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Harper defends pulling out of UN desert convention, says it is too bureaucratic

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OTTAWA - The Harper government was accused Thursday of trying to avoid a reckoning on the science of climate change by pulling Canada out of a United Nations convention that fights the spread of droughts.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted Canada was withdrawing from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification because the program has proven too bureaucratic.

Harper said less than one-fifth of the $350,000 Canada contributes to the convention goes to programming, while Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird branded the whole process a "talkfest" that does a disservice to Canadian taxpayers.

"Eighteen per cent of the funds that we send it are actually spent on programming," the prime minister said during question period.

"The rest goes to various bureaucratic measures.... It's not an effective way to spend taxpayers' money."

The decision would make Canada the only country in the world outside the agreement, which Ottawa ratified in 1995, and whose participants include 194 countries and the European Union — the entire UN.

The government's decision to pull Canada out of the convention came just one month before a major scientific gathering to be hosted by the Bonn-based secretariat of the UN convention.

The meeting would have forced Canada to confront scientific analysis on the effects of climate change, droughts and encroaching deserts. The Harper government has been vilified an as outlier on climate change policy in past international meetings.

"Anything that they're involved in that can lead to more evidence that we're a planet in crisis environmentally they don't want to be part of," said Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians and the author of a forthcoming book on global droughts.

"They simply do not want this information coming forward."

Canada served one-year written notice on the UN on Monday that it was abandoning the desertification convention.

A spokeswoman for the Canadian International Development Agency confirmed that Canada will follow through on its funding commitments for the next year and "will pay its contribution of $315,000 for 2013."

The government also said Thursday it would not take part in next month's meeting in Bonn.

"While CIDA is still a member until the end of 2013, Canada is not planning to participate in this meeting," said spokeswoman Amy Mills.

The United Nations Environment Program brands next month's meeting of scientists, governments and civil society organizations as "the first ever comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of desertification, land degradation and drought.''

It also says that "for the very first time, governments will provide concrete data on the status of poverty and of land cover in the areas affected by desertification in their countries."

Robert Fowler, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, said Canada's abandonment of the convention amounted to a "departure from global citizenship."

"It has taken climate-change denial, the abandonment of collective efforts to manage global crises and disregard of the pain and suffering of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (among many others) to quite a different level," Fowler said in an email.

Fowler ridiculed Baird's common refrain on foreign policy that Canada isn't interested in "going along to get along."

"No, by jingo, we're not going to go along to get along! Such vainglorious nose-thumbing at the international community's efforts to tame a very present threat to hundreds of millions of the world's most poorest and most desperate people is nothing short of incomprehensible."

Barlow said the Harper government is "anti-environment" and is more interested in exploiting Canada's mineral and energy wealth as an "energy superpower."

"That's why they're shutting down all evidence and all research and any international institutions that can provide more information on what this is about."

Former Liberal environment minister Stephane Dion said the government can't take any meaningful steps to combat the encroachment of deserts when it is outside an international process that includes every other country on the planet.

"How can you improve something when all the countries that are working on it together are around the table except you?" said Dion.

"It's affecting Canada as well, in the Prairies. Climate change will make it even worse. It would exist without man-made climate change."

The Opposition NDP accused the government of turning its back on Africa, and of diminishing Canada's international standing.

The Conservative government has repeatedly criticized UN institutions, and has been a vocal critic of the inaction of the Security Council, particularly in dealing with Syria.

In emailed talking points and in its answers in question period, the government maintained that Canada would play a "leadership role" in food security and nutrition. Canada, it said, has helped almost four million farming households across Africa obtain more drought-resistant seeds for their bean crops.

Multiple requests for an interview with a government spokesman went unanswered.

In the past, the government has expressed enthusiastic support for the UN convention, which is known by the acronym CCD.

"Canada actively supports the CCD by taking practical steps to assist developing countries in addressing the problem of desertification," then-International Co-operation Minister Josee Verner said in a 2007 statement.

In the same statement, Verner touted a $4.7-million CIDA project on "Climate Change Adaptation Capacity Support" for several African countries, including the semi-arid Sahel region, which spans the continent.

A CIDA progress report said the project achieved "better understanding of the impacts of climate change on the management of the natural resources in the Sahel."

Funding for the project ended in 2010, says a CIDA document.

Two years later, an estimated 18 million people in eight countries in Africa's Sahel belt faced a hunger crisis brought on by a massive crop failure that has been attributed to climate change and a spreading desert.

Verner was appointed to the Senate by Harper after she lost her seat in the 2011 election.

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