Feature: The Carbon Convoy: The Climate Emergency Fueling the Far Right’s Big Rigs

May 3, 2022

Tanner Mirrlees

Carbon Convoy Collage, Tanner Mirrlees (2022).

In late January 2022, hundreds of big rigs bannered with Canadian flags rolled across the nation’s highways in “The Freedom Convoy,” a movement of purportedly ordinary truckers opposed to COVID-19 mandates. Yet, even after the Teamsters Union and the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) denounced the convoy and declared that 90 percent of their truckers were vaccinated and working, a small group of right-wing truckers continued to occupy Parliament Hill alongside 5G and QAnon conspiracy theorists, white Christian nationalists, violent extremists, wellness influencers, and conservatives wrapped in F*** Trudeau flags. For three weeks, they cheered and honked while spreading disinformation online and spewing diesel fumes into the air. Eventually, the Federal government used the Emergencies Act to roll the convoy out of Ottawa. Throughout the whole ordeal, however, surprisingly little was said in the news media about the convoy’s energy politics.

Energy is the fulcrum around which the politics of our moment must be analyzed and understood. Although the truckers brandished no revolutionary energy manifesto and did not make statements about the government’s energy policy, the convoy had an “energy politics”, and one materially intertwined with and ideologically biased to the infrastructures and industries, parties and politicians, and media-cultures of “carbon capitalism.”

From the late eighteenth century onward, capitalism, imperialism, and nation-building relied upon carbon-intensive energy, rapidly heating the planet. By 2021, global energy-related CO2 emissions had risen to 36.3 billion tons—the highest level ever recorded in planetary history, in one of the hottest years on record. In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that the system’s reliance on carbon energy is denying us the “opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” 

The threat of carbon-fuelled collapse has stoked a fierce argument over the future of energy between two main players. Carbon capitalism’s old guard—including fossil-fuel financiers, oil, coal and gas corporations, and conservative political parties—defend fossil fuel burning as inevitable and promise gradual change. Challenging them is a new clean technology industry and neoliberal-progressive parties who are investing in low carbon energy, signing on to COP26 and reducing CO2 emissions, but too slowly. Even when led by politicians who show support for a transition to green capitalism, the United States and Canada were among the world’s largest polluters and failed to meet their global climate obligations. Eco-socialists, meanwhile, have long argued that capitalism—whether carbon or green—is incompatible with global environmental sustainability, but they lack the wealth and political clout to change everything. So, for now, carbon and green capitalist blocs battle for “energy hegemony,” make the major decisions about the global energy system’s future, and deploy many means to organize popular consent to their vision of an energy society. In this battle between carbon and green elites, the convoy took the side of the former.

In the battle between carbon and green elites, the convoy took the side of the former.‍

The convoy’s trucks were heavy emitters whose movement relied upon an energy infrastructure that keeps enlarging the globe’s “carbon footprint.” Currently, the transportation industry accounts for about 29 percent of all emissions thanks to the fossil fuels—petrol and diesel—that trucks require. In 2019, heavy-duty and medium-sized trucks emitted 444.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and the average individual truck driver racked up 223 tons, 14 times that of non-truckers. If SUVS were a country, they would have ranked sixth in the world for absolute emissions last year. The greenhouse gasses emitted by the convoy’s movement across the country and three-week occupation of Ottawa may be incalculable. But the heavy-duty and medium sized trucks that led it are the fastest growing vehicular CO2 emitters in the world. We need greener and cleaner ways of moving goods and people around, but it was dirty energy that made the convoy’s vehicles go. The convoy also moved on the Internet and social media platforms—an energy-intensive digital infrastructure responsible for about 3.7 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions. Mile by mile, tweet after tweet, the convoy perpetuated carbon capitalism’s legacy of unsustainable mobility and digital media.

