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‘Stephen Harper’s climate death-wish’: Read my most recent article in the Common Sense Canadian

I am pleased to be acting as an Ottawa correspondent for the excellent online publication The Common Sense Canadian, British Columbia’s premier environmental news journal. CSC combines cutting-edge video, audio, and reporting and editorials from former BC Environment Minister and Hall of Fame broadcaster Rafe Mair, documentary filmmaker Damien Gillis, and a host of formidable contributors and guest editorialists who bring you the stories and opinions our establishment media won’t publish.

My latest article, reprinted below, examines the negotiating position the Canadian government has adopted at the ongoing Durban climate change summit and in international climate negotiations more generally. You can read it here in full on the CSC website.

Harper’s Climate Death-Wish:
Withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol only the latest effort to derail climate change

Amidst the ongoing circus that constitutes the United Nations climate change summit (COP 17) currently underway in Durban, South Africa, Canada has once again distinguished itself as the country most hostile to virtually any serious international effort to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada has long been considered a climate change pariah by the international community. We were the only signatory to the Kyoto Protocol to simply ignore its responsibilities following ratification and our country’s total emissions are now more than 34 per cent above our Kyoto targets. Not only did the previous Liberal government fail to do anything to meet its Kyoto obligations, in recent years the government of Stephen Harper has gone a step further, becoming increasingly obdurate in its efforts to deliberately obstruct the progress of international climate talks.

Why the antipathy of the Harper government toward limits to carbon emissions? Well, as you might expect, the tar sands are one factor. Tar sands reserves are now valued at a stunning $14 trillion and oil companies are investing hundreds of billions of dollars in exploiting the resource, money that could boost federal tax revenues considerably.

This is only part of the story however.

Harper has long maintained his government does not support Kyoto because it does not include all of the world’s major emitters such as the United States, China and India. Their oft-repeated refrain is that Canada is a small player, contributing only 2 per cent to global emissions and, as Harper once stated, if emissions from emerging economies are not controlled, “whatever we do in the developed world will have no impact on climate change.”

Besides the fact that we are only in the first Kyoto commitment period and that subsequent phases were intended to include all major emitters, what are we to make of Canada’s Environment-minister-turned-big-oil-lobbyist, Peter Kent, saying on Monday that Canada will not renew its commitment to Kyoto, even if doing so would mean China would agree to firm targets to cut its own greenhouse gases? Worse, speculation is that sometime before Christmas when the House of Commons is not in session and the public is paying little attention, the government will announce Canada’s complete withdrawal from Kyoto. In Durban, Canada is rumoured to be encouraging other countries to follow its lead in rejecting Kyoto.

Although it is technically permitted under Kyoto’s terms, withdrawal from a legally binding, multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) is almost unheard of and it is not entirely clear at this stage what the ramifications of such a move might be for future MEAs. Withdrawal may mean that Canada successfully evades responsibility for the commitments that it undertook in Kyoto but why would any nation believe that Canada will deliver on any commitments we make in the future? And what is to stop other countries withdrawing from other conventions that are no longer to their liking?

This is not to say that Kyoto is without its flaws. But it was a tentative first step by the international community to try to wrestle with a climate change problem that requires concerted international action and is quickly spiraling out of control. Any future treaty would certainly require improvements but Canada is effectively – and almost single-handedly – killing any chance of negotiating a successor to Kyoto before 2020.

So after Durban we are left with nothing but the hastily negotiated and non-binding Copenhagen Accord of 2009, an agreement that our government claims still to support. This agreement calls for the increase in average global temperatures to be limited to two degrees Celsius (2 C) above pre-industrial levels, as many scientists believe that beyond this point, we may cross a climate threshold into potentially catastrophic and unmanageable runaway warming. Yet for several reasons, Copenhagen is also doomed to fail.

First, voluntary commitments by the countries that have so far signed the agreement would leave the world heading for warming of over 3 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100. Second, many feel that the 2 C target is itself simply too high. An average global increase of 2 C means some regions in the developing south — much of Africa, for instance — will be subject to a 3.5 C or even 4 C increase. This, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has said, “is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”

Finally, when you crunch the numbers, it becomes clear that accepting the 2 degree limit globally would mean a dramatic reduction in global emissions in the short term. Yet by 2020, tar sands emissions are expected to triple from their 2005 levels.  It would be very difficult for Canada to reconcile any expanding tar sands production with such sharp global declines in carbon emissions. With the economies of China and India expanding at a rapid rate, there simply is not enough atmospheric space available for a tar sands industry that already accounts for a whopping 6.5% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Industrialized countries have already emitted roughly 75 per cent of total historical greenhouse gas emissions. By asking poorer countries to bind themselves to diminishing emissions budgets before we have even attempted to meet our own targets, Canada is contributing to perhaps the single biggest impediment to progress in international climate negotiations. For developing countries, acquiescing to such a demand would be “like jumping out of a plane and being assured that you are going to get a parachute on the way down,” as the former Executive Secretary of the UN climate negotiations, Yvo De Boer, said. Why would China and India ever agree to such a deal?

Very few would deny the fact that developing countries will have to rein in their carbon emissions if we are to have any chance of solving the climate crisis but if countries like Canada are unwilling to make deep cuts quickly, it’s very difficult for poor countries to see how they can reconcile their development aspirations with the atmospheric limits of climate stabilization at 2 C of warming. Today, the only proven routes out of poverty still involve an expanded use of energy and, consequently, a seemingly inevitable increase in fossil fuel use and carbon emissions — unless more expensive alternative energies can rapidly be deployed.

So here we find ourselves at what may be an insurmountable political impasse created by sheer self-interest and apparent egotism. “Western nations are engaged in a lose-lose game of chicken with developing nations,” wrote Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone following the Cophenhagen Summit. And in the meantime, the climate will not wait for us to get our act together. As emissions rise, the climate will continue to change.

If even a 2-degree target is out of reach, where does this leave us? The answer is not pretty. In a recently published, must-read article called Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world, Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, explains why a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees would be extremely dangerous. In fact, he says “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.” According to the International Energy Agency, we’re currently on course for a 6 degrees C temperature rise.

Viewed in these stark terms, I cannot help but wonder if future generations will one day judge the actions of our political “leaders” such as Harper and Kent – who in the face of all the scientific evidence, continued to value increasing tar sands production in Canada over climatic stability – as crimes against humanity.

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