“Hypocrite” vs “celebrity environmentalists”, words fly in climate change debate

Bill McKiben, environmental activist says Justin Trudeau is a "stunning hypocrite" on the issue of climate change
Climate change activist Bill McKibben. Photo by Steve Liptay. Courtesy of 350.org

Well-known U.S. environmental activist Bill McKibben has caused a stir by describing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “stunning hypocrite” on climate change. “Trudeau says all the right things, over and over, “McKibben wrote in The Guardian. “But those words are meaningless if you keep digging up more carbon and selling it to people to burn, and that’s exactly what Trudeau is doing.”


McKibben is the founder of 350.org, an international grassroots environmental group which has organized rallies around the world in support of action on climate change. McKibben’s group has also launched a movement to have people “disinvest” in fossil fuels. He acknowledges that Trudeau will implement a carbon tax to encourage the shift from fossil fuels toward other more sustainable technologies. Yet he says that Trudeau cannot credibly propose to meet commitments he made at the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference while promoting the extraction of 173 billion barrels of oil from the tar sands.

“[Trudeau is] hard at work pushing for new pipelines through Canada and the US to carry yet more oil out of Alberta’s tar sands, which is one of the greatest climate disasters on the planet,” McKibben writes. “This having-your-cake-and-burning-it-too is central to Canada’s self-image/energy policy.”

Postmedia to the rescue

To date, the prime minister hasn’t responded to McKibben’s broadside. It was left to the Postmedia Network, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, to defend him — and they’re usually no friend of Trudeau’s. Columnist John Ivison described McKibben as “a radical U.S. environmentalist.” Rex Murphy also wrote a column that described McKibben as “sour and bitter and small,” and attacked his supporters as “eco-fanatics.” Murphy, it must be said, has for years been a popular and paid speaker at events sponsored by the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association and other carbon industry players.

“Celebrity environmentalists” 

The Globe and Mail published a response to McKibben’s column written by Andrew Leach, a business professor at the University of Alberta. Leach chaired Alberta’s Climate Change Advisory Panel, which has advised Premier Rachel Notley. In his piece, Leach said that governments have to focus on “credible policies” that will be accepted by all Canadians. He argued that Trudeau, with his commitment to a carbon tax and the phasing out of coal power, leads the first Canadian government to do more than “kick the can down the road” on action to mitigate climate change. He also used the term “celebrity environmentalists” on four occasions to describe McKibben and Canadian David Suzuki.

Leach looks by his photo on the university website as if he is young enough to be Suzuki’s son. He has taken a cheap shot at an elder who has been concerned about climate change since the 1980s and who has certainly earned his prestige.

Suzuki on Trudeau

Recently, Suzuki spoke at an event in Ottawa in Ottawa to promote his latest book, Just Cool It.  “Our home, our habitat is the biosphere and it has a carrying capacity,” he said. “We are constantly attacking nature to feed our economics. This is the crisis we face. We have to pull back and give nature a chance.”

Suzuki said that since the 1980s, some corporations have opposed policies concerning the mitigation of climate change and deliberately sowed confusion about climate science. And politicians, for their part, make promises they don’t keep. “Trudeau made big promises in Paris and I wrote letters praising him,” he said. “But he has slipped back. He has children and is sending them into a world of catastrophic climate change.”

Despite his promises in Paris, Trudeau has approved three pipelines and supports U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to push ahead with the Keystone XL, which originates in Canada. As such, both McKibben and Suzuki have credible reasons to argue that Trudeau’s actions defy his environmentalist rhetoric.

A somewhat shorter version of this post appeared with the United Church Observer on April 27.

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