Jane Fonda is the latest celebrity to visit Canada’s crown jewel of greenhouse gas emissions. James Cameron, Neil Young, Leonardo DiCaprio, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Neve Campbell, Robert Redford, Darryl Hannah, and Bill Nye (among others) made similar journeys. Several viewed the facilities from the air and landed to visit First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan.
Celebrities touring the oil sands if the most visible form of what I call “parachute activism” – an activist from outside the community, even the country, arrives to protest a specific problem, or a symbol of a larger trend. Parachute activists lack local knowledge and context. As outsiders, they are largely ignorant of the nuances of political governance and certainly do not understand local narratives, cultures, and social institutions surrounding the target of their activism.
Parachute activists define their community differently – not by geography but by affinity. They view themselves as part of a movement, be it environmental, indigenous rights, human rights, or another. Their normative commitment resists nuance, leading often to black and white prescriptions to defend their community. Not strong on policy advice, these activists do not have expertise that others may defer to, or otherwise accept. They rely on fame, on a global reputation, that they hope others may pay attention to when they speak out against a symbol of a larger cause.
It’s no wonder that these activists arrive at Canada’s oil sands – the facilities are an attractive target. The oil sands are responsible for 7.8% to 9.3% of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, totalling roughly 1/3 of the total emissions of the oil and gas sector, which accounts for 26% of Canada’s emissions. So, the oil sands contribute the most to the emissions of the sector that, itself, contributes more than other sectors to our GHG emissions footprint.
The oil sands are visually impressive. Unlike smaller oil and gas facilities, the oil sands are vast operations with a labyrinth of pipes and slurry pools and tailings ponds. During my visit to a Suncor facility, I was dumbfounded by the scale of human innovation on display (Spoiler: I am not a celebrity, and was working on a multi-year project with the Government of Alberta, industry, and activists). The oil sands operations offer a visual feast useful for activists trying to convey the extent of the environmental change and to give a tangible sense of how the climate changes.
Canada’s oil sands will continue to be a target for parachute activists. The facilities are both real contributors to emissions, and symbols for the broader challenge of weaning the world from fossil fuels. The question is if parachute activism – with its short-lived visits and apocalyptic prescriptions – helps or hinders climate action?
Parachute activists, then shine a light on issues that may otherwise escape regular public view. The oil sands are far away from major urban centres. Their spokespeople are usually in Calgary, about a 7 hour drive away. An engine of our economy – and the engine of a sizable share of our GHG emissions – would go unnoticed otherwise. (The only other news is of job losses when the price of oil fell. Over a year later, that ceases to be regular news.)
By contributing to a global dialogue, these activists can shape other’s perceptions of their targets. Reacting to blunt assessments from an outsider, Canada, and perhaps especially Alberta, emerges as defensive, a backward steward of what is increasingly becoming the old economy. This view is in part accurate, and in part glosses over the significant gains in renewable energy capacity at ever-lower costs. Previous parachute activists criticized our leaders, trying to give Canada a black eye. Unfortunately for Fonda, she followed suit, calling out Premier Notley and Prime Minister Trudeau who have done more for climate action than their predecessors to date. Counterintuitively, Jane Fonda may have helped Premier Rachel Notley. Notley could defend the oil and gas industry, declaring that Fonda was “dining out on celebrity, but starved for the facts.”
Parachute activists transport the local to a global stage. They can enhance awareness and remind corporations and leaders of the need for transparency, to alter how others see their target. Not here for nuanced debate, they seek to change perceptions through stark imagery and proclamations. For powerful corporations, sectors, and countries, however, their reputation is built on more than the word of a global citizen, even one with fame. More celebrities will come and cause more blips in the media cycle, until we’ve become saturated with the message and stop listening. That time may be now.