The B.C. NDP is asleep at the wheel of the climate emergency. Here’s why

Robert Hackett
B.C. Premier John Horgan announcing "real climate action" in 2017. Credit: BC NDP / Flickr

[Editor: And now the floods!]

November 12, 2021

As British Columbia’s New Democratic Party prepares for its first biennial convention since winning the 2020 election, memories of last summer’s deadly heat domes and wildfires still burn deeply. B.C. is experiencing the global consequences of carbon-intensive extractivism – the kind of “rip and ship” (extract and export) economic policies pursued by the previous right-of-centre B.C. Liberal government for most of its 2001-2017 term of office.

Unfortunately, Premier John Horgan’s government has, for the most part, continued on the same economically risky, climate-threatening, and capital- rather than job-intensive path. The question is – why?

After all, as the recent open letter from over 240 civil society organization reminded Horgan:

“The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a ‘code red’ for humanity. The International Energy Agency has called on world governments to immediately stop investments in and approvals of new oil and gas projects. The provincial government’s CleanBC climate action is insufficient to limit warming to 1.5 degrees and will not keep British Columbians safe from the worst impacts of climate change.”

Meanwhile, B.C. has not reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and is now clearly in a state of climate emergency – but the government is not in emergency mode.

At Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, continued old growth logging has triggered the largest civil disobedience campaign in Canadian history. Horgan’s promise to use “every tool in the toolbox” to stop the Trans Mountain pipeline was reduced to a long-shot court challenge over jurisdiction. Subsidies for fossil fuel corporations have reportedly doubled over the already generous levels under the B.C. Liberals. The government approved the Site C mega-dam project, which helps supply electricity for extractivist industry. And it supports fracking and the Coastal Gas Link LNG pipeline – projects that virtually preclude reaching the government’s own goal of 40 per cent emission reductions from 2007 levels by 2030, and fly in the face of declining global demand. In support of LNG, Mike Farnworth as minister of public safety authorized the militarized RCMP raid on Wet’suwe’ten land protectors in 2020.

University of Victoria sociology professor Bill Carroll, co-director of the Corporate Mapping Project, emailed that the government has “weaponized” the important principle of Indigenous self-determination, “selectively trotting it out” when it suits the government’s extractivist agenda.

From a progressive government, we might have expected better. Narrowly elected in 2017, with a modest suite of environmental promises, the NDP governed for three years with the support of three Green Party MLAs.

That minority government yielded the CleanBC plan for reducing GHG emissions and building a more sustainable economy. In 2020, Horgan triggered an early election, his government’s adroit handling of the pandemic helping to deliver a majority.

An emailed summary from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy outlines key initiatives since 2017 – shoreline and watershed restoration, enhancement of parks, protection of spotted owl habitat, reduced plastic pollution, initial steps toward climate adaptation, a legislated end to sales of carbon-emitting vehicles by 2040, and sectoral emission reduction targets across the economy, augmenting the CleanBC plan.

All doubtless worthy steps, but overall, they mostly deal with the “downstream” effects of “upstream” economic carbon bombs, or they set deadlines and emission reduction targets that are too low, too late, and inadequately financed and enforced.

Recognizing the gap between the target of a 40 per cent drop below 2007 levels by 2030, and the policies to implement it, the government released a Roadmap to 2030 in October. It proposes more incremental steps – increased carbon tax, faster adoption of zero-emission vehicles, more use of public transit, stronger pollution standards in buildings, lowered industrial methane emissions.

Responses from environmental advocates, however, identify what we might call continued “Greenhouse Gas Omissions.” Will methane emission reduction depend on unproven technology? Why defer a plan to decrease emissions from the oil and gas industry? Above all, how are LNG development and subsidies to fossil fuel corporations consistent with climate mitigation?

The Roadmap ignores the overseas emissions from B.C.’s fossil fuel exports. Instead, it echoes the industry’s own line: “We produce resources the world needs.”

How to explain the B.C. government’s underwhelming and contradictory climate record?

The NDP’s membership base combines workers and unions in the resource and construction sectors, with activists from environmental and other movements. Crudely put, the party has “brown” and “green” wings, which actually makes it an excellent potential site to spearhead a “just transition” to a decarbonized economy.

Currently though, while there is restiveness within the membership and the legislative caucus, the “browns” seem ascendant.

Horgan has surrounded himself with senior bureaucrats and political strategists who advise cautious electorally-oriented centrism, or have had direct ties to extractivist industry. One of Horgan’s first appointments in 2017 was Don Wright as deputy minister to the premier – the most senior civil service position. With Wright’s background in both Liberal and NDP governments, and with an executive stint with a major forest company, the appointment could be seen as a commitment to nonpartisan technocratic expertise – but also as an early signal that Horgan wasn’t looking for an administrator to help steer basic changes.

