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‘I entered politics so I could remain an activist’: Steven Guilbeau branded as oil, idealist and traitor | Canada

a A boy in rural Canada learns that his favorite forest is being cut down, so he climbs it and refuses to leave. He fails the mission, but the destruction resonates deeply. In his adolescence he studied politics and theology, fascinated by issues of power and moral obligation. As an adult, he climbed the tallest building in the world (then his CN Tower in Toronto) to protest climate change, only to be handcuffed down. He refuses to own his car and cycles through the heavy rain, sleet and ice of Quebec winters. Local newspapers call him “Green Jesus”.

Fast forward to April 2022 and that same man, Stephen Guilbeau, in his role as Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, gave the go-ahead to a controversial oil drilling project off Newfoundland.

A self-proclaimed “radical pragmatist,” 52-year-old Guilbeau leads Canada as a co-organizer of COP15, the global conference on biodiversity conservation, which begins next week in Montreal. But the ex-environmental activist-turned-minister finds himself caught between two competing worlds as he struggles to build consensus among nations amid growing urgency. I noticed that there is

“Politicians tend to use the word ‘leader’ in everything they do, but they use it too lightly. Canada is catching up on climate change. It has been less systematic in its efforts to reduce emissions,” says Guilbeault. “But I think that’s starting to change.”

Guilbeault (middle) speaks to the media with Norwegian and New Zealand Environment Ministers at the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, November 2022.
Guilbeault (center) with Norway and New Zealand Environment Ministers at the Cop27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. Photo: Sedat Suna/EPA

In October Guilbeau traveled to South America to meet ministers from Colombia, Chile and Argentina to discuss their understanding of the parameters needed to address habitats and biodiversity and how to secure funding to reverse it. We previewed the government’s approach to securing both. In November, she attended Cop27.

Optimism that delegates from the 196 countries attending Cop15 can make some progress in conserving the rapidly dwindling resources needed for life on Earth has gained momentum. I’m here.

Canada recently joined the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which aims to conserve 30% of land and sea for wildlife by 2030.

Guilbeau is cast as an enigmatic figure as the delegation prepares for a meeting and fuss over the language of the more than 20 proposed goals. He is a government official and someone who attended the conference as a frustrated activist.

Born in rural Quebec, the soft-spoken son of a butcher became deeply involved in the activist community in the early 1990s, forming a group with five colleagues to address environmental issues and poverty. This organization eventually became He Équiterre, an NGO promoting sustainable agriculture at the community level. Guilbeau left the Greenpeace organization in his 1997, and three years later, amid pressure on Canada to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, replaced his CN Tower in Toronto with fellow campaigner Chris Holden. and illegally expanded with banners reading “Canada and the Bush Climate Killers.” He was sentenced to his one-year probation and forced to pay some of the costs associated with the rescue.

Guilbeault (r) and fellow Greenpeace activist Chris Holden are escorted by police after climbing Toronto's CN Tower to protest the lack of action by Canada and the United States on environmental issues on July 16, 2001. There is
Guilbeau (right) and fellow Greenpeace activist Chris Holden are escorted by police after climbing Toronto’s CN Tower in July 2001. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

His trajectory began to shift in the early 2000s, when he began working within government, advising political leaders on environmental and energy policy.

The 2019 move of the father of four children and the stepfather of two children to the ruling Liberal Party is jarring and inconsistent for activists. One of the country’s most famous environmentalists, he gladly joined the government in buying the oil pipeline. He was branded a “traitor” by those who accused him of trading commitments for his ambitions.

“Activists do when they feel they have to criticize me. And they don’t shy away from it, which I fully understand,” he says. is harsh and I accept it.”

At the same time, he made few friends in the oil-rich parts of the country. There, political leaders opposed his appointment to the cabinet amid fears he would bring a tide of environmental radicalism to the federal government.

During his tenure as Minister of the Environment, Guilbeau managed to anger both of them. He’s taken a stand on plastic pollution, but has yet to put the country on track to meet its most ambitious climate commitments.

Guilbeau has pushed the country towards climate action more than any of his predecessors. If that means making concessions for a bigger, more lasting victory, so be it, he says. “When I wake up in the morning, I see my role as pushing the boundaries of government. In many ways, nothing has changed.” He admits that the government he represents is slow or even absent.

“There is talk that Canada has never met its climate targets. I think we’re starting to realize that it’s possible.”

He points to the expansion of marine protected areas and concerted efforts to make indigenous communities the stewards of vast and ecologically important lands.

But policy experts warn that the public has “good reason to be alarmed” by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government and its lofty rhetoric on climate and environmental behavior that often clash with reality. Many questioned why the United States did not attend the Cop27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh.

“They have upped their game rhetorically and perhaps policy wise. But at the end of the day, Canada remains one of the world’s worst climate criminals,” said a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. Jessica Green says, “We are the highest per capita emitters and we are still investing in fossil fuel infrastructure, which is not conscientious at this time.”

It is these projects that have handed Guilbeault’s critics their strongest line of attack. Off the east coast of Newfoundland, Norwegian oil giant Equinor plans to extract 300 million barrels of oil from more than a kilometer below the seafloor and deliver the crude to a floating terminal.

After being appointed environment minister, Guilbeau repeatedly delayed approval of the Bay du Nord project, giving activists hope that years of fierce opposition had paid off. But in April, Guilbeau approved it, imposing 137 conditions on the company, including that the project should achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Stephen Guilbeau sits at a table with Justin Trudeau and Jane Goodall
Stephen Guilbeau: “Bay du Nord” [oil project] It was really hard for me. both personally and professionally. Photo: Environment and Climate Change Canada Courtesy

“It was a huge failure of leadership,” says Sierra Club campaigner Gretchen Fitzgerald. Yes, but not when the wind is blowing.”

The Sierra Club joined Ecojustice and Équiterre (a group Guilbeault co-founded) in a legal battle for government approval of the project. According to them, the government’s claims of minimal impact are countered by the large amount of downstream emissions when the oil is inevitably burned.

“There was no room to approve another oil project. The study was clear about it and the Canadian government knew it before approving the North Gulf,” said another Sierra Club campaigner. Says one Connor Curtis: “And, to be fair, the Canadian government’s continued failure to end fossil fuel expansion for good isn’t the fault of any single minister, but of all of them.” It’s my fault.”

Guilbeault said the decision was a difficult one and still weighs heavily on him. However, he said he was bound by recommendations from the national licensing agency, which concluded that the impact of the project would be minimal.

The Bay du Nord was really hard for me. Both personally and professionally,” he says.

In many ways, Guilbeau’s decision to approve a large-scale oil drilling project specifically acknowledged that he did not have to make difficult policy choices that could affect the lives of millions of citizens. It highlights the broader challenges faced by those who are

“It’s easy for an activist to accuse him of being a traitor and not trying hard enough,” says Greene, who specializes in climate change governance. “It’s really easy to say. It’s really hard to actually get things done. If you think a push from within will drive movement, it makes sense to be in the halls of government.”

Guilbeau argues that the thread of idealism that led him to climb that tree decades ago and to the top of a tower that hangs hundreds of meters above Toronto is unbroken. .

“I think idealism is a very important thing in our society,” he says. “I entered politics to remain an activist. My commitment to that hasn’t changed at all.”

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