Newly minted Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault got his start as an environmental activist—a fact that has caused a spectacle of pearl-clutching among right-wing politicians and the corporate press. 

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, for one, has tagged him as “looney-left,” while the National Post dispatched a stable of columnists to whine about Guilbeault’s “long climb from tree hugger to Liberal environment minister.”

The liberal wing of the commentariat, meanwhile, are defending their own version of the minister, claiming there “are few Canadian environmentalists more credible or celebrated.” These voices suggest he’s a wise, effective fighter who will put the government on serious footing to combat the climate crisis.

Both accounts ignore the last decade of Guilbeault’s career, which has seen him cultivate deep ties with major pillars of the Canadian business world. In many ways, he has the makings of a perfect Liberal minister: his bygone days of scaling the CN Tower as a single-issue environmentalist will burnish the government’s image in the eyes of voters, while his more recent forays into venture capitalism will assure financiers and the corporate class that their interests will remain top priorities within government. 

Far from planning to smuggle in the interests of social movements as part of some “secret agenda,” Guilbeault’s own most recent political advocacy has eschewed mass mobilization in place of elite networking, back-room lobbying and public backpatting with austerity-implementing provincial Liberal governments in Quebec.

With that orientation, you can bet Guilbeault will make accommodations to the powerful corporate forces whose interests underlie the Liberals’ climate plan: a green transition that will exclude the transformational policies needed to stave off climate catastrophe.

Climbing the corporate ladder

In 2007, Guilbeault joined Deloitte, an international corporate services firm that in 2021 had revenues of $61 billion, over 300,000 employees, and is known as one of the “big four” accounting firms internationally. 

Deloitte once had a “Public Private Partnership team”—since renamed—and boasted of being “at the forefront” of hiring private contractors for public services around the world. The firm has been at the centre of a variety of political scandals in Canada, and is well known internationally for being one of the “masterminds of tax avoidance.” The Financial Times reported that the firm helped its multinational corporations and the super-rich undertake “industrial-scale” tax avoidance.

It’s unclear what Guilbeault did at Deloitte, but in the ensuing years, he styled himself as a venture capitalist. He joined Cycle Capital Management, an investment firm specializing in “clean technologies,” where he worked as an advisor for 10 years. Cycle Capital’s definition of “clean” includes biofuels and biomass, among other technologies. 

Failing upward as a single-issue environmentalist

In decisive political moments over the last decade, Guilbeault has shown an increasing willingness to discard other priorities when they appear to potentially interfere with narrowly-conceived climate priorities.

Concurrent with his participation in venture capital and public relations, he was director of Equiterre, an organization he helped found in the early 1990s. A household name in Quebec, Equiterre is known for collaborations with government and occasional alignments with environmentally dubious industries like natural gas and biomass. However, Equiterre has at times also been a vessel for grassroots organizing, particularly against oil pipelines.

In a revealing note he sent to a listserv of Canadian environmentalists in 2014, Guilbeault lauded Liberal Jean Charest’s government in Quebec for its climate accomplishments. These relatively minor market-based policies—establishing a carbon market, California vehicle standards, reductions in emissions by 20 per cent under 1990 levels by 2020—had been pursued alongside a neoliberal agenda that included unqualified support for fracking, tar sands pipelines, and an extraction-heavy “Plan North” that ran roughshod over Indigenous rights.

In 2014, after the provincial Liberals won a majority in Quebec under party leader Philippe Couillard, Guilbeault practically celebrated. He boasted to the discussion list of “good contacts with many folks (MNA, staffers)” in Couillard’s Liberals, and that he had been “talking to people around him to try and see how we can influence him… I think there’s some potential to move things along but some work will be required.”

Premier Philippe Couillard would go on to continue to advocate for pipelines, fracking, a new LNG plant in the province, and offshore drilling. It was a classic case of mistaking access for influence. However, Guilbeault and his organization became much more prominent—and well funded—during Couillard’s tenure. As an activist, Guilbeault failed upward.

