Suzuki: Government for the people, not fossil fuel corporations

David Suzuki says the oil industry is working to influence governments

By David Suzuki

I consider voting a privilege and a responsibility. But I wish politicians would take their responsibility to voters more seriously. We elect them to represent us. Sometimes our interests coincide with corporate priorities. After all, corporations create jobs and economic opportunities and often develop products and services citizens need. Corporations can’t vote, but by putting enormous amounts of money into campaigns and lobbying, they can hijack the political agenda.

That’s the case with the fossil fuel industry — the most profitable in human history. It’s taken such hold on the U.S. that the current administration refuses to accept advice and research from climate scientists, biologists, military experts, economists and others who warn that continuing to burn fossil fuels will steer us to climate catastrophe, with horrendous impacts on agriculture, human migration, health, security, the economy and resources, and that failing to act will be far more costly and lacking in economic opportunity than confronting the challenge.

Canadians shouldn’t be smug. Although most of our elected representatives acknowledge climate change and the need to act, some have been compromised by the fossil fuel industry. Many people expected changes in 2015 when the Liberals won the federal election and the NDP won Alberta’s election. The new governments said the right things and came up with reasonably good plans but then continued to approve and promote fossil fuel development and infrastructure to the extent that one has to question whether they understand the urgency of the climate crisis.

As former Alberta Liberal Party leader and Oil’s Deep State author Kevin Taft writes in a Maclean’s article, “The link between fossil fuels and global warming has been known since the 1980s, and so has the solution to global warming: phasing out fossil fuels. Rather than accepting the science and adapting to other sources of energy, the oil industry has developed an aggressive campaign to obscure the science and advance its own interests.”

In Oil’s Deep State, Taft outlines how the oil industry worked to influence governments and their bureaucracies, as well as public institutions like universities. From the 1980s and into the ’90s, Taft writes in Maclean’s, “University and government scientists conducted research; civil servants prepared plans and legislation to reduce emissions; political parties committed to action; and Canada’s Parliament endorsed international climate change agreements.” Then the Harper government pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, cut research funding and silenced scientists. Since their 2015 election, the federal Liberals and Alberta NDP have maintained support for fossil fuel projects and infrastructure.

In early October, federal environment commissioner Julie Gelfand gave the government a failing grade on climate change, noting only five of 19 government departments she looked at had even assessed climate risks and how to deal with them.

Taft also examines how oil money has compromised universities’ independence. A recent report by the University of Western Ontario’s Alison Hearn and York University’s Gus Van Harten backs him up, showing Enbridge funding for the University of Calgary created conflicts of interest, compromised academic freedom and gave the company influence over decision-making.

It’s not the first time the University of Calgary has been caught up in oil industry scandals. In 2004, political science professor Barry Cooper set up research accounts to secretly funnel donations, mostly from oil and gas industries, to the misnamed group Friends of Science for its efforts to dispute climate science and reject the Kyoto Protocol.

Taft also examines the case of Bruce Carson, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper who was appointed to set up an energy institute at the University of Calgary and later convicted on three counts of illegal lobbying on behalf of the oil industry.

In a Desmog Blog interview, Taft says, “The universities, starting in the 1960s, were the foundation of much of the scientific research underlying global warming. To win the battle and delay action on global warming, the oil industry needed to gain influence in universities to smother or distort or counter the science that was coming out. And they succeeded substantially.”

Democracy works — if we participate. But it doesn’t function well if we forfeit our rights to corporate interests. We must speak out at the ballot box and between elections, and tell politicians our support depends on them putting our interests first.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

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