TheStar.com, December 3rd, 2007
Conservative House Leader Peter van Loan recently called Dalton McGuinty a "small man" for objecting to a plan to expand the House of Commons that would benefit Alberta and British Columbia far more than Ontario.
The comment was excessive. But apply the same logic to Stephen Harper's stance on climate change and the shoe suddenly fits.
At the Commonwealth summit in Kampala, Uganda, Nov. 23-25, Harper scuppered a British-led initiative that would have seen developed countries take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He insisted that binding commitments must be adopted by every country or none at all.
This week, representatives from all the members of the United Nations have gathered in Bali, Indonesia, to launch the next global effort to stop climate change. The sense of urgency is palpable.
Last month, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a body composed of more than 2,500 scientists from 130 countries – warned that the planet faces "abrupt and irreversible" damage unless greenhouse gas emissions are stabilized by 2015, and then reduced dramatically.
We're seeing some of the damage already in Canada's North. The minimal extent of Arctic sea-ice this past summer was a staggering 1.2 million square kilometres less than the previous year. That's an area larger than Ontario.
Faced with such rapid change, the consequences of inaction could be truly cataclysmic: widespread droughts and floods, increased wind storms, rising sea levels, mass extinctions, and hundreds of millions of people dead or displaced.
Van Loan is right, however, that it's sometimes necessary to make sacrifices for the sake of the greater good. All the more so when you've contributed to the problem at hand.
Last week, the UN Development Program singled out Canada for hurting the world's poor through its refusal to take serious action on climate change. Canadians are the second largest per capita emitters and therefore among the very worst contributors to what the UNDP calls the "defining human development issue of our generation."
For the droughts, floods, storms and sea-level rise caused by human-induced climate change are impeding efforts to alleviate poverty worldwide.
Part of the reason why wealthy countries provide humanitarian aid and development assistance is because they recognize that poverty isn't a matter of choice. Instead, it's usually the result of geography, history and bad fortune.
Canada's wealth has been developed through decades of heavy consumption of fossil fuels, with the atmosphere being treated as a free trash bin for the resulting emissions.
Yet perversely, it's the developing countries – with their dependence on subsistence agriculture, acute exposure to droughts, floods and sea-level rise, post-colonial political tensions and still inadequate infrastructures – that are most exposed.
Harper's antipathy to international environmental co-operation is well known. He once dismissed the Kyoto Protocol as "essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations." But his concerns about burden-sharing and free-riding are misplaced. Firefighters don't check tax records before responding to an emergency call.
At the same time, Harper argues that a carbon tax and other market-based measures for curbing emissions would somehow damage the Canadian economy. But Norway, a major oil and gas exporter, introduced a carbon tax in 1991 and has seen its economy grow faster than Canada's ever since.
For this reason, one can't help but think that the Prime Minister is trying to create a wedge between the Conservatives as defenders of skeptical self-interest and economic responsibility, and the Liberals, NDP, Bloc Québécois and Greens on the side of environmental alarmism and fiscal imprudence.
Whatever his motives, Harper's stance is downright nasty. For rather than simply sitting on the sidelines, he's actively seeking to block urgent action on the part of other countries.
It's time to put the long-term interests of humanity ahead of domestic politics.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown understands this. So does California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. So too does Australia's new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who has promised to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
Want to see a small man, van Loan? He's sitting right beside you – playing games while the planet burns.
Michael Byers holds the Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. His new book, Intent for a Nation, is published by Douglas & McIntyre.