Source: Government of Canada

Unprecedented weather events have grounded planes, flooded communities, and destroyed cities at an increasing pace over the past few years as the climate crisis looms large over the future. Along with the destruction, the demand for the government to do something about it is stronger than ever. The Justin Trudeau Liberal government has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. But the question inevitably arises: if the fossil fuel industries shut down, what happens to the workers? And so the federal Liberals are now proposing a “just transition”, promising an end to carbon pollution without a loss of good jobs. Given the Liberals’ track record of broken promises, there’s good reason for suspicion.

The Liberal’s “just transition” is not so much a plan of action as it is a political wish-list: a “net-zero industrial transformation” for Canada to be a “world-leader in clean technology,” and a growing market for “low carbon products.” The plan is for the government to use its policies to somehow get the economy to stop polluting, keep good paying jobs, while developing new ways to make profit for themselves. Unfortunately for the Liberals, even the most clever ideas and policies run straight into the cold reality of capitalism.

The Liberals and Justin Trudeau don’t see the climate crisis as a consequence of capitalism. To them, it’s only a matter of finding the right policy to implement. But if that were the case, the climate crisis would’ve been solved decades ago. The reality is that to solve the climate crisis, a massive investment in retooling production, research and development, and new green energy production needs to be made. This investment needs to be funded somehow, and every attempt to deal with the climate crisis with “market-based solutions” like cap-and-trade and carbon taxes have either died on the vine, or failed to make a serious impact. 

But how “just” would a “just transition” be for workers in fossil fuel industries? This question has become a wedge with which the fossil fuel defenders can fight the Liberals. The fact that the oil sands and other fossil fuel industries are a major polluter isn’t a serious contention anymore. Even some of the major oil producers acknowledge this, and factor it into their public messaging. Anyone who once defended the oil sands’ status quo has had to switch tactics from denial to something more clever. So the debate has shifted from a criticism of “the science” to pointing out that, should the government shut down the oil industry, approximately 140,000 good paying jobs would be lost in Alberta alone. 

The anti-just coalition

In response to the federal government’s announcement, Alberta United Conservative Party (UCP) Premier Danielle Smith has gone on the offensive. In a video on social media, she said, “I will fight this ‘just transition’ idea with every tool at Alberta’s disposal.” She claims  that 2.7 million jobs will be lost if the federal government goes ahead with a “just transition,” instead of the estimated 140,000. For Smith, it’s a life and death struggle of pro- and anti-oil industry interests. Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe has joined the coalition, as well as Federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre, who said “I do share Alberta’s concern about Trudeau’s anti-energy and anti-resource agenda.”

Strangely, Rachel Notley, Alberta’s New Democratic Party (NDP) leader has taken an identical position. “Just take it … and basically get rid of it,” she said about the federal government’s plans, lamenting the lack of consultation the feds gave to Alberta. This is particularly odd considering the confidence and supply deal the Liberals and federal NDP are locked into until 2025. For any “just transition” legislation to pass, Trudeau will need federal NDP support, and while a provincial affiliate, the Alberta NDP stands in opposition. This is not the first time the federal NDP and Alberta NDP have butted heads. Rachel Notley has changed her position regarding the oil industry, from trying to get Albertans their fair share of the oil wealth in 2015 when she first became premier, to later striving to be the best ruler for the oil barons. For now, she is competing with Smith for that role. As Smith said, “Rachel Notley made a comment that the prime minister and Jagmeet Singh should put the brakes on this issue,” then: “Well, that’s clearly the wrong approach. We don’t need to pause this. We need to end it.” In response, Notley accused Smith of incompetence for not knowing the contents of an upcoming bill. Her membership in the coalition appears to be pending. 

However, the whole of the oil industry itself isn’t entirely on board with Smith’s battle with the federal government. The big oil companies are perfectly aware that they have a bad public image, and have been trying their best to claim that Albertan oil is actually helping build the green economy. If this “just transition” leads to heavy subsidies for the oil industry to transition away from carbon intensive activities, then that just means more profits for the big oil companies.

“We estimated that we will spend somewhere in the range of $70 billion over the next 30 years to decarbonize the production of the oil sands,” Alex Pourbaix, CEO of Cenovus, one of Canada’s five biggest oil companies, told the media. Cenovus is one of six oil companies in the “Pathways Alliance,” an organization of corporations keen on being a part of the “just transition,” and whatever subsidies (market incentives) that may entail.

