Big Idea #7: Create a sense of shared purpose among Albertans by calling on them to help build climate resilience

The UCP is winning among working class voters in part by convincing them that climate change is something we can worry about later and that climate policy is something that will hurt our economy and undermine our prosperity.

In this regard, the UCP understands something that the NDP doesn’t: that myth-making is upstream from voting.

The myth that they’ve created is that Albertans ARE oil and gas – and that action to address climate change isn’t just an attack on our jobs and economy, but also an attack on our very identity.

Gil believes strongly that the NDP can only defeat the UCP if we counter their mythology with our own over-arching narrative about climate change.

Successful narratives have heroes and villains, threats and goals. The UCP narrative on climate change casts environmentalists, the federal government and progressive “elites” as the villains. Ordinary Albertans are the heroes; standing up to threats to their jobs and their way of life.

As NDP leader, Gil would champion a very different kind of narrative. Like the UCP narrative, the heroes would be ordinary Albertans, but the threat would be the fires, droughts and economic disruption caused by climate change. The goal would be to work together to build resilience in our communities and in our economy to these threats. And the villains would be anyone who stands in the way of building that resilience.

In a nutshell Gil would work hard to beat the UCP at the narrative game. Specifically, he would use the goal of building climate resilience as a tool to galvanize Albertans and create a sense of shared purpose – one that would give working Albertans a real reason to support the NDP.

Here’s a summary of what a NDP climate resilience agenda could look like.

Protect our water

As Gil’s fellow leadership candidate Jodi Calahoo-Stonehouse has eloquently stated, water is life and protecting our sources of water in the context of climate change needs to be a top priority for Albertans.

The threats to our water are real. Alberta has less than 3 percent of Canada’s freshwater resources. These limited resources are being stretched by increasing demands from industry, especially agriculture and oil and gas, and a growing population, especially in the southern half of the province.

Our water resources are also being threatened by changes related to climate change – things like low winter snowpack, shrinking glaciers and higher summer temperatures that increase evaporation.

The NDP can distinguish itself from the UCP by being the party with a real plan to address and manage water scarcity.

  1. Acknowledge the problem: The UCP can’t even bring itself to admit that the water crisis is more than a temporary, cyclical issue or that it’s actually related to climate change. The NDP has to be a truth teller. And the truth is that water scarcity is our new reality.
  2. Accept that tweaks won’t be enough: Managing current and future drought conditions will require more than shutting off sprinklers and taking shorter showers. The NDP needs to commit to developing a comprehensive water management strategy.
  3. Reduce consumption: In a world of water scarcity, there is no alternative: our communities and our industries have to reduce consumption. The NDP should present itself as the party that will work with stakeholders to make this happen.
  4. Put people first: The biggest consumers of water in Alberta today are the agriculture sector and the oil and gas sector. When making decisions about water allocation, the priority has to be given to people first. There also has to be an acknowledgement that some users impact the quality and quantity of our water resources more than others. For example, 80 percent of the water used by municipalities is returned to the environment after treatment. That number is closer to zero for water used by the oil and gas industry. The government needs to investigate policies that price the water used by industry accordingly. 
  5. Increase public investment in solutions and support for frontline innovators: If there is any good news related to Alberta’s unfolding water crisis, it’s that Albertans are already mobilizing to address the challenge. For example, Alberta Innovates, a public agency created by the Notley government, is already funding hundreds of projects aimed at addressing issues of water scarcity. That support needs to be expanded. A myriad of groups are also on the case – including private companies, scientific groups, municipalities, environmental groups, Indigenous communities and issue specific groups like the Alberta Water Council. These groups need to be supported in their work – and the government needs to listen to them and work with them (as opposed to making decisions without them, which is clearly the UCP’s current preference).
  6. Promote and support water efficiency efforts: The government also need to support water efficiency initiatives. For example, most of Alberta’s irrigation canals in southern Alberta are open to the air. Obviously, these means that significant amounts of water are lost to evaporation. Should public money be used to build better irrigation infrastructure? That’s one of many conversation on efficiency that the NDP needs to start.
  7. Restrict development in the headwaters: Alberta only has a handful of major watersheds, all originating in the Rocky Mountains, and all under increasing stress from climate change and growing populations. The headwaters of these river systems are the heart and lungs of our province. We simply can’t allow the water that comes from these critical areas to be contaminated or compromised. That’s why the NDP has to not only renew the old Lougheed Coal Policy, that restricted coal development on the Eastern Slopes, they have to expand it to impose restrictions on other kinds of development, like clear cut logging. No coal mining, no clear cut logging, no oil and gas development in areas critical to our fragile water supply. That needs to become an NDP commitment.
  8. Schindler’s list: Twenty years ago, University of Alberta scientist and world renowned water expert, Dr. David Schindler, co-wrote a seminal report warning of Alberta’s coming water crisis. He also offered a list of recommendations. Specifically, he called for a province-wide comprehensive water strategy; a commitment to supporting and following the science; better enforcement of laws to protect rivers and watersheds; a plan to protect and restore wetlands; a plan to switch to agricultural crops that use less water; and an explicit industrial policy from the provincial government that favours industries with lighter water demands. The NDP should be the party that champions and implements Schindler’s list 

Prepare for wildfires

Water scarcity is not the only climate-change related threat facing Alberta. There is also a pronounced trend towards more and bigger wildfires. Last year, the largest area of forest was consumed by fire in Canada since record-taking began. 

