The Leap Manifesto has become a significant factor in progressive politics in Canada. Drafted in 2015 under the guidance and leadership of one of Canada’s elite progressive media couples, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, the Manifesto was the nail in the coffin of the leader of the federal NDP party at their convention in April 2016. It’s likely to be a serious thorn in the Alberta NDP’s side when they come up for re-election in two to three years.
It’s been signed by a lot of luminaries. Along with seriously credentialed environmental people and organizations such as David Suzuki, 350.org, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club, it’s also attracted numerous respected long-serving public figures and a host of arts and culture figures. There’s a lot chatter about Avi Lewis becoming the next federal leader of the NDP based on his role in it.
So what about the Manifesto itself? Well, there’s a good core — decarbonization is important — with a handful of okay points, surrounded by a lot of nonsense that doesn’t make any sense as a solution for climate change.
It was written by a collection of people who don’t actually understand the areas that they are trying to fix. It’s a camel of a document, in that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. But it’s worse, as the committee was overloaded with people who really wanted to design hot water heaters, board games, or doilies — anything but horses.
I hadn’t bothered reading it before mid-April 2016 despite respecting many of the signatories. And it’s not long, less than 1,400 words.
Part of the reason that I didn’t bother to read it is the word ‘manifesto.’ I’m inherently suspicious of manifestos, as they are typically long on ideology and short on pragmatism, finding the middle ground and helping multiple stakeholder groups across society address complex problems.
But why should you consider my opinion on this document relevant? Well, I’ve been analyzing and writing about carbon emissions of various electrical generation and transportation alternatives for years in various outlets. That includes policy and economic assessments of different approaches too. As a technology consultant, I’ve worked in many of the industries that the Manifesto targets for change, including transportation and energy, unlike — obviously — any of the authors of that document, and worked with global workforces for two decades. And I grew up military and served in the Canadian infantry reserves, another target of the Manifesto. My background is actually very well suited to assessing the reality of most of the elements of the Manifesto.
And now I’ve read it. So what do I think?
Well, let’s read the first sentence:
We start from the premise that Canada is facing the deepest crisis in recent memory.
I chose optimism as a default position about 20 years ago, so something that starts with the world being in a horrible place and getting worse typically has trouble getting traction with me.
And it’s silly hyperbole. Canada has just had yet another successful transition of government in one of the longest running and most peaceful democracies in the world. Our standard of living is absurdly high by world standards. Our grids are decarbonizing, with Canada being #5 in the world per capita for wind energy as one example; Ontario shut down coal generation; our longevity is among the top in the world; we have a tiny fraction of the problems of radicalization which are so problematic in so many parts of the world, including the USA and many countries in Europe, our educational standards are amazing, etc.
Is Canada perfect on climate change? Far from it, but its national grid average CO2 emissions are well below the USA’s as a close comparison. Sure the federal and Alberta government’s desire to build pipelines to get millions of barrels of crude oil to foreign markets was stupid, short-sighted, and contrary to the needs of climate science. But those pipelines weren’t getting built, or anywhere close to it. They were all shut down by international and provincial politics.
And the price of oil tanked well before the Leap Manifesto was drafted due to global structural problems in oil that will continue to depress the price and reflect, among other things, the beginning of the end of the Age of Oil. As a former Saudi Minister of Oil said in 2000, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil.” Among other things, the Saudi government’s official strategy is to massively increase solar, wind, and biomass by 2040, with 20% of energy from solar alone.
This was prior to Paris and COP21 as well, but the writing was on the wall for how that was going to play out. By the time the Manifesto had come out, China and India had signed climate accords with the USA under Barack Obama’s long-term strategic agenda, agreements that started discussions under the future President’s watch as Secretary of State and were finalized last year. And that wind and solar had plummeted in cost and all heads of state were being advised of that, so everyone realized that the transition was economically inevitable and a lot cheaper than they had thought.
But you’d never know from the Manifesto that Canada is doing okay and the world is turning a corner. No, Leap’s starting position is that the sky is falling.
There are some reasonable elements in the document, some of which are even relevant to combatting climate change, but none of which are new:
- Yes, transitioning oil and gas workers to renewables workers is a very sensible and necessary action. You’d never know that there are already more renewable workers with good paying jobs in North America than oil and gas workers from reading the Manifesto, but it’s true, and O&G workers currently out of work are re-skilling rapidly around the world.
- Pricing carbon and eliminating the various incentives to fossil fuel extraction, distribution, and use makes sense. But of course, there are carbon taxes already in BC and Alberta and cap and trade systems in Ontario and Quebec which cover the large majority of the populace. And there are few consumption subsidies for fossil fuels. Canada’s playing field is much more balanced than numerous countries globally already.
- Yes, building low-carbon infrastructure makes more sense than building high-carbon infrastructure. This is actually the contentious piece of the Manifesto for most people, as it’s the pipeline piece. Alberta believes it needs pipelines to get its product to market as cheaply as possible. Most climate change types are opposed to making it easier and cheaper to ship larger volumes of petrochemicals. But pipelines have just become a flash point, not a point where anyone is thinking clearly any more. It won’t be a pipelines presence or absence that affects climate change, it will be drastically reducing demand for fossil fuels.
- The comments on austerity are relatively accurate once you strip them of their fairly hysterical wording. That economic movement has pretty much fled, and even the austerity-prone former Canadian government was very Keynesian in 2008, doing significant deficit financing to stimulate the economy to restart. Could it have been more? Sure, but a traditional failure of Keynesian economic attempts is failing to cut back on programs when they are no longer needed and put money away for the next time. Were the Harper Conservatives on the right point on the continuum on that one? They could have been stronger on the stimulus and weaker on cutting it back, but they were certainly within the debatable part of the continuum. And it worked. Canada responded well and its economy is a lot stronger than countries which adhered to austerity. And of course the current government has just unleashed the biggest stimulus funding plan in decades. But once again you wouldn’t know it from the Manifesto.