The privatized Réseau Électrique Métropolitain, for which Guilbeault rallied support in the face of mounting environmental criticisms. Photo: Axel Drainville

Shoring up support for transit privatization

In 2017, a proposal for a massive privately owned and operated transit project covering the western half of Montreal was on the ropes. 

The Réseau Électrique Métropolitain (REM) had been criticized for inefficiencies (it duplicated existing rail lines), high cost (it guaranteed profits to investors from the public purse), and climate impact (it used a vast amount of concrete, ballooning emissions while building). It also set new precedents for the private sector driving public planning for its own profits: the new fast rail lines would be directed to areas where investments in real estate would pay off to the maximum.

For these reasons and more, the project seemed to be floundering. The province’s environmental regulator issued a deeply critical report that cited numerous problems with the project. The provincial Liberals shrugged it off, but opposition to the project grew.

With mounting disapproval threatening the REM, the province’s most prominent environmentalist stepped in. As the head of the REM’s principal investors would later recall, Guilbeault “helped to forge a consensus with other community groups” to catalyze support for the project.

In 2018, the province gave Guilbeault’s Equiterre $4 million to promote electric vehicles. Regardless of the reason for this generous funding, Guilbeault had been right about their influence with the provincial Liberals—just not when it came to the whole climate picture.

Still some gas in the climate credibility tank

Despite accruing power for himself, apparently at the expense of his stated goals, Guilbeault is still regarded as a credible figure when it comes to climate action. He takes every opportunity to burnish his credentials in this regard. Last week he told the CBC, “I am a climate activist. I have been for 30 years.” His official bio opens with talk of “the sacred flame that feeds his commitment” and stories about scaling trees and the CN Tower for environmental causes.

That persisting image is at odds with his activities of the last decade, but he should know that this impression is where his power—and his value to Prime Minister Trudeau—comes from. It’s Guilbeault’s activist image that made his appointment as Environment Minister appear as a sign Trudeau is serious about climate commitments.

While oil and gas executives make a show of fussing about Guilbeault’s appointment, other commentators rightfully point out that there’s not likely to be much effective difference between Guilbeault and a typical “business Liberal”. And they’re right. Guilbeault is carrying out Trudeau’s agenda, but he has been part of ruling elite and business circles for years—a business Liberal in organic cotton. 

Corporate-friendly “net zero” and tech solutions

So what’s left for a climate activist with a thick corporate rolodex to do? Expect a combination of finely-honed policies that direct funding to biomass startups that you’ve never heard of and shiny, charismatic projects designed to take the public’s mind off of the fundamental climate failures of the Liberals.

Lower carbon, but still within a capitalist logic: growth, accumulation, speculation, extraction, exploitation—everything about our current economy that generated the crisis in the first place. The Liberal climate plan aims to reduce the carbon intensity of oil and gas, in order for Canada to be able to export more fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the pledges of hitting net-zero emissions by 2050 hinges on unproven technologies like carbon capture and sequestration. 

Guilbeault is a true believer in the power of tech. In 2019, while he was a consultant for Quebec cleantech VC Cycle Capital Management, he published a book called The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It’s a breathless tour of electric vehicles, smart glasses, self-driving cars, and nursing-care robots—all part of a “fourth industrial revolution” which he is persuaded will be geared toward the “common good.”

Under Guillbeault, the Liberals will continue incentivizing and encouraging industry to act differently, rather than forcing them to do so through regulation and intervention. His record has shown that he believes in the market, and that technological innovation and a new low carbon era presents huge opportunities for profit-making and for not shaking the broader arrangement of inequality and exploitation.

Last year, a one-time chief of staff to former Prime Minister Paul Martin suggested that the “business Liberal” has gone extinct.

Not so fast. Guilbeault is the new kind of business liberal: a climate warrior in whom green meets greed.

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