Even the UCP recognizes the trend towards more and bigger fires, even while denying the link to climate change. The threats are manifold: to life, to health, to property, to the economy.

An under-discussed but significant development has to do with insurance. In the aftermath of last year’s fires and the fires in places like Fort McMurray and Slave Lake, business and residential insurance premiums in many rural areas and smaller communities has skyrocketed – dramatically increasing the cost of living and the cost of doing business.

Here’s what an NDP wildfire strategy could look like.

  1. Adequate staffing: Despite the growing threat of wildfires, this year more than half of Alberta’s seasonal workforce of wildland firefighters did not return. This means we’re facing a bigger challenge with a smaller and less-experienced workforce. The high attrition rate among wildland firefighters is directly attributable to the low wages offered by the UCP government, along with the lack of training, job security and respect. Why would wildland firefighters work here when they could earn significantly more in neighboring BC? The NDP should commit to implementing a comprehensive workforce plan for wildland firefighters, that includes higher wages, better training and more opportunities for year-round employment.
  2. A comprehensive provincial wildfire plan: Way back in January, the Association of Alberta Fire Chiefs wrote an urgent letter to the UCP government asking them to develop a comprehensive provincial wildfire plan. The chiefs, like all Albertans, are still waiting. The NDP should commit to working with the fire chiefs and other key stakeholders to develop a real plan for wildfires, not just for one year, but for the new era we are living in. 
  3. Reverse the cuts: Shockingly, in their first stint as government between 2019 and 2023, the UCP actually cut support for fighting wildfires. Most notoriously, they eliminated Alberta’s rapid attack team and dramatically scaled back our rapid response capability – which used to allow us to put many fires out before they got out of hand. At the same time, they cut funding for spotting, meaning we now have few eyes looking for new fires. These are examples of how the UCP has been “pennywise and pound foolish” on firefighting. The NDP should commit to reversing these cuts.
  4. Firesafe programs and infrastructure: In addition to beefing up our ability to fight fires, another key to building the resilience we need in the face of increased wildfire risk has to do with firesafe programs and infrastructure. Private insurance companies are giving property owners advice and incentives to make their properties more fire safe. The provincial government should be doing the same with municipalities – and they should be giving them the funds they need to do the job right. 

Other steps to build climate resilience

In order to distinguish itself from the UCP, the NDP has to become the party of climate resilience, as opposed to being the party of climate denial.

As discussed above, that means becoming the party with a plan to manage water scarcity. It also means becoming the party with a plan to manage the growing threat of wildfires.

Here are a few more areas where we can show how we are the party with a plan to build the kind of climate resilience we need in the 21st century.

Climate Resilience and the Economy – As discussed in our first two planks, climate change and the related energy transition are disrupting the global economy and, in the process, creating both new threats and opportunities. The NDP needs to become the party with a plan to build economic resilience for Albertans in a world that’s changing fast. While the UCP offers empty promises about maintaining the status quo, we should be party with a plan for managing the risks and seizing the opportunities inherent in the unfolding global energy transition.

Climate Resilience and Citizen Participation – As Gil’s fellow leadership candidate Sarah Hoffman has argued, the effort to address climate change presents us with an opportunity to mobilize and galvanize Albertans in unprecedented ways. Following the lead of the Biden Administration in the US, Hoffman has suggested the creation of an Alberta Climate Corps, to engage, hire and mobilize thousands of young Albertans on climate mitigation project around the province. They could be put to work building new infrastructure and implementing new programs aimed at building climate resilience. They could also earn while they learn new skills. Gil would also enthusiastically support the creation of an Alberta Climate Corps.

Climate Resilience and the Budget – As outlined in his other platform planks, Gil would also find new ways to raise money to fund his climate resilience agenda. For example, right now the UCP is only using a portion of the money raised from the TIER program (Alberta’s industrial carbon-pricing scheme) to fund green programs and projects. Gil would make sure 100% of those funds are used for projects that reduce emissions, build climate resilience or diversify the Alberta economy. As outlined in his revenue reform plank, Gil would also increase taxes on record corporate profits and increase royalties on the sale of our publicly-owned resource assets.