‘You first’ stance on climate change killing Canada’s credibility

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What is it about climate change that political leaders around the world fail to understand? Huge international hopes were placed on the summit in Copenhagen next month. Few will be realized.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/11/2009 (4767 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What is it about climate change that political leaders around the world fail to understand? Huge international hopes were placed on the summit in Copenhagen next month. Few will be realized.

Canada’s environment minister, Jim Prentice, has voiced what all other senior international leaders are saying: there may be some kind of accord reached at Copenhagen to address climate change, but any move towards a comprehensive treaty went by the boards some time ago.

So Arctic ice melts, the polar bears move south, tinder dry forests burn and the world leaders, like Nero of ancient Rome, twiddle their fingers. Not even the recession has come to the world’s aid. Usually, during recessions, industrial emissions of carbon dioxide gas drop. Scientists say that carbon dioxide is the most important of the “greenhouse gases” that serve to trap heat in the atmosphere. Last year, however, carbon dioxide emissions continued to rise largely because of the output from the still-growing Chinese economy.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been doing his best to rally the environmental troops. After meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama said that while a treaty might not be possible, a “comprehensive agreement” might.

While no one doubts Obama’s sincerity and willingness to combat climate change, the U.S. has still to introduce new federal regulations. Prentice is waiting for the U.S. to formulate its policies before Canada brings in its own.

We could go on like this forever.

Why? It’s not as if world leaders are incapable of responding to real threats to the globe’s existence. In the 1980s, when scientists discovered worrying, growing holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere, international leaders understood the danger. The ozone layer traps up to 99 per cent of the ultra-violet light from the sun. The small portion that gets through is what we use sunblock to protect ourselves from. The growing holes in the ozone in the 1980s threatened our very existence. If the ozone layer were destroyed, humans would simply fry.

Scientific research showed that the deterioration of the ozone layer was being caused by chemicals known as CFCs. They were used widely in aerosol sprays and refrigeration. In Montreal in 1987, world leaders met and agreed to ban CFCs, replacing them with a less damaging chemical. In 1989, the protocol came into effect.

Why similar and equally draconian measures have not been put into effect for climate change makes you wonder. The extrapolations on what happens if we do nothing are by now well known. The world will heat up. Oceans will rise. Coastal populations will be threatened and our ability to feed ourselves will weaken.

The danger appeared to be understood more than a decade ago with the signing of the Kyoto protocol that pledged industrialized nations to reduce their carbon emissions. Some countries, like the UK, did so. The U.S. didn’t sign. Canada signed and proceeded to ignore the goals it had set for itself.

Copenhagen was supposed to put the reduction of carbon emissions back on track. There is no clear agreement on how to do that. The conclusion I come to is that neither the political leaders nor the people they represent truly believe that the threat is serious. The majority of the world’s climate scientists believe that climate change is happening. But the public doesn’t and if they do, they are not sure anything can be done about it. The argument over whether man-made pollution is really changing the climate never seems settled. Only last month, the BBC, normally a staunch believer in climate change, published an article by its climate correspondent Paul Hudson under the heading Whatever happened to global warming? The report stated that the world average temperatures had peaked in 1998. Scientists have responded by saying that the long-term trend is still rising and that models predict that as carbon dioxide continues to increase so will temperatures.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: the threat of climate change is so great that we cannot afford to trust that it won’t happen. The long-term evidence is that it is happening and we have to do everything in our power to mitigate its effects.

Canada’s ability to affect the world’s output of carbon is limited. Our country’s own emissions are less than two per cent of the world total. Our moral authority, however, is not measured by our output. Our governments, both Liberal and Tory, have been saying “you first” for far too long. Canada used to punch above its weight on the world stage. That’s not been the case for many years. On climate change we have no moral authority at all. It’s time Canada stopped thinking the climate was a problem for others and took a leadership role. It’s not going to happen, but you can live in hope.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

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