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Gorillas in the Mess
Description: There's an 800-pound gorilla sitting in the corner of this election campaign, a political issue so massively daunting that neither Paul Martin nor Stephen Harper wants to even admit it's there. Climate change is shaping up to be the dominant poli
Date: 05 June 2004
Author: Michael Byers Incoming Academic Director
Source: Winnipeg Free Press
There's an 800-pound gorilla sitting in the corner of this election campaign, a political issue so massively daunting that neither Paul Martin nor Stephen Harper wants to even admit it's there.

Climate change is shaping up to be the dominant political issue of the 21st century. Average annual temperature rises of up to five degrees Celsius are projected for some parts of the globe within the next hundred years.

Some plants and animals are already threatened by changing weather patterns and subsequent influxes of invasive species. The agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries will be impacted in severe and possibly unforeseen ways. Extreme weather events are already increasingly common. In northern regions, the melting of glaciers and permafrost will require massive re-engineering of pipelines, roads and municipal water supplies.

This is not baseless scare-mongering. Earlier this year, even the Pentagon identified climate change as the single greatest threat to U.S. national security. Forget the Kyoto Protocol and its modest targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions: We're talking here about the need to make cuts of a whopping 60 per cent.

Oil is the fuel that drives the global economy, which is itself an intensely complex machine made up of billions of consumers, millions of corporations and almost 200 nation-states. The U.S. president and vice-president, both former oilmen, are central cogs in this machine. And while George W. Bush and Dick Cheney dither, questioning the science produced by their own government agencies, irreversible and potentially catastrophic environmental damage is underway. Dramatically reducing carbon-dioxide emissions in Canada, a small but nevertheless profligate polluter, would have little overall impact. The atmosphere is a global commons that we share with the rest of the world; cutbacks in this country could quickly be nullified by economic growth elsewhere.

Reducing emissions unilaterally would also impose short-term costs, through stricter regulations and higher standards of the sort that could make Canadian companies less competitive and drive foreign investors away. Getting serious about climate change would also require substantial government investment: to retrofit every building in Canada with better insulation and high-efficiency lighting, and construct much, much more in the way of wind turbines, public transportation and high-density housing.

True leadership on this issue would involve making the case to Canadians, engaging them personally, persuading them that the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term pain. It would involve significant alterations to our tax system, charging more for those who fly in airplanes and drive SUVs, but rewarding those who buy bus passes, bicycles and energy-efficient hybrid cars. And it would involve relentlessly promoting the opportunity to serve as a role-model for other countries -- while reaping the economic benefits of prompting rather than following technological change.

Advancing such a farsighted agenda involves personal political risks that neither Stephen Harper nor Paul Martin is willing to take on. They assume that most Canadians don't know or care about the long-term consequences of climate change. And so all we see are token gestures in the direction of greater environmental responsibility -- a quadrupling of the government's targets for wind power, for example, but no firm money -- while the tough policy choices are postponed for another day.

The 800-pound gorilla has a smaller but equally muscular cousin in the form of missile defence. Canada will likely join the U.S. system later this summer whether the Liberals or Tories win, yet neither Harper nor Martin is willing to discuss the system's extension to outer space.

The prime minister assures us that Canada remains opposed to weapons in orbit, and that missile defence will not take us there. These assertions fly in the face of the Pentagon's own pronouncements. One document, Vision for 2020, refers to missile defence being fully operational only when it includes space. And a line-item in this year's U.S. federal budget provides funding for the testing of space-based interceptors -- in 2005. This conspiracy of silence deprives Canadians of the opportunity to debate missile defence in the optimal forum of a federal election. Does the unlikely prospect of poverty-stricken North Korea developing both a compact nuclear warhead and an intercontinental missile to carry it justify abandoning this country's decades-long emphasis on arms control? Will missile defence make us safer, or prompt another arms race, including in space? What costs will Canada be asked to bear, and with what consequences for the rest of our foreign and defence policy? And will Canada end up with egg on its face if John Kerry wins the U.S. presidential election and cuts the budget for missile defence, as he promised on Friday?

Harper and Martin have deemed some foreign- and defence-policy issues suitable for discussion. The end of the Cold War made possible the recouping of a "peace dividend" from the Canadian Forces, but the spectre of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and widespread civil strife makes it time now to renew and rebuild. The debate is not whether more money should be spent, but on the shape of this country's military in the decades to come.

Harper envisages high-tech armed forces that are fully interoperable with those of the United States. For him, the latest-model fighter jets, precision-guided missiles and bombs, tanks and even aircraft carriers are required if Canada is to be a valued partner in Washington's adventures abroad.

Martin, having squeezed the defence budget during his tenure as finance minister, now seeks a better-funded military that would complement rather than supplement the war-fighting capability of the United States. He proposes 5,000 additional infantry for peacekeeping and a further 3,000 personnel for a so-called Canadian Corps that would specialize in post-conflict reconstruction. Yet effective peacekeeping requires equipment -- new helicopters, heavy-lift aircraft, global-positioning systems and body armour -- that is different from that envisaged by Harper, at least if Canada is to avoid a continued and heavy reliance on the superpower to the south.

This renewed Liberal emphasis on peacekeeping and reconstruction is part of a new "Pearsonian" foreign policy that also aims to increase foreign aid. Yet this too smacks of political opportunism. It was Martin's belt-tightening that reduced foreign-aid spending to less than one-third of one per cent of GDP, half of what it was 20 years ago. And it was Martin who, while finance minister, embraced the so-called "Washington consensus" on stringent debt-payment and privatization requirements for developing states.

Paul Martin is no Lester Pearson. You don't win the Nobel Peace Prize by wishing that the world's most difficult problems will go away. And Stephen Harper's approach to foreign policy is no less blinkered and irresponsible.

All of which leaves us with only one national leader who's speaking openly and truthfully about the foreign-policy issues that matter most. It's a reflection of the rightward shift in Canadian politics and a paucity of true leadership that, if Pearson were alive today, one could almost imagine him voting for Jack Layton and the NDP.


Michael Byers is professor of law and director of Canadian Studies at Duke University. In July, he will take up a Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.

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