Reengaging With Climate Change

A good first step for Canada: damage control. By Michael Howlett and Nigel Kinney.
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June 24, 2014
Burnaby Mountain Chair in the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University

Following intense debate over Canada’s use of its own natural resources and the conduct of its mining companies abroad, the Canadian International Council is curating a project on natural resources over the next five weeks to examine Canada’s future policy environment for domestic resource extraction, energy security, and international regulatory standard-setting. The project will glean its insights from a variety of stakeholders from government, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations in order to present a number of perspectives to better explain the challenges that we face moving forward and to delve into some of the controversial aspects of international, national, and provincial politics.

Below is the fifth response from Professor Michael Howlett and Nigel Kinney of Simon Fraser University discussing Canada’s reengagement with global climate change and development negotiations.

The first steps to reengaging, and ideally to leading, discussions of climate change and sustainable development goals involves doing damage control followed by the reversal of many of the Harper administration’s recent policies. The Harper government did a great deal of damage to Canada’s carefully nurtured, four decade old, and overwhelmingly positive global environmental image going back to its co-chairmanship of the first Stockholm summit on the environment (United Nations Conference on the Human Environment) in 1972 when Ottawa decided to back out of the Kyoto Protocol. Admitting this was a mistake and re-affirming support for the protocol is the absolute minimum first step required to start repairing this image and the substance of Canada’s contribution to the world environment and goals of sustainability and environmental protection. This alone, however, would not be enough to rebuild its loss in credibility. The Canadian government, like the Howard government in Australia and the Bush government in the United States that also tried to reverse years of environmental leadership in a similar set of misguided short-term pro-industry initiatives, must walk back its go-it-alone attitude to facilitate tar sands extraction that it has used to undermine climate change negotiations and gut Canadian environmental laws and regulations.

Changing the country’s image requires more than just apologizing for past actions and a reengagement with a positive stance in current and future negotiations. Canada must take drastic steps to reducing its own emissions if it has any hope to having its voice heard in the ‘sustainable development goals’ discussion. The reversal of poor environmental policies is necessary not only to meet its international agreements but also to meet the expectations of its own citizens. A recent OECD report ranked Canada a dismal 28th out of 29 nations based on its environmental track record. They examined 25 environmental indicators ranging from water, energy, and agriculture to climate change. Of the 25 indicators, Canada never ranks in the top 3 in any category, and rarely breaks the top 10. Most alarmingly , the Canadian economy ranks as the most inefficient, a full 33 percent less efficient than the United States. Canada must take its own environment seriously if it is to have any credibility at any level, let alone regain its lost international leadership in this area. Only if Canada can lead by example and make the kinds of environmental policy changes required to approach a sustainable state, can it hope to lend a voice to the policy negotiations and achievement of the UNFCCC’s and post-MDG ‘sustainable development goals.’