Danielle Smith’s vitriolic hatred of the Liberals’ plan ultimately lines up more with the interests of smaller oil producers and related services. This is the class that Smith is representing when she makes claims that “millions of jobs will be lost.”  The petty-oil barons don’t have the political weight of the bigger players. Their economic and political clout is entirely tied up in the current oil sands framework. As far as they are concerned, these smaller producers would disappear altogether if they became less profitable, or were forced to abide by production restrictions. Any attempt to reorient Alberta’s economy away from the oil sands would mean these smaller local oil barons losing their source of profit. This fringe has elevated its control over the UCP in the past few years, with its champion Smith winning leadership, and its organizations like “Take Back Alberta” dominating party meetings. The irony is that whether she realizes it or not, Danielle Smith’s belligerence with the federal government undermines her credibility as a serious steward of capitalism for the big oil companies.

How just can a just transition be?

The basis for this claim of “millions of jobs” at risk is flimsy, but the workers’ constant fear of job losses combined with the knowledge that past “just transitions” have failed means Smith’s tactic will resonate with some Canadian workers. And why shouldn’t it? The federal government promised that there would be a “just transition” out of COVID-19. Instead, inequality is actually going up. The government has promised to get inflation under control. Yet, food prices continue to increase by 10 per cent every month. They’ve promised to fix healthcare, reduce student debt, make housing more affordable etc. etc. etc. The list of Liberal failures is long and well-known to working class Canadians. Workers have been convinced that Liberals lie, not by the Danielle Smiths of the world, but by the Liberals and their lies.

The failures of government aren’t only limited to the Liberals. The NDP has failed the working class time and again, fueling the cynical resentment of government job transition programs. As we pointed out in an article from 2019:

“[T]he Alberta NDP attempted to implement certain reforms, but were too locked in by a lack of revenue, lack of planning, or lack of scope to make a positive impact. For example, they began phasing out all coal for electricity to eliminate coal emissions while attempting to provide an alternative for the now unemployed coal workers. When these workers are laid off from the coal plant, they are given EI for a little less than a year, a moving fund of $5000, and a tuition voucher for $12,000 to pursue post-secondary education. This is completely inadequate given the situation. The job market these coal workers are jumping into is horrible. Ten years ago in Alberta, it was very easy to get a job, especially in the energy sector. Now, it is not. People are working longer hours for lower wages, working multiple jobs and still living paycheck to paycheck. Additionally, school costs money. Even though the tuition might be covered, one still has to pay their living expenses while attending. This implies student loan debt. And then once that ordeal is through, the coal workers now have to compete with younger graduates for limited jobs which don’t pay very well. This is not the kind of green energy transition that workers will get on board with. A realistic transition to green energy that can seriously tackle emissions and maintain good union jobs for workers in obsolete industries is not within the bounds of capitalism. As it stands right now, there is no way to fund the massive investment in green energy, retooling, and retraining which are all required without taking from the bank accounts of billionaires and executing a plan that the private sector has no interest in.”

It’s true that in a certain sense Smith is tapping into a genuine worker’s sentiment, but her efforts are all in an attempt to aid the bosses. Her “support” for workers and jobs is utterly hypocritical, and it disappears when looking at the UCP’s treatment of workers in Alberta. The UCP have waged an all-out war against the Albertan working class, attacking unions, labour laws, and doing everything they can to cut public sector jobs and wages. It has not been the federal Liberals attacking Albertan workers as often as the UCP. They can try and cloak themselves in pro-worker rhetoric all they want, but the UCP’s record speaks for itself.

What can actually be done?

For all this political infighting, the climate crisis still needs to be solved. The only way capitalism has ever transitioned from one industry to another is when that new industry was more profitable. It’s not goodwill or perfect policies that pull capitalism in any direction, but the profit motive. This can be artificially created by subsidizing certain industries, but that strategy is limited by state funds, which are severely limited by the constant crisis capitalism is experiencing.  

If the Liberals will try to influence the economy this way, the question immediately becomes that of who will be paying for these subsidies? As they have done in the past, the government will try to make the working class foot the bill, either through higher taxes or through cuts to services. Because of this, there is no such thing as a “just transition” under capitalism. Either the workers pay for it, or the bosses pay for it, and paying is not something the bosses are willing to do. The fact that the capitalists refuse to give up their profits, or even try to use them to save the planet, should be taken as proof that they are a class that cannot be reasoned with.

Instead of market schemes and euphemistic job transition plans, the working class must seize the wealth of the capitalists and create a democratic control of production. This would allow for a serious plan to transition the economy to renewable energy. Workers within the oil industry just as workers everywhere have the power to change things for the better, not in the language of tedious policy documents, but in the language of class struggle. It is in our interests to end the climate crisis and the only way to do that is to take control of the industries away from the very capitalists driving us towards destruction.

It is possible to both protect the environment and have good jobs. It’s just not possible under capitalism. Instead, under a socialist planned economy, we could finally take real control of our industries and invest in renewable energy that the ruling class has ignored for decades. We need to move towards a rational democratically planned industry working to the benefit of all. Only then will we finally be able to have our “just transition” … away from climate catastrophe and capitalism.