Canada’s new government: Climate change, “regulatory capture,” and “cathedral thinking”

Chris_simsIt’s a year this month since Justin Trudeau was elected as Canada’s 23rd Prime Minister, ending a decade of conservative rule under Stephen Harper. By most accounts he has set a progressive and inclusive agenda at home, while internationally he has eschewed populist sentiments (seen in many countries)—welcoming instead 25 000 Syrian refugees, re-engaging with UN agencies, and endorsing free trade.

Despite this promising start, evidence suggests that he has paid inadequate attention to the influence of resource industries on public policy making—the outcome of which is detrimental to environmental and public health and, inevitably, human rights. The type of influence exerted by Canada’s oil, gas, mining, and pipeline industries is known as regulatory capture. Predominant during the Harper years (but widely reported as cleaned up by Trudeau), “capture” implies that “regulatory agencies eventually come to be dominated by the very industries they were charged with regulating.”

Physicians, nurses, and their professional associations across the world have focused on the detrimental effects of climate change on health and the benefits of tackling climate change. Advocacy groups, such as the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, have committed themselves to taking action: “in this unequal battle with big business” they have divested their fossil fuel holdings, lobbied policy makers and politicians, and sought to improve our understanding of the ultimate impact of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions (and other gases and aerosols) on health.

Resource extraction industries have typically sought to do just the opposite. Whether in the private or public sectors, they have pursued practices similar to those used by tobacco companies: to thwart regulators and to manage public perceptions of the risks associated with their industry.

For example, recent revelations suggest that the review of a proposed $16 billion Canadian oil pipeline (Energy East)—the longest in North America if completed—was marred by “regulatory capture.” The pipeline is contentious because it could facilitate a 40% increase in oilsands production, has been estimated to potentially produce an extra 32 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year, and will obliterate promises on climate change Trudeau made in Paris.

Yet it’s been reported that panel members of the National Energy Board (NEB) (the regulator charged with independent assessment of energy projects) met privately and improperly with businessmen representing the pipeline industry, including Energy East, in direct contravention of their mandate. Panel members including the chairman were obliged to recuse themselves—bringing to a juddering halt this gargantuan pipeline project.

Within the resource extraction industries (like the tobacco industry) some have been pulled up for going out of their way to obscure how they achieve “regulatory capture,” the means by which their consultants influence government and how they suppress unwanted health information. For example, at its recent annual general meeting (AGM) in Calgary, the management of one of the world’s largest oilsands producers successfully defeated a shareholder motion (that nevertheless had 40% support), which would have forced it to reveal the “payments it makes to lobbyists, trade associations, and grassroots campaigns to influence public policy.”

Prompting the shareholder movement in the first place was information revealed by whistleblowers who claimed that “Suncor was one of the biggest impediments of the passage of two pieces of pivotal legislation on tailings management and water use in the oil sands.” Furthermore, the parent company of another large oilsands producer is being investigated by 17 attorneys general in the US for trying to suppress information on the risks of climate change. Not surprisingly, the strategies adopted by state prosecutors are the same as those they successfully used to pursue tobacco companies.

Another instance of flawed process is seen in the approval by the Trudeau government of an $8.8 billion hydro dam in northern British Colombia, known as Site C. Its 83 km reservoir will flood traditional lands and sacred burial grounds of First Nations people. Scientists say that the environmental effects of Site C will be “greater than for any project ever assessed under the history of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.”

More than 250 scientists, the Royal Society of Canada, and First Nations leadership describe the review process as expedited, non-transparent, and sidestepping normal environmental assessment. It abrogates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ignores Trudeau’s explicit promise to obtain “prior and informed consent” from First Nations. Ironically, the Minister of Justice whose intervention is needed to halt construction actually campaigned against the dam before being elected to Parliament, calling it an assault on the “pristine” environment and a prime example of riding roughshod over indigenous peoples. Her failure to even comment on the dam is a reminder of the power of power.

Physicians fighting climate change would not refute Trudeau’s responsibility to protect Canada’s future prosperity, yet they would strenuously object to “regulatory capture” and hope to see better balance between economic, environmental, and human rights goals. Trudeau promised as much in his online mandate letters to each of his ministers, including health, environment and climate change, indigenous and northern affairs, and energy. He directed the latter to modernize the NEB, “restore robust oversight,” and “regain public trust” in environmental assessment.

The 2016 Global Risks Report says that climate change (and failure to take steps to mitigate it) is the greatest risk facing the world community—one that underlies other risks such as drought, political instability, migration, and terrorism.

An interesting approach to addressing these perils—one whose values are the antithesis of the selfishness and shortsightedness associated with regulatory capture—is “cathedral thinking.” Recently cited by Stephen Hawking, it is an architectural metaphor that envisions today’s generation investing its time and resources to benefit future generations. The notion of cathedral thinking stems from medieval times when architects and artisans embarked on building a cathedral knowing they would never see the end product. It implies a shift not only from individualism to the greater good, but to the greater good of the future.

Justin Trudeau, with high favourability ratings at home and growing international stature, is well placed not only to end “regulatory capture,” but to provide fresh leadership on climate change and good global governance.

Dr Chris Simms teaches at Dalhousie University, School of Health Administration, Halifax, Canada; he spent many years living and working in Africa’s health sector.

Competing interests: None declared.