and other such projects, and it will certainly give grassroots environmental campaigns a run for their money when it comes to reach and resources. Canadian-funded, pro-industry campaigns could eventually get the upper hand, selling Americans on the supposed “rewards” versus the downplayed risks of the behemoth pipeline.

What Americans Can Do

Knowledge is power. While Canada’s own surveys reveal most Americans don’t associate these ads with the oil sands in any positive way, that same lack of understanding could ultimately be dangerous. When Americans know what the objectives and source of the campaign are, they’ll be better equipped at breaking down the message presented. Having a heads-up on these kinds of campaigns also empowers organizations to launch grassroots counter-campaigns, and to actively break down misconceptions enflamed by deceptive propaganda.

5. The People’s Climate March means as much to Canada as it does to the United States.

What are five things every Canadian should know about the climate movement in the United States?

The People’s Climate March on September 21 in New York City is expected to draw the biggest crowd in history for the cause of climate action. While primarily organized by Americans to generate and demonstrate American political will for urgent mitigation, the march will feature representation almost as international as the simultaneous Climate Conference at UN headquarters. That means a large Canadian contingent that will use the opportunity to try and send a message to Prime Minister Harper and other political leaders in Canada. These participants, plus Canadian organizers, will also be working around the clock to make sure the march gets significant media coverage in Canada. The sister march in Washington State will similarly have a strong showing of Canadians from west coast cities like Victoria and Vancouver.

Why It Matters to Americans

The global turnout at the People’s Climate March should be considered a show of support for all involved, sending a signal that we’re united in our frustrations with the inactions of our respective governments. Specifically, Canadian participation in the march is a chance to open dialogue about the intersections of American and Canadian policy, and to fortify our mutual condemnation of the Keystone XL and GHG-intensive oil-sands expansion throughout North America.

What Americans Can Do

Recognizing both the Canadian government’s unjust attitude toward the climate crisis (less action despite more public support than in the United States) and the participation of Canadian dissidents will strengthen the potential impacts of the march on Canadian politics without detracting from the key message of the home-team. The People’s Climate March will also be a great chance to mingle with climate activists from Canada, and to learn more about our unique struggle for environmental awareness in an oil-rich nation. Equally as important, it will be a chance for Americans to gift Canadian allies with empowering information about US politics and the domestic struggle for climate action. I, for one, would love to know more: What are five things every Canadian should know about the climate movement in the United States?

The level of education and awareness in the United States coupled with the high-profile politics of climate change there means the country has one of the strongest and most vocal contingents of climate activists worldwide. Whether you consider this distinction dubious or admirable – a reflection of the irresponsibility of government or the power of grassroots action – there’s no denying that in the burgeoning mission against global warming, the United States has a critical role to play on the world stage. As a Canadian, I can’t express how thankful I am when that mission turns to addressing climate inaction in my own country, and when that force of international pressure and genuine people-power becomes a source of unease for our too-often unchallenged federal government. They say Canada and the United States are never better allies than in times of great need. This is our time.

We need to update you on where Truthout stands this month.

To be brutally honest, Truthout is behind on our fundraising goals for the year. There are a lot of reasons why. We’re dealing with broad trends in our industry, trends that have led publications like Vice, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to make painful cuts. Everyone is feeling the squeeze of inflation. And despite its lasting importance, news readership is declining.

To ensure we stay out of the red by the end of the year, we have a long way to go. Our future is threatened.

We’ve stayed online over two decades thanks to the support of our readers. Because you believe in the power of our work, share our transformative stories, and give to keep us going strong, we know we can make it through this tough moment.

Our fundraising campaign ends in a few hours, and we still must raise $11,000. Please consider making a donation before time runs out.