Today Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Paul Davis is attending a conference on climate change in Québec City. This meeting is significant because it represents efforts by Canadian provinces — independent of the woefully laggard federal government — to take action on climate change. The goals of the meeting are to share best practices and discuss the potential for collaborating on low carbon economic initiatives, such as renewable energy. Critically, the provinces will also identify ways they can contribute to successful negotiations at the United Nations Paris Climate Conference this December.

Yesterday, Ontario emerged as the star, announcing plans to implement an emissions cap and trade system where revenues will be invested in green projects such as public transit. Ontario joins Québec and British Columbia as leaders on climate change in Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador, by comparison, is a straggler at the back of the pack, modestly engaged with reducing fossil fuel emissions that contribute to climate change. A close look at Newfoundland and Labrador’s stated ambitions on climate change, alongside its actions in bolstering the province’s fossil fuel and tourism industries, reveals deep tensions.

The Department of Environment and Conservation admits that even with the development of Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project and the closure of the heavy oil-burning Holyrood station, the proposed pace of oil development means that, without further action, the provincial emissions target will be a vanishing object in the atmospheric rearview mirror. Hebron, the next offshore oil field in line for development, for example, is set to begin producing oil in 2017. The project has estimated reserves of 700 million barrels; each barrel comes with a carbon price tag for extraction, transportation and consumption.

This type of policy contradiction, especially in the realm of climate and resource politics, happens so regularly as to be almost unremarkable. What we are interested in, as environmental sociologists, is how such contradictory projects are legitimized and take on the appearance of common sense.

Sociologist Bill Freudenburg, for example, uses the term the “double diversion” to describe a sort of bait-and-switch policy magicianship in the American energy sector. First, public access to oil profits is diverted by transferring resources from the public to the private sector. Second, public attention is diverted by promoting such a move as a way to increase energy independence. Diverting access and diverting attention are a matched set; the former needs to be paired with the latter to give such a wealth transfer the sheen of legitimacy.

While Freudenburg focuses on policy, sociologist Kari Norgaard focuses on the everyday conversations that people have about climate change responsibility. She examines how citizens in oil-rich Norway use everyday conversational tactics — controlling information, shifting attention and maintaining tradition — to downplay the need to respond either emotionally or behaviourally to the threat of climate change. What results are cultural myths that allow society to collectively bury its head in the sand and evade its full environmental responsibilities.

In our research on energy, tourism and climate change in Newfoundland and Labrador, we identified three legitimacy practices that work to divert public attention from the contradictions involved in provincial oil and tourism strategies on one hand, and the climate change strategy on the other hand.

Pursuing divergent policies

In various ​policy documents, the province proposes​ maximizing economic benefits — and, by extension, oil extraction — from the oil sector, doubling tourism revenue by 2020, and decreasing ​greenhouse gas emissions 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 202​0. When considered in isolation, each plan appears realistic. The aspirational tone of each document is persuasive and easy to get swept up in, allowing nagging doubts to fall to the wayside.

However, when they are read side-by-side tensions are evident. For example, the energy strategy states: “Between now and 2041, we will carefully plan and make decisions … to maximize benefits from our current and future resource developments, including Hibernia, Terra Nova, White Rose, Hebron, other oil and natural gas developments, the Lower Churchill, Voisey’s Bay, wind developments, and refining and processing opportunities.” Therefore, while the climate change plan extols the opportunities associated with a transition to a low carbon economy, Newfoundland and Labrador aims to simultaneously pursue carbon intensive development.

Tweaking timelines

The provincial energy and climate change plans state that the province will use revenue from the oil boom to transition to renewable energy: “The Provincial Government believes that the best interests of Newfoundland and Labrador are served by converting the value of our non-renewable energy resources into renewable, environmentally-friendly sources of energy that address our current social and economic priorities and provide a legacy for future generations.” While such a strategy has a comfortable linear logic — first A, then B — it is at odds with evidence produced by the scientific community indicating the need for immediate emission reductions with global emissions peaking this year.

Further, despite the development of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectricity project, oil and gas development continues full bore. Former Premier Kathy Dunderdale stated that Muskrat Falls “is a project with tremendous vision. Our province will be practically 100 per cent renewable, powered by clean, emissions-free energy and our electricity customers can bank on stable electricity.” However, mention of the province’s goals of maximizing oil and gas revenue for export until at least 2041 is omitted.

Diverting attention

Diverting attention occurs in two main ways: focusing on the trees, not the forest, and allowing what is out of sight to remain out of mind.

The environmental mandate of the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board states that one of its roles it to ensure that operators take into account the effects of the environment on its operations. This refers to the threat icebergs pose to oilrigs. Such framing focuses on a legitimate risk to oil production, but directs attention away from the impact oil production in general has on iceberg formation via climate change. What results is a focus on protecting oil production, diverting attention from protecting the climate.

A similar focus on the trees and not the forest occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Igor. Politicians praised the resilience of Newfoundlanders in dealing with the storm. Then-premier Danny Williams rallied an audience, stating “there were at least 20 people on their knees in the mud, cleaning up so these elderly people could get back in their home…. You know, we turned this around. We turned this around because we’re resilient, we’re tough, and we’re Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.” Such praise is deserved, yet also directs attention to the home front and away from the House of Assembly’s handling of bigger picture issues such as the climate resilience of infrastructure.

A second example of diverting attention can be summarized as ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ The fact that existing oil developments are located far offshore, unseen from land, emerges as a key — though accidental — diversionary technique. That the majority of fossil fuel reserves are geographically remote is a political convenience. This is highlighted in the infrequent cases where controversy over oil development does erupt, such as with recent proposals for fracking and offshore exploration near Gros Morne National Park. When located far offshore, oil development is viewed as an economic driver that is physically distinct from the nature-oriented tourism industry and from climate impacts.

So what?

Freudenburg identifies manipulations in American energy policy, while Norgaard identifies cultural myths that do the work of legitimizing oil extraction and climate change inaction. What emerges in Newfoundland and Labrador is different and more ambiguous. This may reflect a lack of understanding of climate science, political compromise, undue corporate influence on policymaking, or a tendency for government to take baby steps (i.e. making marginal incremental changes) so as not to rock the boat, rather than a concerted effort by politicians to mislead or distract citizens.

Regardless of the government’s intent, the combined effect of these three practices is a reassuring fiction — disconnected from climate science — that wards off uncomfortable questions about a contradictory and unsustainable status quo.

The take-away lesson is, when you find your attention being guided in one direction, ask from where your attention, either intentionality or unintentionally, is being diverted.

Today, in Québec City, it will be interesting to see where Premier Davis directs the public’s attention, and from where he diverts it. Our hope is that he rocks the boat, instigating a meaningful green economic shift that leaves Newfoundland and Labrador’s carbon intensive economy it its wake.

Stephanie is a PhD candidate studying what happens when hurricanes and transport systems cross paths. Mark is an Associate Professor at Memorial University with an interest in human interactions with coastal environments.