Petropopulism is holding back the energy transition

Petropopulism hinders transition energy

After each IPCC report, we are faced with the same observation: the conclusions are always more alarming. Transformations in everyone's lifestyles are necessary for humanity to have a chance to survive the expected upheavals.

The latest IPCC report, devoted to the impacts and adaptation to climate change, published in February 2022, is alarming. Social, political and economic transformations are necessary for humanity to survive the expected upheavals.

In the obstacles to change, IPCC experts specifically point to misinformation in North America.

Canada is the world's 5th largest oil producer. Canadians are also among the biggest oil consumers in the world. Since the discovery of the first oil deposits in 1947, the economies of Western Canada have been profoundly transformed, moving from an agrarian model to a structural dependence on extraction.

First CO₂ emitting sector in the country, the extractive industry should be at the heart of political reflections on adaptation to climate change. However, change is still limited.

As a doctoral student in political sociology, interested in Canadian populisms and regionalisms, I seek to understand the sociopolitical and sociohistorical elements of social change in Canada.

A populist political discourse

On this subject, climatoscepticism does not explain resistance to change, which adds to the enigma. The reality of global warming is indeed admitted by Canadians: 83% of them recognize that “the planet is warming”, including 70% of Albertans. Moreover, 60% of Canadians believe that this warming is due at least in part to “human activity”. Finally, in 2021, one in two Canadians favored phasing out the use of fossil fuels.

In reality, one of the major obstacles to the implementation of ambitious environmental policies is the mobilization of a populist, divisive and reductive political discourse. We have been able to speak of petronationalism (of consumer and producer countries), as the question of resource control is linked to national construction. Others spoke of the emergence of petropatriotism. In the contemporary Canadian context, I prefer to speak of petropopulism.

Populism is an integral part of Canadian historical political culture. This rhetorical strategy presupposes the construction and consolidation of a moral opposition, between a pure people and corrupt elites. Since the beginnings of the federation, populism and political protest in Canada have been linked to the question of the free exploitation of resources (thus agrarian populism, carried by the farmers of Western Canada against the national policies of the federal government).< /p>

The Ukrainian crisis in reinforcement

Petropopulism – in English, extractive populismis the contemporary form of a historical political fashion. Articulated around oil issues, it is a rhetorical strategy that associates Canadian oil with “good”, even “common sense”. Conversely, it “demonizes” environmental policies, associated with disconnected elites. Mobilized as much by conventional political actors as by representatives of the extractive industry, petropopulism, a form of “political code”, makes it possible to frame acceptable debate in a given political space and to limit opposition, disqualified as an enemy of political community.

Recently, we heard Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and industry lobbies associating their support for pipeline projects with a form of humanitarian aid to European populations in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Canadian oil would in fact be “ethical”, unlike that extracted in other parts of the world, in Saudi Arabia (“tyranny oil”), or in Russia. The call for extractivism thus reinforces a nationalist discourse, opposing the “good” countries to the “bad” ones, from which one should defend oneself through extraction.

Conversely, petropopulism consolidates an opposition of the warrior against “environmentalists” suspected, among other things, of being opposed to the interests of the Province, in the pay of foreign powers.

An ethical and reconciling oil extraction?

The exploitation would also participate in the “reconciliation” with the indigenous communities. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which represents industry interests and 80% of oil and gas production in Canada, extraction provides quality jobs and business opportunities to communities. indigenous. Their internal division complicates this reality. In practice, only 6% of workers in the extractive sector identify as indigenous: still limited “cooperation”, therefore.

From this petropopulist perspective, the extractive industry is also systematically associated with the production of jobs. Yet the industry's net revenues are in deficit and the number of jobs in the last decade is declining. They represent a decreasing share of all energy sector jobs in the country. These are also, in Alberta, less qualitative jobs even if they are better paid. They are less unionized, less durable and involve more hours worked than the provincial average.

Petropopulism harms the environment and democracy

Petropopulism is also supported by social movements from “civil society”, favorable to the interests of industry. This is the case of the “Energy Citizens” directly funded by the CAPP; or “Canada Action”, supported by the industries in the sector. Still little informed by French-speaking academic literature, these social movements have multiplied in recent years. We thus think, in the last decade, of the “Yellow Vests” and their defense of the tar sands, of the “United We Roll” convoys (opposed to the carbon tax) or the “Freedom Convoy”. The three movements share organizers, an ideological program and for the conveyors, are close to the separatist movements of Western Canada.

The energy transition seems inevitable. The International Energy Agency has called on producing countries to abandon all oil and gas projects in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Finally, the Canadian Government, bound by its international commitments, announced in 2020 the launch of a climate plan reinforcing its target of net zero emissions by 2050.

In this context, petropopulism poses environmental and democratic problems. By reducing environmental policies to a balance of power unfavorable to the improvement of the national territory, this discourse considerably restricts the space for dialogue. It consolidates a symbolic fence between what is good and favorable to the nation on the one hand; what is not of the other: the preservation of the environment. Petropopulism undermines informed information on climate change in North America and limits the possibilities of collective bargaining for a gradual exit from fossil fuels, which protects jobs. By serving the interests of extractive energy associated with the common good, petropopulism primarily satisfies private interests.

More worryingly, petropopulism paves the way for social movements with diffuse funding, problematic tactics (siege, occupation), which, in the name of defending oil extraction, damage democratic institutions. These social movements go beyond the industries they support, to the point of endangering Canadian institutions. The Freedom Convoy demonstrated this well.

The current energy, climate and geopolitical context is probably decisive for the energy transition in Canada. Highlighting the links between certain discourses and the maintenance of energy dependence on fossil fuels is essential for building another energy policy.

Djamila Mones, PhD student in Sociology | PhD Candidate in Sociology, University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Petropopulism is holding back energy transition

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