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Federal Politics

How Trudeau Is Screwing Over the Generation that Got Him Elected

He thinks he can expand fossil fuels and keep young voters. He’s wrong.

Geoff Dembicki 28 Dec

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee. His work also appears in Vice, Foreign Policy and the New York Times, and his book, Are We Screwed? How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change, will be published internationally by Bloomsbury US in 2017.

Let’s get something straight. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, as well as his recent support for Keystone XL, isn’t just a rebuke to Canada’s environmental movement, dozens of First Nations and the Metro Vancouver voters who elected 15 Liberal MPs.

Trudeau has effectively said “screw you” to the generation of millennials who brought him to office. “I feel betrayed,” one young activist explained. For the rest of his time in office we won’t let him forget it.

Don’t misunderstand our anger. This isn’t just some idealistic outburst. If you’re in your 30s or younger you have a much different relationship to climate change than our leaders. Unlike them, you could be alive to see the sea level rise that swallows every coastal city on the planet. “I’m really scared,” 19-year-old UBC student Kate Hodgson told the Georgia Straight.

So when Trudeau approves the $35-billion Petronas LNG project, rubber stamps Kinder Morgan and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipelines, talks about building Keystone XL now that Donald Trump is president, and then claims it’s all “integrated into our Pan-Canadian framework on fighting climate change,” people my age have every right to be angry. It’s our future he’s gambling with.

The official narrative is that these projects are political cover — that a Liberal government could never have convinced Canada’s premiers to accept a national price on carbon dioxide, along with a phase-out of the country’s coal power plants by 2030, without them. “It's time to count our blessings and take one for the team,” people like the National Observer’s Sandy Garossino argue. “Let Kinder Morgan pass.”

The problem with this argument is that it ignores scientific reality. The acceleration of oilsands that Trudeau is enabling would make it hard — if not impossible — to keep global temperature rise below the relatively safe threshold of two degrees, a study in Nature warns. McGill student Sophie Birks, who was arrested protesting Kinder Morgan this fall, puts it succinctly: “Climate leaders don’t build pipelines.”

Trudeau ignores those words at his political peril. Without the support of young people, he wouldn’t be prime minister. During the 2015 federal election, youth turnout surged. It was up 18 per cent from 2011 among voters 18 to 24. Nearly half voted for Trudeau. “[This] is believed to be a major factor behind the resounding Liberal Party victory,” the Harvard International Review concluded.

But this was not the same kind of surge in support from young voters that helped propel Barack Obama to victory in 2008. Trudeau didn’t capture the imagination of a new generation. He was simply our best means of getting rid of Stephen Harper. Harper spent his near decade in power tearing up climate treaties, attacking civil society and turning Canada into a petro-state. Millennials were twice as likely as older voters to pick the environment as an urgent national issue. “Today’s young people are about to inherit decades of climate woes,” the Toronto Star wrote, “and they want a government that is willing to address these problems now.”

Young voters like myself — I turned 30 several months ago — weren’t all that picky about which political party took on the challenge. Overall we lean progressive. But in the summer before the election more than 80 per cent of us couldn’t decide whether that would mean a vote for the NDP or Liberals, polling from Abacus Data suggested. “Millenials are the most ‘up for grabs’ voters today,” the company concluded. That remained true just days before the election, when Ekos found that my age group’s support was divided almost equally among the Liberals, NDP and Conservatives.

The nearly half of us who eventually voted Liberal were making a calculated decision. “It was strategic voting on a grand scale by voters who wanted Harper gone and who did not particularly care whether the NDP or Liberals finished the job,” wrote former Harper advisor and University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan.

Our support for Trudeau was never that deep. It was contingent on him dismantling Harper’s petro-state. At the Paris climate talks, only six weeks after the election, young activists were already questioning if Trudeau was up to the job.

“Trudeau is talking [about] acting on climate, but not walking the walk,” Torrance Coste, part of the official Canadian Youth Delegation, told me after a press event with the prime minister, where Trudeau boasted about how “Canada is back” on climate, but dodged questions about the specifics.

Coste said Trudeau was simply putting “a shiny veneer on the same old inaction and foot-dragging that we youth are used to from the government of Canada.”

I withheld judgment longer. But by the end of this year, as Trudeau approved one fossil fuel project after another, I was inclined to agree with Coste. It seemed many others in B.C. did as well. Polling from Insights West and the Dogwood Initiative, which opposes oil tanker expansion, suggested 69 per cent of millennials believe approval of Kinder Morgan is inconsistent with Trudeau’s promises to fight climate change and protect B.C.’s coast. “Trudeau’s government was brought to power by a surge in youth voter turnout and a consolidation of the progressive electorate,” Dogwood’s Sophie Harrison argued. “A lot of that support is going to collapse.”

Trudeau doesn’t seem very worried. “People are more than welcome to express their opinions, to campaign against me.… That’s all part of our democratic process,” he said during a recent visit to Vancouver.

But he should be. Harper didn’t see my generation as a political threat either. We ended his 10-year reign in a single night. And though 2019 is still a long ways off, we’ll have no problem doing the same for Trudeau.

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