Climate Strike Newfoundland & Labrador: What Next?

Government has been saying the same thing for decades: we accept climate change is happening, but we’re not going to do anything to stop oil production.

The Climate Strike in NL on September 27, 2019 was the largest stand-alone grassroots protest in the province in a very long time—larger even than the budget protests of 2016. People in St. John’s and in communities throughout NL came out in droves to demand climate action. It showed a deep commitment to create a liveable future.

If we accept the urgency of the situation, then what needs to happen with climate action in NL?

This question is surprisingly easy to answer. End oil production in the province. It’s the obvious goal of climate action, but exposes just how deeply entrenched petroculture is in NL.

NL is a petroculture not just because it is an oil producer but also in the way that our social, cultural, and political life is literally fueled by oil. What most frustrates climate action is not those who outright deny climate change. It is those who paradoxically accept the necessity of climate action but also defend or even promote the petroculture.

In fact, this acceptance of climate action paired with defense of petroculture is precisely the position of the provincial government. Government has been saying the same thing for decades: we accept climate change is happening and we need to act, but we’re not going to do anything to stop oil production. The most common reasons are money, jobs, and “if we don’t produce oil someone else will.”

This paradoxical rhetoric and way of thinking is a major hurdle for climate action in NL. It’s what allows politicians to stand around with their hands in their pockets, and what allows the oil industry to continue business as usual. And so if a movement for climate action in NL cannot or will not engage the oil industry on its terrain, then it must first engage this rhetoric and other aspects of the pervasive petroculture.

So then, what does changing the rhetoric and way of thinking of petroculture look like? What can the provincial government and institutions do to shift the rhetoric of petroculture and enable real climate action to happen?

First, there needs to be a shift away from the current celebratory and heroic narrative of oil. The provincial government cannot speak of the oil industry as paving the way for a bright future. It cannot participate in or encourage oil industry associations and lobby groups. It cannot allow the associations to go into the schools and promote the oil industry. And even if the provincial government argues it must continue to work with the oil industry, it must be with a deep reluctance and with profuse apologies to the future. It must say, “we are working with the oil industry only because we are presently compelled to, but we will end this relationship as soon as possible.” And it must say so clearly.

Such a shift in rhetoric is actually an easy demand for government to fulfill because it is initially only symbolic. Other provincial institutions should similarly be doing the easy and symbolic things they immediately can. But just because it is simple and symbolic doesn’t mean government or institutions will do any of this without a massive campaign of public pressure.

Memorial University, for example, has been dragging its heels on fossil fuel divestment for years, even as divestment is simple and symbolic, and even as there was a major campaign in support of divestment at MUN. Like the provincial government, the university also paradoxically claims to support climate action, like in its declaration of the climate crisis last week, yet openly defends and promotes the oil industry.

If the provincial government and institutions do not do the simple and symbolic things, do not critically engage with the rhetoric and ways of thinking of petroculture — and even continue to enthusiastically promote petroculture — they will remain incapable of the kind of large-scale action necessary to bring about a post-oil Newfoundland and Labrador.

It will likely not be all that difficult to come up with a list of some simple or symbolic things that various provincial institutions can do right now to disrupt petroculture and to show a real commitment to climate action. And while making government and institutions do these things is much more difficult than making a list, shifting the rhetoric of petroculture is at least actionable and measurable as a metric of forward movement.

Photo by Megan Sutherland.

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