The development of Canadian climate minister Steven Guilbeault from “Green Jesus” to pragmatist

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OTTAWA — In 2002, Steven Guilbeault – uninvited – scaled the roof of the home of Alberta’s premier and installed two solar panels. It was part of a Greenpeace campaign to urge the oil-rich province’s leader to reconsider his opposition to an international climate deal.

As noticeable as that increase was, it was less dramatic than this one Guilbeault made the year before when he climbed more than 1,000 feet onto the CN Tower in Toronto to unfurl a banner calling Canada and then-US President George W. Bush “climate killers.”

Two decades later, the environmental activist has joined the government he once protested against as Canada’s Environment Minister. and Équiterre, the environmental group he co-founded, is sue the government about one of his decisions.

Meanwhile, hecklers use one of his most famous acts of civil disobedience against him.

“You are a climate criminal!” a protester screamed at an event in Montreal in July. “This is how history will judge you.”

Guilbeault, now 52, ​​is under fire for giving the green light to the Bay du Nord deepwater oil drilling project off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in April, noting it was “not likely to have a significant adverse environmental impact.” becomes”. He says that, to his knowledge, it will be the lowest carbon project of its kind in the world.

But activists in the environmental groups Guilbeault once visited disagree. They say the approval ignores the warnings of scientists, and does so inconsistent with the lofty rhetoric of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government about the need to take take more aggressive action against climate change.

It’s certainly a remarkable decision from a man who has never owned a car and was once dubbed the ‘Green Jesus’.

“It was the most difficult professional decision I’ve ever made in my life,” Guilbeault told the Washington Post. “I sincerely hope I don’t have to do one like this again. It was heartbreaking.”

A mega fire raged in Canada for three months. No one is hooked on their emissions.

That is his dilemma – and Canada’s.

Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels is crucial for Guilbeault. Deadly heat waves, devastating floods and catastrophic wildfires fueled by climate change have taken their toll here.

He has read decades of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – including one released by the UN body just before Bay du Nord was approved, which warned that the window to preventing a more dangerous future was “closed shortly and soon”.

But in the country with the third largest proven oil reserves in the world, his job is complicated. There are complicated regional tensions to manage, particularly in the oil-rich Prairie provinces, where many believe Ottawa threatens the sector that powers their economies.

And as European allies work to reduce their reliance on Russian oil and gas after invading Ukraine, some of those countries are looking to Canada as an alternative source. Chancellor Olaf Scholz plans to visit the country next week to discuss the possibilities.

Nevertheless, Trudeau came to power in 2015 with a promise to put climate protection at the top of his agenda. His record is mixed. Many here saw Guilbeault’s appointment to the environment portfolio in October as a signal that the government – fresh from an election victory – intended to tackle the climate crisis much faster.

“Expectations were high,” said Marc-André Viau, director of government relations at Équiterre. “That is why many people were disappointed and frustrated when the minister approved a project like Bay du Nord. This is the kind of project the minister would have fought for in his previous life.”

Guilbeault doesn’t necessarily disagree.

“I obviously didn’t get into politics to approve oil projects,” he said. “If I were alone and making the decision for myself, it wouldn’t be the decision I would have made. … But I am now environment and climate minister for 38 million people.”

Trudeau is greenish. Canada’s oil-producing prairie provinces are seeing red.

Guilbeault grew up in La Tuque, Quebec, a town of 11,000 where forestry has long powered the economy. Virtually everyone he knew had a relative who worked at the local pulp and paper mill, giving him a front-row seat to the human stakes in resource-town boom-bust cycles.

“I think it helps to be aware of the fact that we want to be ambitious about a lot of things when it comes to environmental protection,” Guilbeault said. “But we also have to be careful that we do this with respect for those affected in these sectors.”

At his first environmental protest at age 5, he climbed a tree in the woods behind his house to prevent developers from cutting it down.

He co-founded Équiterre in 1993 and spent years at Greenpeace, known for its confrontational tactics.

At a Group of Seven environment ministers meeting earlier this year, he was asked if it was his first such meeting.

“Well, it depends how you look at it,” Guilbeault replied. “I’ve already protested against some of them.”

2010 a globe and a post pillar – titled “Steven who? Steven Guilbeault. Think of the name” – praised his “impressive record of activism” and predicted he would “probably” go into politics “one day”.

He entered the fray as the Trudeau Liberal candidate in 2019, despite his public opposition to the government’s controversial decision in 2018 to buy the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. He served as Minister for Heritage before being promoted to his current role.

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In Canada’s oil field, the appointment of a former environmental activist was greeted with caution at best – and seen by some as a deliberate affront. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said it sent a “very problematic” message. Harold Kvisle, chairman of Calgary-based energy company ARC Resources, said it was a “shot straight in the eye.”

None responded to requests for comment on this article.

Trudeau’s attempt to reconcile Canada’s climate goals with its economic reliance on the energy sector has left groups on both sides frustrated.

His government put a price on CO2 and passed legislation requiring reporting on it Present progress towards meeting its climate targets to Parliament. Days before Bay du Nord was approved, it released its most detailed plan to get there, which requires the oil and gas sector to cut emissions by 42 percent below 2019 levels by 2030.

But the Environment Commissioner, a government watchdog, has identified several problems: Canada is worst actor of the G-7 since the signing of the Paris Agreement. It overrated how much the use of hydrogen could reduce emissions. And it is “not prepared” to support those affected in the transition away from fossil fuels.

Guilbeault said environmentalists used to call him a “radical pragmatist” – someone who pursues “radical” policies while recognizing that achieving his goals “can’t happen overnight”. Still, he said when he was an activist he didn’t fully appreciate “the intricacies” of government and “how difficult it can be to move quickly.”

“I think that’s my biggest challenge,” he said. “Nevertheless, I think we have to learn to do things faster.”

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In approving Bay du Nord, Guilbeault laid out 137 legally binding conditions that Norwegian energy giant Equinor must meet if it decides to go ahead with the $12 billion project. This included, for the first time, the requirement that the project must achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Critics argue that the condition applies only to drilling operations and not to emissions from the burning of hundreds of millions of barrels of oil over the project’s decades-long lifespan.

Tim Gray, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Defense, said having an environment secretary with an activist background has made a difference, particularly in the way climate change is discussed. He praised what he called “really progressive measures” to ban some single-use plastics and encourage electric vehicles.

But he and others say the government’s plans to meet its Paris targets rely too much on carbon capture and storage – a technology that tries to stop CO2 emissions from escaping into the atmosphere, and they stores underground instead. Its “fundamental flaw,” Gray said, is the belief that it can address climate change while expanding fossil fuel extraction.

Gray said he recognizes that Guilbeault is in a difficult position.

“Steven, in particular, given his history … strongly believes in the need for climate action,” he said. “On a personal level, I totally understand the pressures he’s facing. But he is part of a government that has a responsibility to act. And because of that, you know, I think he has to wear that too.”


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