Other senior appointments have revealed rifts within the government along environmental lines. These flashed into view in April of last year, when the premier’s office reportedly fired deputy minister of environment and climate change strategy Mark Zacharias abruptly and mysteriously against the wishes of environment minister George Heyman.

A few weeks later, Dave Nikolejsin, then deputy minister heading B.C.’s fracking and LNG strategy, resigned. He had kept his job two years earlier, despite telling an oil and gas audience that a carbon tax, tightening environmental regulations and giving Indigenous nations more say over development could “break the camel’s back.”

Nikolejsin was replaced by former director of the neoliberal Fraser Institute, Fazil Mihlar. He had been retained in 2018 as deputy minister of jobs, trade and technology, notwithstanding his previous public opposition to environmental assessments, the right to organize unions and minimum wage laws. By 2021, he also chaired the board of the regulatory B.C. Oil and Gas Commission.

Horgan’s own resume reflects the B.C. economy that formed him. To pay for college, Horgan worked in a pulp mill. Inside the NDP governments of Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark and Dan Miller, he “helped troubleshoot key files and was especially focused on energy policy,” a bio reads. Horgan would have lived through the original “war in the woods” in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s, where the government triangulated between contending interests, but also was rewarded in polls by taking a hard stand against demonstrators.

Such experience seems to have taught Horgan that environmental policy is “all about cutting deals, not pursuing ideals,” says former political journalist Sean Holman.

Basing policy on such political bargaining has profound implications. Actors “who are better resourced, better informed, and strategically located vis-à-vis the centers of policy making have a distinct advantage over socially and economically marginalized groups,” writes Australian political scientist Robyn Eckersley. Haggling between private interests is a major reason “liberal democracies have been unable to deliver more systematic environmental protection.”

In a party with strong ties to labour, Horgan wears proudly his working class roots. He campaigned in 2017 by painting the B.C. Liberals as the party of the rich “not working for you.”

Before the 2020 election, an NDP MLA privately expressed hope that a majority government might act more boldly on the climate file, but, having discarded the Green Party’s partnership, that seems like wishful thinking.

Since then, the proliferating B.C. NDP’s donation appeals in my inbox rightly laud social policy achievements like affordable childcare, but rarely if ever mention climate action.

“There’s no evidence that this premier feels the climate emergency in his gut,” concludes Seth Klein, author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, and former director of the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive think tank.

Horgan arguably took another lesson from the 1990s: a fear of a capital strike – that is, a disinvestment campaign by segments of B.C.’s business class until the NDP either capitulates to their demands or is driven out of office. In his memoir, Harcourt recalls businesspeople accompanying his overseas trade missions dissuading their foreign counterparts from dealing with B.C. The lesson? Make sure your policies don’t ruffle too many corporate feathers. That’s one way to interpret environment minister Heyman’s commitment to a buy-in from all sectors for the CleanBC plan. And yet, as Klein puts it, any climate plan approved by the fossil sector, with its vested interest in continued extraction, is not a plan worth having.

Fear of capital’s reaction also informed Horgan’s reluctant green light to Site C. He expressed concern that cancellation would jeopardize B.C.’s international credit rating. It’s a claim disputed by independent project financing experts, but one that suggests the influence of global bond rating agencies, like Moody’s, in B.C.’s power structure.

Gene McGuckin, a veteran trade unionist, anti-pipeline activist, and founding member of the Vancouver Ecosocialists, offers his own explanation in an email:

“Strategically, the NDP is a reformist party, steeped in nearly a century of belief that gradual reform is the only way to achieve significant political victories over capitalism’s damaging, profit-driven policies – whether social, political, or ecological. Elections are seen as the only mechanism for gaining the parliamentary power to implement such reforms.”

McGuckin says the NDP’s activist members are less conservative than the party leadership, which creates a dilemma. It depends on members as donors and campaign troops, and attracts idealists open to radical action – like the rapid decarbonization of Canada’s economy envisaged in the Leap Manifesto, narrowly endorsed by the federal NDP convention in 2016. (The Manifesto was sloughed off to a series of summertime study sessions and thus basically sidelined. But at least, at the national level, the membership had the chance to debate it publicly and to demonstrate widespread popular support for its principles.)

If the leadership is to maintain corporate-friendly policies (especially when in government), left-leaning activists must be kept at arm’s length from real power within the party.

According to the party’s constitution, the B.C. NDP “shall be controlled by its membership.” In reality, maybe not so much. The lines of influence reputedly run from the premier’s office – particularly the chief-of-staff Geoff Meggs, a long-time party insider – to the party’s executive, headed by the party president, currently Craig Keating. The executive in turn sets the agenda for the provincial council, constitutionally the party’s governing body between conventions.

