Albertans are environmentalists (even if they don’t know it)

Climate and Energy Livable Cities Pollution

Canada is a decentralized, sparsely populated and very, very big country. Cultures and attitudes are often regional. Provinces don’t always see eye to eye. As an Albertan living in Ontario, these challenges have become evident in my ongoing dialogue with Albertans—especially when it comes to climate and carbon pricing. It can, on occasion, feel like we have little in common with our provincial neighbours. But how true is that really?

Everyone loves a villain

I recently took an extended trip back to Alberta, and tried broadening the conversation. In Canada (and outside Alberta in particular), my sense is that our perceptions of our neighbours often obscure what is, in many respects, a shared vision for the environment. Indeed, recent Abacus polling shows that 78% of Canadians view themselves as moderate environmentalists. Yet even when our views mostly align, we fixate on divisions.

Albertans’ reputations often precede them (mine certainly did when I moved East). Living in a sparsely populated and very, very big country can do that. In this context, it’s easy to mischaracterize someone else’s position, or assume that they couldn’t possibly understand yours.

During my visit to Alberta, I framed conversations in as many ways as I could. Environmental problems have local economic and social impacts. There’s the big picture too, be it energy security, national security, or international relations. Everyone has a stake; it’s a question of finding it.

What follows is admittedly anecdotal. It’s not my intent to generalize (there’s enough of that already). It’s always worth remembering that a huge range of opinion exists within every province.

But it can be easy to forget that. Talking past each other, despite our shared economic and environmental goals, bogs everybody down. My conversations suggest to me that when it comes to environmentalism, Albertans are often in the same boat as the rest of Canada.

Here’s what I heard.

The problems on the ground

Make no mistake, environmental anxiety in Alberta is real. But there’s a different flavour to it.

Alberta is home to world-class skiing, hiking, camping… you name it. It follows that many Albertans are a bit more outdoorsy than the average Canadian. Many of the people I spoke with spend their free time in the mountains. They’re passionate about the health of their parks, forests, glaciers and wildlife. Their lifestyles depend on preserving nature.

All this to say, Albertans I spoke with seem concerned with what’s local, tangible and visible. Environmental quality matters to them, and it manifests in different ways. I spent some time in the mountain town of Canmore, and noted how protective residents were of their wilderness and wildlife. Despite the importance of tourism to the area, they recognize the necessity of a lighter environmental footprint.

The environment is kind of a big place

The environment means different things to different people. If you live in the Maritimes, healthy coasts might matter more to you than the average Canadian. For farmers in Saskatchewan, drought probably tops their list of worries. Many Albertans spend their weekends in the wild. Why wouldn’t they prioritize it?

When priorities differ, perspectives can be dismissed rather easily by Albertans and non-Albertans alike. When discussing polarized topics like climate and the oil sands, their environmental values can get lost in the noise. I struggled to explain to an oil sands opponent (originally from BC) why blocking pipelines is an expensive way to reduce emissions. The moment I articulated qualified support for the oil sands, my environmental arguments fell on deaf ears. At the same time, there was reluctance to acknowledge the economic significance of the oil sands to Canada.

But support for Alberta’s energy sector and support for environmental causes is not a contradictory position. It certainly doesn’t mean climate indifference. Environmentalism is bigger than climate. These false dichotomies (and the idea that climate should supersede every other issue) interfere with our ability to have productive conversations.

Meet in the middle

But maybe this ground-level Albertan perspective is a healthy point-of-view amidst the big-picture thinking of activists, bureaucrats, and policy makers. In any case, it’s not a perspective to be dismissed. Maybe the divergence and breadth of perspectives among Canadians is actually valuable—but only if we can hear the differences.

And isn’t it worth struggling through those differences, instead of shutting down? A mismatch in priorities shouldn’t hamper productive discussion; it should be the foundation.

There’s more overlap than we give ourselves credit for, even if it’s not always easy to identify. And even when we don’t agree on environmental policy, we generally agree on environmental objectives.

There’s more space for better conversation

How do we elevate those discussions? Beyond listening (properly), let’s find novel ways to explain ourselves. If our points don’t resonate, let’s not vilify each other or let our exchanges degrade; we agree on far too much to let that happen. Search harder for those common threads. Everyone has a stake in the environment, help someone find theirs.

Where disagreements or misunderstandings arise, it’s incumbent upon advocates to explain themselves properly—be it the rationale for the Paris emissions targets, the importance of carbon prices, or the economic benefits of the oil sands. Being candid with ourselves is essential. Are we taking an honest accounting of the trade-offs that our values demand? Are we making genuine efforts to inform, cooperate and compromise, rather than chastise or obfuscate?

There is way more space for better conversation than we currently allow ourselves. So let’s fill it—with nuance, evidence and facts, not our entrenched or cartoonish perceptions of the “opposition.” Consensus is hard to find sometimes. But we’re in the same boat, and we’re rowing in the same direction. It’s worth keeping in mind.

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  1. F.Sharpe

    Hi Mr. Frank,

    I live in Ontario and am trying hard to determine the best course of action for reducing GHG emissions. I read your articles with interest and your arguments for a carbon tax are compelling, but I see that the author of this article has a different opinion. I wonder what you might say in response to the facts cited in this article — specifically the recommendation of natural gas for the transportation sector.
    Thank you very much,
    F. Sharpe

    • Brendan Frank

      Hello F. Sharpe,
      Thanks for the comment and thanks for reading. My colleague Mr. Green raises some fair points. Specifically, there are a number of climate policies in Canada that overlap with carbon pricing. Carbon prices in Canada are currently too low to get us to our targets, so governments are relying on other policies in the interim. Over time, we should strive for a system that relies more on higher carbon prices and less on overlapping policies, especially the less cost-effective ones.

      The transportation sector example is an interesting one. Natural gas is often cited as a “bridge fuel” that will tide us over while zero-emissions technologies become more widespread, so this approach could reduce transport emissions in the medium-term. However, natural gas still produces a lot of GHGs and transportation only accounts for about 20 percent of Canada’s emissions. Mr. Green is ignoring the other 80 percent (this is a problem with climate discussions in Canada more generally; far too much attention is paid to vehicle emissions). This is also not a pro-market policy. Mr. Green is presupposing which technologies we should use to reduce emissions. Carbon pricing doesn’t have that problem. Funny enough, with a flexible policy like carbon pricing the market may ultimately decide that natural gas vehicles make the most economic sense. But if we declare natural gas vehicles the “winner” in advance and use policy levers to make them a reality, we close ourselves off to options that are potentially better or cheaper (or both).

      I’d be happy to chat further if you’d like!

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