- Yes, welcoming refugees is exactly what we should be doing. And while I love what the Trudeau Liberals chose to do, it’s worth pointing out that the Harper Conservatives were on track to welcome a lot more refugees than the USA on a per capita basis. We were still Canada, just not as Canadian as many of us would have liked us to be. And we fixed that. But it’s also critical to point out that this is not a response that has anything to do with decarbonizing Canada.
But then there’s the stuff that makes no sense except ideologically:
- “Moving to a far more localized and ecologically-based agricultural system” — The combination of global rural to urban migration and industrial agriculture has resulted in a re-greening of the countryside of 3% over slightly more than a decade, combined with greater food security. A lot more calories are sustainably being farmed on a lot less land, which is necessary to feed the 9 billion humans we’ll peak at in 2055 or so according to UN projections. And CO2e emissions from agriculture have been dropping at the same time due to technological and process advances of large-scale agriculture. Is there work to do to continue to make agriculture reduce emissions more? Yes, but it has nothing to do with Leap’s prescription.
- “We should ensure immigration status and full protection for all workers.” This is only one of the many things in the Manifesto which has absolutely nothing to do with climate change and it’s also deeply wrong-headed. One of the best realities of the world these days is labour mobility. I’ve lived and worked globally over the past several years as part of the information worker mobility. I’ve talked to dozens of grateful people from developing countries ecstatic to have seasonal or construction or care-giving work in multiple countries so that they can support families in their poorer countries. And frankly, this is as reactionary as Trump’s statements about illegal aliens taking American jobs and just as contrary to data. This is a parochial labour protection scheme dressed up as being nice to people who come to our country just wanting to work and go home. Just enforce migrant workforce protection laws on the book, don’t ban migrant workforces. This is a sop to labour unions and people who blame migrant workers and globalization for their job woes, not a useful policy.
- “Following on Quebec’s lead, a national childcare program is long past due.” — There is no connection between a national childcare program and climate change. It’s indicative that one of the stakeholder groups thinks this is a great idea for other reasons — and it is — but it has nothing to do with the purported purpose of the document. Frankly, the comments in this section just have no economic reality because they are not high-value, wealth-generating, productivity-increasing sectors.
- “Cuts to military spending.” — Canada is already just below 1% of GDP, less than half of our NATO and international commitment. There are all sorts of excellent things that the Canadian military has done and needs to continue to do in a complex world. The Manifesto authors use the word resiliency a lot, but they don’t stop to think of the amazing emergency response and international peacekeeping and training missions that the military is solely equipped to perform. There are certainly arguments to be had about aspects of military spending. Should we buy the F 35? Hard to see why. Should we invest more in naval patrols and what percentage should be military vs coast guard? What is required for training an international intervention force capable of dealing with disaster relief in a warming world with increased tensions due to climate refugees? The Manifesto authors seem to think that the Canadian military spends all of its time bombing civilians. And there is no connection between cutting military spending and reducing Canada’s carbon footprint.
- “High-speed rail powered by renewables and affordable public transit can unite every community in this country” — This makes little sense. First, passenger rail to every community in the country is foolish in the age of electric cars; it is the wrong solution and VIA Rail, Canada’s passenger rail provider, loses enormous amounts of money annually while being forced legislatively to do just that. Second, high-speed rail is only viable between densely populated centres. It might make sense to put in high-speed rail from Toronto to Montreal. But given that 60-seater electric airplanes are expected to be on the market in a handful of years that will fly from Toronto to Montreal quickly and that there are Tesla Superchargers which are accessible by self-driving Tesla’s between Toronto and Montreal, this is a solution which makes decreasing sense with each passing year given Canada’s low population density and massive geography. More light rail and regional commuter rail in urban areas powered by renewables? That would make sense. Battery-electric, modern, right-of-way buses powered by renewables? That would make sense. But the Leap Manifesto is stuck in a weird past, not the present, and certainly not the very near future.
- “As an alternative to the profit-gouging of private companies and the remote bureaucracy of some centralized state ones, we can create innovative ownership structures: democratically run, paying living wages and keeping much-needed revenue in communities.” — This is the big Klein contribution as far as I can tell. Let’s just change the entire global economy, make businesses into coops, and keep them from being able to scale and provide the kind of amazing stuff that requires global supply chains. You know, stuff like solar power and wind energy, which aren’t knocked out by neighbours working as a collective. I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: exactly the organizations and globalization that the Manifesto says are the problem are actually absolutely necessary to the solution. As with No Logo, Klein’s identification of challenges is good, but her solutions would be just as bad if not worse.
There’s more to be said, but this should suffice. Most of the intelligent people and organizations I respect who have signed this Manifesto aren’t signing up for the vast majority of what it says, they are signing up because it’s a popular (and fairly populist) statement that we have to kick fossil fuels and decarbonize. I fully agree with that part of it. But it’s a grab bag of “solutions” which are either mostly implemented, completely irrelevant, or actually harmful to the needs of solving climate change in Canada. If it could be implemented, it wouldn’t work.
What it will certainly do is sully the NDP brand across Canada, which is very definitely a pity, as the Alberta NDP’s climate policies are amazingly good for that province and as a result for the country. The Leap Manifesto has substantially increased the chances that the Alberta NDP government will be a one-term administration, without bringing anything substantive to the discussion of climate change solutions.