1549 Clarifying climate policy

The Resistance Dilemma: Place-Based Movements and the Climate Crisis
by George Hoberg

Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (The MIT Press), 2021
$54.00 / 9780262543088

Reviewed by Stephen Bocking


The climate crisis demands that we break our fossil fuel habit. This implies an energy revolution, rewiring society to rely on renewable electricity. New technologies can help: wind and solar power are far cheaper today than even a decade ago, and engineers expect that, paired with smart grids and battery storage systems, they will soon be viewed as sources of steady, reliable power (in Denmark and elsewhere they already are).

But recent trends – anxieties about energy costs, fading interest in climate cooperation – are also demonstrating that a future free of carbon isn’t just a technological challenge. War in Ukraine is part of the picture, but the issues are not only geopolitical. As George Hoberg explains in The Resistance Dilemma: Place-Based Movements and the Climate Crisis, the move towards a clean energy economy can also encounter intensely local obstacles. Communities wary of impacts on scenery, health, or property values often oppose projects such as wind turbines. Sure, let’s think globally and act locally, but what happens when global imperatives contradict local preferences?

George Hoberg of UBC

One way of thinking about controversies over energy projects is in terms of the social and environmental inequalities and injustices that have so often accompanied industrial developments. But as a political scientist, Hoberg, a professor at UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, takes a different perspective: he considers what these controversies can tell us about how decisions about projects get made, and by whom. His attention to this topic reflects how, like many environmental scholars, he has shifted his research interests towards climate change (in his case, away from forest issues).

Hoberg approaches renewable energy projects by thinking about a very different breed of infrastructure: fossil fuel pipelines. For years climate activists have sought to connect peoples’ lives and values to global change. This is always a challenge, since our climate is shifting on scales of space and time that are often beyond daily experience.

There are several ways to overcome this challenge. One is to identify the fingerprint of global change in local environments – such as wildfires and heatwaves in western North America in 2021 and in Europe in 2022. Another strategy is to focus on the potential for individual action: planting trees or buying carbon credits.

Naomi Klein in Vancouver, 2011. Photo courtesy The Vancouver Observer

But pipeline opponents hit on another way to make climate change meaningful. Residents and interest groups, together with prominent activists, including Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, framed pipelines as local outposts of the global fossil fuel economy. They also made the case that opposing them is essential to “keeping it in the ground”: that is, defining a firm limit, based on a global carbon budget, on how much coal, oil, and natural gas can be extracted if catastrophic climate change is to be avoided. This carbon budget concept originated with activists but has since gained credibility among scientists.

As Hoberg recounts, this strategy has worked, with several pipeline projects cancelled. But therein lies a risk: placed-based strategies of opposition to fossil fuel projects might also be applied to renewable energy – perhaps sharpening the resistance that wind turbines and solar plants have already elicited. Local people deserve a say in projects that may affect them; but what if this results in the demise of projects that serve the larger good? That is the resistance dilemma.

To explore this dilemma, Hoberg surveys the wider fossil energy landscape, with special attention to how project decisions get made. As an experienced observer of Canadian environmental affairs, Hoberg has a double interest in this matter. As an activist, he appreciates the strategy of focusing climate action on local infrastructure. But as an academic, he is concerned about its risks. He presents a useful profile of the tar sands industry: its significance, impacts, and actors. Then, in a series of chapters (the core of his book) he examines several pipeline projects: Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain, Energy East. Each exhibited the effects of local political circumstances, but each also became global symbols of climate disruption. And in each case, resistance to these projects strengthened climate policies: pipelines became lines in the sand, beyond which lay climate catastrophe.

Productive farmland on Peace River that will be inundated by BC Hydro’s Site C project. Photo by Graham Osborne

But can opposition to pipelines help us understand the challenges of renewable energy projects? To answer this question Hoberg begins with the Site C dam on the Peace River. As he explains, opposition to this dam proved less effective than that arrayed against pipelines, and this can help explain why (at vast cost) it is still under construction. He then presents a systematic analysis of renewable energy projects that have aroused controversy, including wind, solar, and transmission lines, identifying the relative power of their proponents and opponents. He concludes that several features help determine if a project will attract strong opposition: whether it provides local benefits, if there are opportunities to veto it, if the project takes advantage of existing infrastructure, and if those who experience its impacts also enjoy its benefits.

George Hoberg

How, then, to deal with this dilemma, and ensure that beneficial projects don’t become mired in local opposition? Hoberg advocates giving all parties time and opportunity to contribute to project decisions. For decades – perhaps at least since Thomas Berger’s Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry of the 1970s – governments and powerful interests have tended to resist strategic environmental assessments, collaborative land use planning, and other extensive review processes: they are just too hard to control. Hoberg, however, suggests that these interests need to understand that such processes can be essential. Overcoming place-based resistance to projects requires deep and meaningful engagement, producing sustainable outcomes while meeting high standards of transparency, fairness and representation. Local governments can be essential players, but also present a conundrum: if they have veto power they can stop projects that serve the wider public interest, but removing this power may only magnify local resistance.

The Resistance Dilemma should be of interest to several audiences: activists will find useful Hoberg’s accounts of why anti-pipeline campaigns have been so successful, and scholars of environmental policy and planning will appreciate his analysis of the policy process and potential reforms.

But while reading this book I was also left with a lingering sense of unease about its relevance to our current predicament. The summer of 2022 is exhibiting both accelerating confirmations of climate change, and a determined effort to avoid real action. Evidence and argument, it appears, now carry little or no weight. Can Hoberg’s confidence in reasoned debate, grounded in the assumption that actors will weigh evidence and make rational decisions for the common good, still serve as an effective guide in a post-fact world?


Stephen Bocking

Stephen Bocking is Professor Emeritus in the Trent School of the Environment at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Since 1994 he has taught environmental history and policy at Trent. Before that he worked at the University of British Columbia, York University, and the University of Toronto. He is the author of Nature’s Experts: Science, Politics and the Environment (Rutgers University Press, 2004); Ecologists and Environmental Politics: A History of Contemporary Ecology (Yale University Press, 1997); and Aquatic Science in Canada: A Case Study of Research in the Mackenzie Basin (Royal Society of Canada, 1995). He is also editor of Cold Science: Environmental Knowledge in the North American Arctic during the Cold War (co-edited with Dan Heidt, Routledge, 2019); Ice Blink: Navigating Northern Environmental History (co-edited with Brad Martin, University of Calgary Press, 2017); Urban Explorations: Environmental Histories of the Toronto Region (co-edited with Anders Sandberg, Colin Coates, and Ken Cruikshank, Titles on Demand, 2013); and Biodiversity in Canada: Ecology, Ideas, and Actions (Broadview Press, 2000). Editor’s note: Stephen Bocking has also reviewed a book by Alexandra Morton for the British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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