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Ohhhh, Canada........
Expired · 13th January 2010
Ray Grigg
Canada's international reputation as the world's caring and "helpful fixer" has been sinking during the last decade. In the perception of many countries, its status has collapsed to that of a self-interested obstructionist intent on thwarting rather than facilitating the international community's aspirations to address the threat of global climate change. Such a tumble in prestige is due entirely to the Canadian government's attitude and response to this single, critical environmental issue.

Canada's status has fallen from a high place. During the first half of the 20th century, it carried a burden of service well above its size. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, it built strong credentials as a peacekeeper and conciliator on the international stage. Even during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that resulted in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Canada was a key and active member, encouraging and facilitating the difficult evolution of a worldwide treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As a concerned and involved participant, it took on the ambitious obligation to reduce its own emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. It applauded when ratification by Russia in 2005 made the Kyoto Protocol a legally binding document – ratification required endorsement by 55% of all carbon dioxide emitters from 187 countries.

Canada's image began to sink when Jean Crétien's Liberal government failed to take any meaningful measures to meet its Kyoto Protocol commitments. Emissions rose rather than fell as required by international law – as of 2009, they were 33% above its Kyoto commitments. When the Conservative government was formed under Stephen Harper in 2006, it repudiated Canada's Kyoto obligations. This technically illegal act had consequences that rippled well beyond Canada's borders.

With this single act, the Conservative government essentially broke international law, implicitly rejecting both sanctions and punishment. Although many countries have not been able to meet their Kyoto obligations to reduce greenhouse gases, Canada has been the only one to take this official step. And, since the international community has only the promise and honour of its signatory members to enforce such commitments, Canada has set a precedent that essentially renders the entire agreement hollow. Any country can now reject its obligations with impunity. Worse still, by extension, Canada's act condemns any future climate agreements to being a facade of non-binding and unenforceable rhetoric, even if such agreements are cast in international law.

Thus began an apparently deliberate strategy by Canada to either obstruct, subvert or confound future agreements to combat climate change. In the UN's 2007 Bali meetings, Canada tied with the United States for the "Fossil of the Day" award given by attending NGOs (Non Government Organizations) monitoring the progress of negotiations. Later in the same year at a Commonwealth meeting in Uganda, Canada blocked a "binding commitment" for developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Canada displayed similar behaviour at another such conference in Trinidad in late November of 2009 where its performance so incensed some scientists and members that they initiated an effort to remove Canada from the Commonwealth.

Similar objections to Canada's performance have become routine. Canada's role at United Nations' meetings has invariably been censured as something akin to a "perpetual objector". It received similar criticism at Poznan, Poland, in 2008 and at Bangkok in October 2009. At a Barcelona meeting in early November 2009, Canada was cited for "efforts to block or stall" agreements, a charge that earned it the "Fossil of the Week" award from the 450 attending NGOs. It has commonly and ignominiously won the "Fossil of the Year" award and been declared a "Colossal Fossil".

The source of Canada's fractious relationship with many countries of the world seems to come from four sources. First is Prime Minister Harper's essential reluctance to take seriously the science of global warming. In the early part of his national political career, he dismissed it as a "socialist scheme" to redistribute wealth from rich to poor countries. Second is the Prime Minister's alleged dislike of circumstances he cannot control, so international forums present unmanageable conditions to avoid. Third is a strategy to rescue Canada's humiliating performance on the Kyoto Protocol by discrediting all international discussions. And fourth is the objective of ensuring that the Kyoto Protocol does not extend beyond its 2012 expiry date. It has been an irritant for Canada's Conservative government because it obligates developed countries to assume the majority of responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries such as India, Brazil and China – now the world's largest emitter – are largely exempt, as is the United States because it refused to sign the Protocol. At the risk of collapsing the international talks in Copenhagen, the thrust of Canada's negotiations has been to thwart any continued form of the old Kyoto Protocol and to replace it with a successor that would include the major emitters from developing countries. This strategy – however laudatory – was unsuccessful from an environmental perspective: the Kyoto Protocol will expire in 2012 and its successor, the Copenhagen Accord – should its non-commitments ever be finalized – will include the developing countries.

Canada's strategy of bargaining hard, offering little, doubting science and controlling by destabilizing has been echoed within its own borders, too. Funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences has been terminated, other similar funding has been cut, climate scientists have been denied access to government labs, and those federally employed have been directed to make no public statements without prior political approval. The Prime Minister has never made any major speech on climate change and sees corrective measures as a burden rather than an opportunity.

The cumulative effect of all this behaviour reverberates around the planet, creating the impression that Canada has become an obstacle to the efforts of the world community to speak and act with the unity that befits a challenge of global proportions.