Should European Union look to Trudeau for global climate leadership?

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, takes part in a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the APEC Summit in Manila, Philippines on Thursday, November 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Trudeau is far more pragmatic than Obama, supporting pipelines and oil sands development

The European Union appears to think Justin Trudeau embodies the kind of climate leadership once provided by Barack Obama. Maybe they should listen to more Trudeau speeches. The Canadian prime minister and the former American president have subtle but important differences in their approach to climate and energy policy.

Miguel Arias Canete.

“There cannot be a vacuum of leadership in climate change policy because climate change policies need leadership who show the way and who make other people move,” Miguel Arias Canete, the EU commissioner on climate action and energy, who was in Ottawa this week for meetings, told CBC Radio’s The House.

“That is the role of Canada. And the close alliance of Canada and the European Union will be very useful to maintain the spirit of Paris and support the enforcement of the Paris rules in the future. We are going to work together closely.”

Canete made it clear Europe is not expecting much from new American President Donald Trump, who is a climate skeptic and is already busy dismantling much of Obama’s climate policy legacy, such as Environmental Protection Agency rules about energy-related methane data and the Waters of the United States regulation.

“There was a very clear leadership of President Obama, a personal involvement. … That spirit of leadership, of involvement, will probably not be the same,” Canete told CBC host Chris Hall.

But if Canete and his EU colleagues are expecting Trudeau to become the next incarnation of Obama, that isn’t likely to happen because while the Canadian and American leaders shared a common commitment to address climate change, they had very different approaches.

Obama took the bold road, often using apocalyptic metaphors and language to describe the threat posed by rising global temperatures.

“We will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair,” he said during a Sept, 2015 visit to Alaska. Alluding ironically to the threat of rising seas, he castigated leaders who deny climate change as “increasingly alone, on their own shrinking island.”

Comments like that regularly raised the ire of Republicans and defenders of the oil and gas industry, who are the targets of an American environmental movement Obama actively courted and occasionally capitulated to.

Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Photo: Handout.

But behind the scenes, Obama authorized cabinet members like Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and chief science advisor  John Holdren to make more low-key, pragmatic arguments about the necessity of using fossil fuels for many decades to come.

“It’s going to take a very long time before we can wean ourselves from fossil fuels, so I think that to keep it in the ground is naive, to say we could shift to 100 percent renewables is naïve,” Jewell told reporters.

I called this strategy the Obama Two-Step and for the most part it worked pretty well for the two-term Democratic president.

Trudeau has chosen a different strategy and message.

The Liberal leader has fully embraced the energy transition model, which argues that for the world to wean itself off fossil fuels requires the development and diffusion of thousands of new clean energy technologies (e.g. electric vehicles, wind and solar power, battery storage), most of which are either in their infancy or have yet to emerge from the laboratory.

Trudeau embraces the development of oil and gas resources as both a necessity and a means of paying for the transition, which entails higher costs and more risk to energy systems (e.g. power grids).

“[W]e must continue to generate wealth from our abundant natural resources to fund this transition to a low-carbon economy,” Trudeau told the audience a 2016 Vancouver clean tech conference.

“The choice between pipelines and wind turbines is a false one. We need both to reach our goal.”

Later that year Trudeau approved the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline and the replacement of the Line 3 pipe.

Trudeau has also said publicly that he will work with Trump to get the controversial Keystone XL pipeline – rejected by Obama in 2015 as a source of “dirty oil” and a threat to the environment – built.

“He [Trump] actually brought up Keystone XL and indicated that he was very supportive of it,” Trudeau told the audience at an Dec. event in Calgary. “I will work with the new administration when it gets sworn in … I’m confident that the right decisions will be taken.”

That comment would have been a bridge way too far for Obama.

Are the Europeans really looking for that sort of leadership from the Pipeline Prime Minister?

Probably not. But maybe a healthy dose of reality and pragmatism would be good for the global climate change community after eight years of Obama alarmism?

In any event, the European Union should be clear-eyed about Trudeau. He is not the Second Coming of Obama.

Nor should Canadians be mistaken on this issue. Trudeau is neither the eco-sellout (as claimed by West Coast environmentalists) nor the enemy of the Alberta oil patch (as claimed by federal Conservatives and Alberta conservatives like the Wildrose Party and PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney).

He is taking a middle-of-the-road approach that one might expect from a Liberal prime minister.

Canadians heartily approve, as does Big Oil.

Maybe the Europeans will, too.

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