The Big StallThe Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada

By Donald Gutstein

James Lorimer & Company Publishers, Toronto  304 pp, $24.95

Climate change/global warming presents a real and present danger and we are already living with the consequences. Just ask the people who lived in my old home town (the ironically named Paradise, California) about the climate-change-related fires tha304 ppt torched the entire town, or the folks who live in coastal communities around the world that are battered by unprecedented storms and floods every year, storms made worse by global warming/climate change. The planet’s average annual temperature is heating up, driven by the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane, and that extra heat is bringing the world’s climate to a dangerous new boil.

We have known we were in trouble for a long time now, but somehow our responses have always been late and inadequate. Since climate scientist James Hansen first sounded the alarm in his historic 1988 testimony to the US Congress, the problem has grown worse and the prospects for a civilization-destroying disruption of the climate equilibrium that has made human civilization possible have grown ever more dire.   

Away from the fantasyland of the Trump White House, even the US government sometimes recognizes that we are polluting ourselves into climate change that may break the back of human civilization as we know it. In a 2017 report, the US Global Change Research Program notes that world average sea levels have been driven up by climate change by 7-8 inches since 1900 and could go up as much as four feet if we continue to increase our emissions of gases that drive the greenhouse effect.    

Perhaps we will see fewer such scientific reports from the Trump administration during the rest of his time in power. In August of 2018, His Orangeness sent a memo to all government science agencies defining the priorities Trump wants government science to address, and climate change is notably absent from the list.

The United Nations sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reflects the collective research and analysis of the majority of world climate scientists, issued yet another warning late this year, citing risks for higher temperatures, rising sea levels, droughts, and disastrous storms if we continue on our business as usual path to a devastated earth.

We have been warned, and yet our collective responses to the emergency have been slow and reluctant, and sometimes, as in the Trudeau administrations frankly irrational assertion that we can cut our emissions while building more fossil fuel pipelines and expanding oil sands and natural gas field exploitation, they seem almost unbelievably wrong headed. Even the BC government’s newly announced plans for climate change response indulge in the fantasy that we can cut our emissions far enough to slow our precipitate slide toward Climatgeddon while subsidizing new natural gas fields and pipelines. This is not good public policy. This is the always-tempting illusion of the drunkard who sets out to drink himself sober.

Pull quoteSo, why are our policy responses so incoherent and ineffective? Should we, to explain this apparently insane lack of response, invoke the Freudian concept of Thanatos, an innate human hunger for death, or shrug cynically and write it off to humanity’s shortsightedness and stupidity? Or was novelist Kurt Vonnegut right when said, “"We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap”?

While these explanations are tempting, and may go some distance toward understanding our colossal policy failures, Donald Gutstein’s latest work of research and polemic, The Big Stall suggests that many of our failures on this file have been created by a well-funded propaganda campaign. The campaign, he says, has been conducted since scientists like Hansen in the US and David Suzuki here in Canada first raised the alarm. International oil giants like Exxon,  Gutstein shows, knew about the dangers created by their fossil fuel products and the impacts they had on world climate early on, but instead of owning up to the way they were stoking the fires that could make the world climate system boil over, these firms and their business organizations launched expensive public relations campaigns to create doubt about what the scientists were telling us and to delay the creation of policies that might help reduce the damage already done and the worse damage pending under a fossil fuel economy  in the 21st century.

But Big Oil and Big Business were not alone in creating clouds of doubt and delay. They were ably supported by what we could think of as Big Propaganda, the industry-funded right wing think tanks that emerged across the capitalist world in the second half of the twentieth century, organizations like the Fraser Institute, the Canada West Foundation, and the CD Howe Institute in Canada and the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and American Enterprise Institute in the US.

These are notable examples only, and not an exhaustive list. These well-funded bodies devoted to creating pro-business propaganda have sprung up like hundreds of ideological death cap mushrooms in our lifetimes. These mendacious bodies have done much, as Gutstein so ably show in his well-researched and clearly written book, to shape public policy to suit the interests of the business class. (None of them, however, has been honest enough to brand itself as the Joseph Goebbels Big Lie Institute!)

The Big Stall is essential reading for anyone who cares about the future of Canada and the future of the human race on this planet. Please read it and give copies to friends and family members who have been affected by the huge propaganda campaign that the author details. And, while you are at it, make a donation to a progressive think tank like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which serves the public debate far better than its better-funded right wing competition. This may be a literal matter of  life and death for the human race.

Tom Sandborn lives and works on unceded indigenous territory in Vancouver. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at


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