Today is the first day of the Bali United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will continue until December 14. The purpose of the conference, which is being attended by over 20,000 delegates and observers from 180 countries, is to set out the framework of negotiations for the next phase of the Kyoto Protocol when it ends in 2012. There are several events taking place this week in Toronto to mark the occasion. The first is a concert with the Foggy Hometown Boys and Autorickshaw, plus a guest speaker (some guy named Chris Tindal, who promises not to talk for more than ten minutes) taking place this Wednesday, December 5 at 9 p.m. at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West, west of Dufferin). Tickets are $15, $10 for students. The second is a rally on Saturday, December 8 at noon in Dundas Square. Both are well worth attending.
The need for success in Bali is great. The concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere has reached levels we previously thought would take much longer to achieve, and the effects of climate change are accelerating more rapidly than even some of our most pessimistic projections. And yet, it’s not too late for us to seize the opportunity that crises always present. We can still make the kinds of changes that are needed to ensure our climate and economic security, and to safeguard and even improve our quality of life. For Canada, the choice is between restoring our reputation as an international leader while simultaneously positioning ourselves to take advantage of the new economy, or sabotaging international negotiations and playing a key role in derailing the efforts of the other 179 countries present. The latter would not only be a national embarrassment, it would be an immoral failure on a grand scale.
Early indications are not particularly positive. Last month, our Prime Minister—acting practically single-handedly—was able to cripple negotiations at a Commonwealth summit so effectively that the other 52 countries gave up trying to agree to anything at all. That event marked a significant shift; no longer was Stephen Harper merely blocking progress in his own country, he was now blocking progress internationally as well.
That can’t be allowed to happen in Bali. What will happen, however, is less clear. When in opposition, this Prime Minister referred to Kyoto as a “socialist scheme.” As recently as January of this year he used the skeptical phrase “so-called global warming.” Then, realizing that public demand for action was not going away, the Conservatives began experimenting with new language. Environment Minister John Baird started calling for “intensity-based targets,” a scheme devised by the Bush White House that would give the illusion of reductions while allowing overall emissions to rise. Then, as recently as September, the government traveled to an APEC summit and argued for what they called “aspirational targets,” which are a step below “voluntary targets.”
Times change, however. Now, with the ouster of anti-Kyoto Australian Prime Minister John Howard a little over a week ago, and with growing pressure at home, Baird and Harper are suddenly calling for “binding, absolute targets” to be imposed. That sounds positive, but many remain skeptical that their new language represents a legitimate conversion, especially considering that, as far as we can tell, the prime minister is yet to receive a scientific briefing on the climate crisis.
Regardless, the key trick to the Conservatives’ demand for “binding, absolute targets” is that they be imposed on all countries or none. They argue that, since this is a global problem, all countries need to reduce emissions at the same time. As this CP story put it, “depending on your perspective, the Conservative government is either going into global climate-change talks this week as a deal-buster with unrealistic demands or a strategic bridge-builder bent on bringing various factions together.”
Perspective certainly has a lot to do with it. Canadians will often complain that we shouldn’t reduce emissions if other countries (China and India, for example) won’t do so as well. After all, what’s the point if they’re just going to move in and fill the gap? From a developing nation’s standpoint, however, this is a highly objectionable position. For the past century we’ve not only been the greatest contributers to the problem of climate change, we’ve also been the greatest beneficences of economic growth fueled by the fossil fuel era. And now that the developing world is just starting to catch up, we’re saying to them, “sorry, too bad, you can’t have what we had. You’re going to have to do just as much as us, even though we made most of the mess, and you’re starting with less.”
That’s a moral argument, but there are pragmatic ones too. The fact is that the wealthy countries are the ones who can afford to develop the new technologies and techniques that will be required to reduce our emissions by the 80% our scientists tell us is necessary. Asking the world’s poorest countries (India pointed out this week that their emissions per capita are still among the world’s lowest) to shoulder the burden while we complain about the “cost” of action is a recipe for failure, not to mention insulting.
Add to this the fact that just as the poor black population of New Orleans suffered the most from Katrina, so too will the world’s poor endure the brunt of climate change. A CBC radio news report this morning drew attention to the irony of holding this conference in Indonesia, a country made up of thousands of islands that will disappear as world ocean levels rise.
While Harper’s knowledge of climate science may be lacking, his mastery of political strategy is well known. From a tactical perspective, he understands how these negotiations are likely to play out depending on his actions. That’s why it’s hard not to believe that his “all or nothing” demands are designed to ensure the negotiations in Bali fail to come up with the kinds of commitments needed. He’s likely to team up with a lame-duck American president to ensure that the world commits to as little action as possible. Its the difference between being an international leader or an international pariah.
Model for Success
The good news is that we have a model for success. When the world confronted the challenge presented by acid rain, an international protocol was formed that saw the wealthy nations take the lead, with developing nations to follow. It worked, and led to both environmental and economic benefits. That’s what the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (of which Kyoto is a part) was designed to do. Contrary to the rhetoric coming out of Ottawa, countries like China and India actually are a part of the agreement. While they were exempt from reductions in the first round due to their status as developing nations (as well as economic predictions that did not foresee the level of growth those countries now boast), everyone has always understood that binding emission reductions will eventually be required for all countries.
Speaking of perspective, the Kyoto plan is working almost everywhere but Canada, where politicians make defeatist proclamations that become self-fulfilling. For example, the European Union has reduced emissions by nearly 5% below 1990 levels (Canada’s target was 6%), and Germany has reduced theirs by an impressive 17%, all while creating new “green-collar” jobs. Our emissions, on the other hand, have risen by 27% while we experience an emerging economic crisis. When Harper calls Kyoto a “mistake,” therefore, he’s doing so in opposition to the facts. If we want a positive international reputation and a competitive economy (not to mention a livable world), we must continue to work with the established framework (while allowing for corrections and adjustments—after all, no agreement is perfect).
And if we want our government to do that, then we’d best show up in numbers to the rally this Saturday in Dundas Square (and elsewhere across the country). If we don’t, then our political leaders will get the idea that we don’t care. And if we don’t, then why should they?
India photo by kartoffelbcn. Wind farm photo by michaelchrisman from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.