The convoy also took a tactic from the far Right’s playbook for protesting government efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. Launched in 2011, the Tea Party-inspired Australian conservative movement’s Convoy of No Confidence aimed to drive the carbon tax-supporting Labour government and its Green allies out of office. Mick Pattel, its key organizer, characterized the government’s green initiatives as a conspiracy of globalist elites and radical Leftists to create a “new world order” that would imperil workers and Australian sovereignty. In 2018, the 300,000 person-strong Gilets jaunes (or Yellow Vests) used trucks and cars to block roundabouts across France to protest En Marche!’s green tax amid rising fuel prices, and to argue that Emmanuel Macron’s national climate change plan would put people out of work. Around the same time, US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement also cited the need to create carbon-based jobs for Americans. Yet, this stale jobs-versus-environmentalism argument bandied on both sides of the Atlantic ignores how green energy pumps out more jobs than carbon. In fact, the North American oil and gas industry employed just 400,000 workers in 2022; the clean energy sector employs nearly 3.5 million workers, and is projected to create 10.3 million net new jobs globally by 2030.

Nonetheless, Yellow Vests Canada, inspired by but much more far Right than France’s Gilet jaunes, started “protest[ing] the CARBON TAX” in 2018, taking aim at Canada’s supposedly “Tyrannical (energy) policies.” Like its foreign counterpart, it used trucks to deliver its message when launching United We Roll, a cross-country convoy that arrived on Parliament Hill in February 2019 to oppose the Federal government’s carbon price, Bill C-69, and Bill C-48. Supported by Canada Action, Rally 4 Resources, and Oil Sands Strong, United We Roll’s protesters wrapped themselves in “I Love Oil & Gas” swag, displayed placards denouncing “UN/globalism, carbon tax, dirty foreign oil, and open borders”, demanded Trudeau be “charged with treason,” and called for more “pipe lines.” These pre-2022 convoys red-baited liberal politicians and celebrated carbon.

The 2022 Freedom Convoy was fundraised and promoted by some of the right-wing organizers behind United We Roll. One was Patrick King, a Yellow Vester and white nationalist conspiracy theorist. The other, Tamara Lich, sports a CV worthy of a carbon gold medal. A former Yellow Vester, and an early organizer for Wexit, a far-right secessionist movement that rejects the Federal government’s energy policy and planted the seeds of the Wildrose Independence Party of Alberta, Lich is also a former administrator for Step Energy Services, an oil pumping company. A vocal opponent of Bill C-48 and Bill-69, in 2020, Lich joined the leadership of the separatist Maverick Party, whose “Environmental Policy” calls for the scrapping of national and provincial carbon taxes and Canada’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and “encourages all levels of government in Canada to become cheerleaders for…ethical oil at home and abroad.” Lich’s continuing loyalties to carbon capitalism were on display at her own bail hearing in February 2022, where she wore a hoodie bearing the slogan: “I love Canadian oil and gas,” a fashion statement sold exclusively by Canada Action, a Calgary-based oil and gas industry advocacy group.

Though organized by a petro-populist fringe, the convoy’s clarion call dovetailed with mainstream conservatives’ long towing of the line for carbon capitalism. After all, The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) has long fought carbon pricing and in 2018, Stephen Harper admitted that his party “won elections just by opposing a carbon tax.” The “Canadian” Association of Petroleum Producers’ (CAPP) is a big donor to CPC politicians and uses social media campaigns to influence conservative voters. Thus, it was no surprise when carbon-invested CPC politicians cheered on the convoy. Former CPC leader Andrew Scheer, who opposes carbon pricing and believes “Canada needs a PM that is proud of our energy sector,” posed for a picture with the Ottawa occupiers and tweeted: “Thank you Truckers!” The interim CPC leader Candice Bergen tweeted that “the carbon tax is bad policy, period,” cheered the convoy and urged PM Justin Trudeau to extend an “olive branch” to the truckers. Pierre Poilievre, who, if named CPC leader and elected PM, promises to cancel Bill C-48 and Bill C-69 and build more “Canadian pipelines with Canadian workers,” exclaimed “I’m proud of the truckers and I stand with them.” True to petro-populist form, the Tories turned truck owners into partisan symbols of the people—all those who identify with the oil and gas industry, vote for the CPC and reject the ostensibly elite clean energy proposals by Liberal, NDP, and Green parties.

Former CPC leader Andrew Scheer visits the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa on February 2, 2022 (Twitter/Kevin Waugh).

