David Suzuki's Comparison Of Oilsands To Slavery Raises Eyebrows

Posted: Updated:

David Suzuki has long been a thorn in the side of Canada’s controversial oilsands industry, but the environmental activist’s comments on a radio show Monday will likely get him named the industry’s new enemy number one.

In a phone interview on SiriusXM’s “Everything Is Political With Evan Solomon,” Suzuki compared the arguments used by oil supporters against climate change action to the arguments used by 19th-century slavers to stop abolition in the U.S.

The argument that a price on carbon would kill jobs “sounds very much to me like the southern states [which] argued in the 19th century that to eliminate slavery would destroy their economy,” Suzuki said.

“But who would say today that the economy should have come before slavery?”

“It’s a moral issue. The issue of slavery was not an economic issue. The issue of climate change is not an economic issue.”

Suzuki was responding to comments from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who said this week Canada should be careful to “understand what impact [a price on carbon] is going to have on jobs, what additional impact that will have on the energy sector, which is already suffering massive layoffs.”

When host Evan Solomon suggested the oil business might take offense to Suzuki’s analogy, Suzuki said, “well, it is the same thing. They’re destroying the very atmosphere that we depend on, and they’re telling us that their existence or their activity shouldn’t come under scrutiny…”

Despited repeated prodding by Solomon to tone down his rhetoric, Suzuki was unapologetic.

“It’s a moral issue,” he said. “The issue of slavery was not an economic issue. The issue of climate change is not an economic issue.”

Suzuki’s comments came in for criticism from those who saw them as insensitive to race issues.

And supporters of Canada’s oilsands wasted no time in taking advantage of Suzuki’s comments for fundraising purposes.

Maclean's magazine reports that Suzuki might have had a bit of a change of heart after the interview. He reportedly sent a letter to “Everything Is Political,” aiming to clarify his stance.

“All I was saying was that southern states argued that abolishing slavery would destroy their economy and that is like the fossil-fuel industry arguing against action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will destroy the economy. In other words, they are putting the economy above the matter of slavery and climate change and I think that is immoral,” Suzuki said. “People caught in working for the fossil-fuel industry will have to make a transition, they are not the target of my ire.”

In the interview, Suzuki praised Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's recently announced plan for a provincial carbon tax.

"Go, girl, go. It's terrific," he said.

Suzuki addressed the incident this past summer in which the environmentalist called then-Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau a “twerp.” Suzuki said he used that term because Trudeau had called him “sanctimonious,” but Suzuki said the two have spoken since and have moved on from the incident.

Exchange with Harper

Suzuki recalled an incident in Parliament, when former prime minister Stephen Harper was leader of the Canadian Alliance.

Suzuki overheard Harper giving a TV interview in which Harper asserted — as Suzuki recalls — that Canada shouldn’t take action on climate change because it would hurt the economy.

Suzuki said he approached Harper afterwards and told him, “You don’t know what the ‘F’ you’re talking about.”

Suzuki says he “never had another exchange” with Harper again.

Around the Web

David Suzuki: Natural infrastructure is good for the climate and communities

David Suzuki honoured with Freedom of the City Award

David Suzuki calls for economy to stop being given priority over environment ...