Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a postelection overhaul of his government on Tuesday, naming a former Greenpeace activist dubbed “Green Jesus” as environment and climate change minister in a move that has caused consternation in the country’s oil-rich west.
The appointment, just days out from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, suggests Trudeau — who had previously offered support for the country’s oil and gas industry while also implementing measures such as a carbon tax — is coming down firmly on the side of climate action.
Steven Guilbeault, the new minister, worked for environment advocacy groups including Greenpeace for more than a decade before entering politics. Nicknamed the “Green Jesus of Montreal” by Quebec newspaper La Presse, he once scaled Toronto’s CN Tower to unveil a banner that denounced Canada and then-president George W. Bush as “climate killers.”
“Putting an activist into a role like this … really does signal that the Trudeau government is intensifying its commitment to action on climate change and energy transition,” said Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.
Guilbeault’s appointment comes a month after Trudeau’s government released aggressive oil-sector emissions targets. Canada is the world’s fourth-biggest oil producer.
Trudeau narrowly eked out a win in federal elections in September, and making a stronger push on environmental issues may be a way to reward voters who backed his Liberal minority government and cement his legacy in what could be a final term.
“This might be his last chance … to really move on some policy issues,” Young said, noting that Guilbeault has campaigned for the federal government to restrict oil and gas development and stymie oil from getting to international markets. “The strategy here seems to be gradually cornering the industry in order to reduce its relative importance to the Canadian economy.”
Trudeau’s reshuffle, which also moved a natural resources minister who was trusted by the energy industry to another portfolio, was criticized in the oil-rich province of Alberta, long a bedrock of support for conservative parties.
Guilbeault’s “background and track record on these issues suggest somebody who is more of an absolutist than a pragmatist when it comes to finding solutions,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told reporters Tuesday, adding that the appointment was a “very problematic” signal.
In Guilbeault, Trudeau “couldn’t have picked a more perfect villain,” said Heather Exner-Pirot, a fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Calgary, Canada’s oil capital. “This sends a chilling signal to potential investors who might have been interested in investing in Canada.”
Global greenhouse gas emissions are on a catastrophic trajectory, and developed nations will fall short of a pledge made more than a decade ago to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations transition to greener economies and adapt to climate change, two reports concluded Monday, one of them co-authored by Canada.
Without more-ambitious pledges, the world is projected to warm 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century compared with the end of the 1800s — far above the Paris climate accord’s goal of limiting warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels.
Trudeau has said addressing climate change is a top priority, and pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But the Climate Action Tracker estimated that Canada would miss its 2020 emissions target even with reduced industrial activity due to the pandemic. The country is one of the world’s largest emitters of carbon on a per-capita basis, according to Our World in Data.