Given the enduring global convergence of the far Right and climate change skepticism and denial, it is appropriate that the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) was an even bigger booster of the convoy. PPC leader Maxime Bernier, a climate change denier who in 2019 dismissed three decades of CO2 research for using “flawed models,” joined the Ottawa occupation, and handed out “freedom pancakes” to whet appetites for his party’s platform, which aims to withdraw Canada from the Paris Accord, abolish the carbon tax, abandon C02 reduction targets, and give provincial governments the right to determine strategies for climate change, but only “if they want to.” Mainstream and far Right Canadian politicians’ cheerful support of the convoy was amplified even more by authoritarian petro-populists such Donald Trump, who gave kudos to the convoy. Even RT, Vladimir Putin’s petro-state propaganda outlet, seemed to applaud the convoy’s message.

Throughout, the convoy was also feted by right-wing news outlets and pundits allied with carbon capitalism, who made it into a global media event. Fox TV, which stokes climate change denial, and its Tucker Carlson Show, whose guests say climate change is just a liberal media fabrication, cheered for the convoy, inspiring local copycats. Rebel Media, a friend to climate change deniers, and publisher of climate change skepticism stories, also promoted the convoy. Its head, Ezra Levant, a pundit who argues that Tar Sands crude is ethical and calls for the criminalization of Greenpeace, gave a rabble rousing speech to a convoy crowd. Jordan Peterson, who appears to get his climate misinformation from an Exxon-Mobil-backed think tank, praised the convoy and implied it was a moment for Canadian conservatives to “seize the day.” Meanwhile, COVID-19 and climate change conspiracy theorists converged in the convoy’s stinking spectacle.

When journalists asked the convoy protesters what they wanted, many said they “want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic.” Fair enough. But, returning to better days would still leave us with a climate crisis. 2019 was the second hottest year on record, in which vast portions of the Amazon rain forest burned while a near-record permafrost melt released deadly carbon into the atmosphere. The convoy’s wish to get back to the “freedom” of pre-COVID 19 life is understandable given the hardships of the past two years. But this return to the past likely includes the unlimited freedom to drive and shop without reflecting on the environmental impacts of burning gas and rampant consumerism.

In this regard, the convoy’s toxic nostalgia obscures the climate emergency and offers no vision for a better energy future. Taking a page from petro-populist car film scripts such as Convoy (1978), which from the North American energy crisis of the 1970s forward have fashioned “unrestrained automobility” into a symbol or “for individual freedom and self-realization in an over-regulated world”,[1] the convoy’s own Facebook-driven PR carried  images of big trucks barrelling down the highway, this time, a means to free the “people” from a US-Canada border vaccine mandate foisted upon them by “liberal elites.” Drawing from the gender clichés pervading  decades of auto industry-backed TV ads for trucks, the convoy was also a defense and glorification of the petro-masculine identity politics of those white guys who still rely upon a fossil-fuel-friendly machismo to differentiate themselves from “feminized” clean energy-others. Driving around in their trucks, these men might imagine they are “braving the wilderness” en route to Costco and really tough when “rolling coal” at the Prius drivers they speed past and cyclists they sideswipe.  

The Freedom Convoy should be renamed the “Carbon Convoy.” This whole event was a glorification of an ecologically calamitous way of moving interlinked with an unsustainable way of powering a way of life. This is a fundamentally backwards-looking and reactionary movement that derives from carbon capitalism and can do nothing but continue serving it with carbon-intensive industries and right-wing parties and petro-cultural imaginaries and practices that exacerbate the global climate emergency and slow our progress toward a green and clean energy future for all.

Tanner Mirrlees is an Associate Professor in Communication and Digital Media Studies at Ontario Tech University and a steering committee member of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.

 

[1] Caleb Wellum, "“Keep Moving”: Convoy (1978), Car Films, and Petro-Populism in the 1970s." In Lifset, Lutz, and Stanford-McInyre, eds., American Energy Cinema (West Virginia University Press, forthcoming 2023).

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Further Reading

May 25, 2021
Fieldwork in the Energy Humanities
Brent Ryan Bellamy

Brent Ryan Bellamy explores what it means to do fieldwork in the energy humanities classroom and reflects on how an "oil inventory" assignment can reorient how students see literature, themselves, and the world.

Read More...
June 7, 2021
Making Poetry with the “Production Language” of Petrochemical Industry
Max Karpinski

There is a growing body of Canadian ecopoetry that takes as its subject the links between oil, land, and colonialism. Poetry scholar Max Karpinski has studied these poets and explains how one of them--Lesley Battler--subtly reuses the bland terminology of the petrochemical industry to create poetic insights into our fossil-fueled condition.

Read More...
all articlesText Link