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Labour and environmental activists are rolling out a campaign next month – similar to Green New Deal in the U.S. – to spur a country-wide movement away from fossil fuels
On April 4, Toronto350.org organizers showed up outside the TD shareholders meeting at the Design Exchange with placards. Climate activists are taking their protests against fossil fuel expansion directly to some of the heaviest hitters in the Canadian stock market – big banks.
Inside, Sum of Us campaigner Amelia Meister presented a petition with more than 15,000 signatures calling on TD bank to “Stop funding fossil fuel expansion projects and phase out existing investment in the fossil fuel industry in line with 1.5 Celsius global warming.” But a motion on that tabled by John Chubb, a Vancouver activist and shareholder, is voted down in a secret ballot by a whopping 94 per cent.
TD president and CEO Bharat Masrani tells the gathering that fossil fuel investment remains important to the Canadian economy, and touts TD as an early adopter of “sustainable energy solutions” – TD has said it intends to provide some $100 billion in financing for renewable energy projects by 2030. But the bank will also have invested more than $135 billion in fossil fuels by that time.
“They want to have their cake and poison it, too,” says 350.org’s Tony Rapoport.
TD is not alone. Banking On Climate Change 2019, a report released in March by Rainforest Action Network and other environmental groups, reveals that TD, RBC and Scotiabank are among the top 10 banks in the world in fossil fuel investment.
In terms of investment in tar sands oil in particular, RBC, TD and JPMorgan Chase are the biggest backers – investing in some 30 top tar sands producers, plus four key tar sands pipeline companies, including Enbridge and Teck Resources.
The World Bank has announced that it will no longer finance oil and gas extraction after 2019. To date, no other international financial institution has made this kind of commitment. But how long before growing international protest turns the tide?
THE ARCHITECTURE OF CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL
The night before the protests at TD, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, delivered the annual Bob Hunter memorial lecture at U of T’s Isabel Bader Theatre. The environmental guru, who helped pioneer the growing university-based pension fund divestment campaign from fossil fuels with Naomi Klein, told the packed gathering that, “Banks can be moved. A big part of what they do is consumer facing. They care about what people think,” he says.
To date, more than half the universities in the UK have divested from fossil fuels. Norway’s central bank has proposed the country’s trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund sell off its oil and gas stocks, following the lead of municipal pension funds across the United States and the Republic of Ireland.
But fossil fuel companies, which have known about climate change for years, keep spending billions building the architecture of climate change denial, says McKibben.
He cautioned that unlike some other movements for social change, we don’t have the luxury of time.
“If we are still where we are now in 10 years, we will have lost.”
But McKibben says the battle over the Keystone XL Pipeline, which has been prevented to date through massive direct action and arrests, was a turning point.
“It demonstrated that we can stand up to Big Oil,” he says.
WHAT A “JUST TRANSITION” LOOKS LIKE
The divestment movement is part of a broader global push to shift whole economies toward a sustainable low carbon future. In the U.S., the world’s second-highest emitter of CO2 (and the highest per capita), movements for a “just transition” from fossil fuels have coalesced around proposals for a Green New Deal, which has been supported by a congressional resolution sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.
Here in Canada, activists are hoping to spur a country-wide movement along similar lines.
On April 13, a gathering of seasoned labour, environmental, workers’ rights and migrant workers’ advocates met at Steelworkers Hall in downtown Toronto for a day-long confab and townhall entitled A Green New Deal For All. The event was co-hosted by the Green Economy Network and The Leap founded by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis in 2017 “to upend our collective response to the crises of climate, inequality, and racism.”
Lewis, a panelist at the event, says a Green New Deal would be an economic boon for Canada, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Second World War.
“What we can taste in the air compared to four years ago is a generation of young people who are galvanizing,” he says.
Bruno Dobrusin, coordinator of the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign, says a Green New Deal in Canada could be even “more ambitious with climate programs” compared to current federal efforts, which appear on track to miss even the Harper-era targets for emission reduction. He is also enthusiastic about labour in Canada being onside, unlike some major labour groups in the U.S., like the AFL-CIO, which continue to stand up for heavy CO2 jobs.
Unifor national rep Ken Bondy says even fossil fuel industry workers in Fort McMurray could be onside for a green transition, if the right investments are part of the plan. He said they’ve pushed for their bosses to engage in remediation efforts. They have even influenced the president of Suncor to come out in favour of a carbon tax and a fund to decommission project sites.
But funds from the feds for corporations to shift to good paying green jobs aren’t there.
“How do we convince corporations to establish green operations in brown fields?” Bondy asks, especially in the face of a World Trade Organization ruling in 2013 that declared Ontario’s Green Energy Act discriminatory against European competitors.
Elsewhere in the labour movement, people are mulling over similar questions.
John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, has been part of labour-green alliances for years. He attends the big international COPS meetings with environmentalists and authored the blueprint for a green economy entitled Greenprint For Greater Toronto: Working Together For Climate Action.
Cartwright says that investors are divided on the need to reduce carbon.
“There are some who say you’ve got to take away investments in fossil fuel… and that gives you a little hope. There’s Unilever, which says they’re gonna try to become carbon neutral in all operations by such and such a date. And then you’ve got the influence of the energy giants and some of the financial giants saying we just care about getting the next quarter maximum return on investment.”
Cartwright stresses that labour, not just the environmental movement, has to be part of the conversation on a low-carbon future.
“If somebody’s not thinking through how a decent jobs agenda is part of a sustainable economy, then right-wing populists are gonna come along and say, ‘I care about you and those others don’t give a damn if you’ve got a job or not.’”
Chris Chandler from Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation agrees on the need for workers to be central to the conversation. “Management often doesn’t know, and workers do.” He links health and safety issues to climate change, and notes the issues are showing up more in bargaining.
At the end of the conference, Lewis revealed that a broad coalition will be launching a year-long campaign early in May to kick-start a movement for a Canadian Green New Deal – just in time for the federal election.