30 December 2011

A climate victory we may regret

The year 2011 had better not go down in history as one in which Canada skated progress on climate change into the boards

Edmonton Journal | December 28, 2011
Canadian Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent listens to debate on the final day of a climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, earlier this month.Canadian Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent listens to debate on the final day of a climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, earlier this month.  Photograph by: Rajesh Jantilal, AFP, Getty Images, File, Edmonton Journal

Because if it does, the Harper government has made an all-in wager that global warming is not being aggravated by human beings, and that proof positive of this fact will soon be established in a new global consensus.

And if that reckless Texas hold'em bet proves a loser, there won't enough public relations firms on the planet to sell a more positive picture of Alberta's energy industry, or of our Canadian commitment to fighting change to the political, environmental and meteorological environment on which our prosperity depends.

Of course, that's not how our federal government would analyze the post-Kyoto world. For public consumption, we are still concerned about climate change. Indeed, Canada argues, to use Environment Minister Peter Kent's words after the climate conference in Durban, South Africa, that the Kyoto accord was, if any-thing "an impediment" to action. Ottawa insists that a better deal - one that includes major developing countries left off the hook under the old arrangement - can be accomplished by 2015.

But the truth is, those "ifs" are a bit like the one in the old aphorism that "if Granny had wheels she'd be a wagon." However imperfect the Kyoto accord was - not least because several countries, including Canada, had no intention of living up to it - it recognized that nations such as China, India and Brazil were unlikely to risk telling subsistence farmers their standard of living would have to be held back to be fair to North Americans with three-car garages.

That is, it recognized that effective leadership would have to involve leading by example.

And in any case, if Canada really believed man-made climate change was an existential threat, we wouldn't be making a virtue of following the laggards, regardless of how the latter viewed the matter.

Consider, as a case in point, the American war on drugs, a struggle in which Canada is a loyal ally.

In the face of the drug threat, Washington does not take the Harper climate-change approach, which would worry about failing to first get all the drug-producing nations on side. Imagine how likely countries like Mexico and Colombia would be to fight bloody battles with drug cartels if the United States were unwilling to act against domestic dealers and consumers beyond the point where it might hurt the local economy.

Of course, unlike climate change, the drug threat is viewed as a priority that places economic considerations into second place. The fiscal crisis south of the border would be improved considerably if roughly half a mil-lion drug offenders weren't in the slammer at a cost per inmate of almost $50,000 a year (if you go by California figures).

It should be a cardinal principle for an energy-producing land like Canada to be seen internationally as willing to act on climate change, and willing to sacrifice. We should recognize that what's important is not how we think foreigners should see us, but rather how they choose to see us, on the basis of self-interest and the evidence we give them.

And as evidence goes, failing to comply with Kyoto, and then arguing it was a failure because some countries didn't comply, wasn't the best. Neither was vowing not to take action more vigorous than the United States. And then there was the risibly illogical "ethical oil" argument, which effectively says we shouldn't worry about climate change because Venezuela violates human rights.

Recently, as most readers know, we had the curious case of Chiquita indicating support for the idea of an oilsands boycott. Eventually the company beat a retreat in the face of a vigorous pro-oilsands counterattack.

Canadians would be wise to view the affair as a warning, not a victory. The minds of millions of individual ordinary citizens around the world - who tellingly prefer the deliberately, unfairly negative term "tar sands" - cannot be changed that way.

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