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Canada Must Once Again Cut Its Own Path
Description: In this article, the author summarizes comments he made to a recent symposium organized by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation in Calgary.
Date: 28 May 2004
Author: Michael Byers Incoming Academic Director
Source: Calgary Herald
In this article, the author summarizes comments he made to a recent symposium organized by the Sheldon Chumir Foundation in Calgary.

The U.S. government, enamoured and distracted by the war on terrorism, has abdicated its responsibilities with respect to other, equally important global challenges. It's time for Canada to take on a leadership role.

The most significant threat facing humankind is not terrorism, but climate change. Average annual temperature rises of up to five degrees Celsius are projected for some parts of the globe by the end of the century. In northern regions, the melting of glaciers and permafrost will require massive re-engineering of pipelines, roads and municipal water supplies.

Elsewhere, extreme weather events will become increasingly common. 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 severely impacted, possibly in unforeseen ways. Canada, as a northern country, is particularly vulnerable.

This is not baseless scaremongering. Earlier this year, even the Pentagon identified climate change as the single greatest threat to U.S. national security. President George W. Bush, by refusing to act, is deliberately compromising the future of his country -- not to mention the rest of humanity. While Washington dithers, irreversible, potentially catastrophic environmental damage is underway.

The Canadian government has defied Bush -- and an equally irresponsible Ralph Klein -- by ratifying the Kyoto protocol.

But the Kyoto targets are still woefully inadequate. Canada should unilaterally cut its greenhouse gas emissions by half. The effects would be largely beneficial. In addition to helping the environment, we'd become world leaders in the increasingly lucrative field of environment technologies.

New jobs would be created as our homes and businesses were retrofitted with better insulation, fluorescent light bulbs and other energy-saving devices. The enormous energy-producing potential of southern Alberta's winds could usefully be harnessed.

And, since the most that one can hope for is a gradual reduction in fossil fuel consumption elsewhere, none of this would compromise the revenue generated by our exports of oil and gas.

Poverty is another significant global threat. It constitutes one of the root causes of human migration, civil unrest, terrorism and disease. And yet, here too, little is being done to address the problem. Instead, agricultural subsidies, tariffs on textiles and stringent debt-payment and privatization requirements have stymied the potential of Third World economies.

Canada has consistently supported the so-called "Washington consensus" on international development. Our lack of commitment to positive change can be measured by our contribution to foreign aid. At less than one-third of one per cent of gross domestic product, Canada's spending now is roughly half of what it was 20 years ago.

Instead of acquiescing to Washington's lack of leadership, Canada should be initiating a new effort to reduce global poverty. Returning our foreign aid spending to 1984 levels, and eliminating tariffs on Third World textile and agricultural products, would cost relatively little, while providing a role model for governments worldwide.

Global epidemics of a magnitude that could dwarf SARS constitute another threat that is largely ignored. Canada should lead an international effort to stop the food-for-the-table trade in civet cats and other wild animals, and to reduce the within-house rearing of chickens and pigs in countries such as China.

Rapid reaction medical crews should be readied for deployment overseas.

Airport screening and local treatment and quarantine facilities should be prepared before the next outbreak strikes. And Canada should be assessing ways of protecting its citizens against the possibility of a deadly epidemic taking hold across the border, among the tens of millions of Americans who lack health insurance and are consequently reluctant to seek medical aid.

Conventional weapons pose another global threat. Small arms kill far more people than high-technology tanks, airplanes, missiles and bombs. Canada should be spearheading a global effort to reduce the trade in conventional weapons and develop an effective registry of transfers in small arms. At the same time, Canada should urge the United States to stop the development of a new generation of smaller "bunker-busting" nuclear weapons, and to ratify and implement the Landmines Convention.

Most importantly, we should refuse to participate in the Bush administration's costly, unproven and potentially destabilizing missile defence system, which -- as the Pentagon has made clear -- entails the eventual placement of weapons in space.

Would the United States tolerate the adoption of divergent policies by its northern neighbour? What price might Canada pay for such apparent insolence, given its massive economic dependence on the U.S. market?

Canadians sometimes forget that they live in a large, enormously wealthy country blessed with highly educated people, abundant natural resources, and a communications, transportation, heath care and social infrastructure that rank among the very best in the world. The United States lacks many of our advantages. Economically, Americans depend as much on us as we depend on them.

When the United States fails to lead on critical global issues, Canada has every right to step out of the shadows.

Indeed, as an especially prosperous, well-respected country, we've a responsibility to act.

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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