The premier’s power is reinforced by a “command and control” governance style, as described by one MLA, and an ethic of public loyalty and solidarity, with policy differences kept behind closed doors. It’s an organizational culture partly forged in the historic struggles of unions against employers, but it’s arguably more buttoned-down that that found in the NDP’s federal wing or overseas counterparts like the Australian or British Labour parties.

How does this culture prevent the NDP’s greener wing from getting more traction within the party?

Confidential sources report that activists seeking nomination to be the party’s standard-bearer in certain ridings, against an incumbent or “establishment” favourite, faced informal obstacles, like delays in the required paperwork.

As with other governing parties, the promise of future candidacies, jobs or even cabinet posts is a potent carrot to keep ambitious members (including elected MLAs) in the fold. A parliamentary party leader also has heavy sticks, including the rarely used but always present potential to expel publicly dissident MLAs from the caucus.

The council allows ample time to discuss matters like fund-raising, but generally sandwiches policy discussion to the end of a time-constrained agenda. Troublesome environmental policy resolutions (like a proposal for a moratorium on LNG development) from the grassroots can be procedurally sidelined, “lost,” deferred, ruled beyond the council’s jurisdiction, and/or kicked down the road to the 2021 convention, where an appointed resolutions committee determines which proposals get debated.

The party apparatus impedes rather than facilitates horizontal communication between grassroots members. One example: the party does not provide the presidents of local electoral district associations (EDAs) with each other’s email addresses, claiming it would violate privacy laws, even on an opt-in basis. “Federally, this information is publicly posted,” says one EDA president. “It’s ludicrous that presidents who are elected to work together to further our party have to scramble to get in touch with one another.”

Some of the industrial unions affiliated to the B.C. NDP – “afraid for their members’ jobs and only gradually shifting to a more realistic long-view analysis” – have also played a role in weakening the party’s environmental policies, argues McGuckin.

UVic’s Carroll notes that the NDP’s commitment to working people is a prerequisite for both social justice and viable climate action. But in the Horgan-led NDP, that effort is “reduced to keeping construction unions onside rather than addressing the labour issue seriously, in a comprehensive strategy for good green jobs, using the full force of the state and the public sector to lead in a just transition.”

Viewed through that lens, the B.C. NDP can seem a mirage to members galvanized by the climate crisis. It attracts such members (and their wallets) while denying them effective control of party platforms. It pursues modest environmental policies to placate its eco-wing, but without addressing the core problem – the power and vested interests of carbon capital.

As Carroll notes, structural forces underlie the government’s utter lack of “transformative thinking and vision.” A study for the Corporate Mapping Project revealed over five million dollars of donations by fossil fuel corporations and industry associations to B.C. political parties between 2008 and 2015, with 92 cents of every dollar going to the B.C. Liberals, whose return to office could doom effective climate action altogether.

Such political donations, by corporations or unions, were fortunately banned by the NDP in 2017. But carbon capital has many other weapons. Direct lobbying, for one. Between 2010 and 2016, B.C. public office holders heard from fossil fuel lobbyists 19,517 times – about 15 times the volume of environmental groups. NDP Attorney General David Eby introduced modest restrictions in 2017, but lobbying continues.

How thoroughly has carbon capital “captured” elements of the B.C. state.?

To see where that can lead, look to Alberta, where author and former MLA Kevin Taft argues Big Oil has so much influence over various institutions that the prairie province has virtually become “oil’s deep state,” regardless of which party is in office.

Carbon capital’s power assets, as Taft describes them, are astoundingly broad-ranging. They include the inertia of business as usual; direct ownership or control of valued resources; alliances and partnerships through contracts, joint projects, and the like; persuasion through advertising and public relations (and more recently, social media); enticement through Trojan-horse gifts (think of oil-funded hockey arenas, or endowments to universities); and threatening opponents with lawsuits.

Such institutional capture is less advanced in B.C., but still apparent. The BC Oil and Gas Commission routinely rubber stamps industry applications, argues Carroll, and the ministries of energy/mines and forestry are particularly susceptible to such influence. One avenue: the kind of civil service (dis)appointments noted above.

If not exactly “captured,” the legacy news media are “a full-fledged member of the corporate elite,” as the NDP’s first premier Dave Barrett aptly put it, ready to give the NDP a hammering when it actually acts like a social democratic government. Mike Harcourt recalls the hostile double standards on the issue of government debt, applied by major broadcasters and the Vancouver dailies, the Sun and Province. Those papers are now owned by Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, which has an unhealthily cosy relationship with Big Oil. Our research at NewsWatch Canada suggests that complaints of anti-socialist and pro-extractivist media frames are not just partisan whinging. In the Corporate Mapping Project’s language, corporate media tend to be “legitimators” of the fossil fuel industry’s “regime of obstruction” against effective climate action.

Horgan’s incentive to give short shrift to his party’s eco-wing is sweetened by two more factors. The antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system under-represents Green Party voters, typically denying their party the pivotal role that it had from 2017 to 2020. And a colonialist judicial system almost routinely grants injunctions to protect extractivist projects, and privileges settler over Indigenous law.

“Corporate capital really is in the driver’s seat, and it can further enforce its rule through the blackmail of jobs,” Carroll emailed, “jobs which may trickle down from profits if policies are pro-corporate but which will disappear if government steps too far out of line.”

That threat seems to be instinctively understood by voters in much of the province. Not surprisingly, extractivist populism attracts a significant strand of the voting population, especially in the hinterlands where economic alternatives seem scarce. And four decades of neoliberalism – the ideology of free market fundamentalism – has stunted our political imagination and our faith in accomplishing great things together, says Klein. Globally, neoliberalism has undermined the self-confidence and credibility of social democratic parties like the NDP, as they have continually retreated in the face of the privatization juggernaut, suggests Carroll.

Moreover, the climate emergency’s slow-motion time frame enables politicians to kick the can down the road to future administrations. The indirect relationship between local emission reduction and global climate mitigation makes it easy to kick the can sideways – there’s always somebody else to blame. Instead, Canadians should look honestly into the mirror. On a per capita basis, Canadians are the highest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet, drive the most inefficient vehicles, and rank as one of the world’s top ten climate polluters overall. Our atmospheric dumping nearly doubles when including the burning of fossil fuels we export to other countries, many of which produce manufactured goods for the wealthy global north.

B.C. NDP strategists girding for the next election find all these reasons to avoid serious action on climate change. Do they look just a bit farther down the road, however? If so, they might see a party being steered into a ditch. Young people are mobilizing for climate action. The concept of “jobs for the future” in a decarbonized economy is gaining substantial traction within the labour movement, as the realities of ecological crisis and shifting energy markets unfold.

For the NDP, carrying on environmental business-as-usual could carry an electoral penalty. Carroll foresees potential “extensive defection, primarily to the Greens. Some Vancouver Island ridings may shift from NDP to Green, but the main effect will be to split the left-of-centre vote,” yielding a possible majority B.C. Liberal government.

Here is what I heard from one lifelong NDP voter in Courtenay-Comox, the pivotal Vancouver Island riding where a nail-biting vote count narrowly put the New Democrats into office in 2017. “Some of my (formerly NDP) friends have already moved to supporting the Green Party, provincially and federally,” Deb MacDonald told me. “Some use their vote negatively against a worse alternative. And some don’t bother voting at all because they don’t feel they will be represented.”

What now?

The B.C. NDP’s forthcoming convention (November 19-21) promises to bring fissions within the NDP membership more clearly into view. Resolutions from local electoral district associations and grassroots policy committees include calls for an end to old-growth logging, a moratorium on LNG development, renewed opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline, a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, and a broad-ranging “just recovery” from the pandemic to a decarbonized economy that leaves nobody behind. Will those proposals make it through the gatekeepers to the convention’s floor debates?

Seth Klein, who is sympathetic to the green wing of the B.C. NDP, considers it “not impossible” for the party to change. He asks, who could have predicted the federal Liberals would pivot so quickly in response to COVID? And the widespread desire for greater internal party democracy provides the basis for a pro-change coalition broader than the eco-wing.

The 12,000-plus members of the B.C. NDP – a party I first joined in 1971 – are likely the largest and most diverse arena for electorally engaged, progressive-minded British Columbians. Historically, the NDP is rooted in the philosophy of democratic socialism, one relatively well suited to facing the ecological challenge, writes sociologist Mary Mellor. The need “to live within limits and organize a system that can provision the human community” demands that the economy be a matter for democratic decision-making, she argues. The socialist ethos of society’s collective responsibility for human wellbeing needs to be extended to other species and ecosystems, and may now be a condition for our own survival. Can the party bearing that tradition in B.C. rise to the challenge? Does the November 2 announcement of expanded protection for old growth forests indicate a “green” turn, in response to pressure from its base? Or will it will take a deeper political re-alignment, including further mass mobilization, to drive the necessary broader economic transformation?

A version of this article was originally published in The Tyee. [Posted here:]

[Top photo: B.C. Premier John Horgan announcing "real climate action" in 2017. Credit: BC NDP / Flickr]