The Day Canada Failed

This week, as the Durban 2011 Climate Summit wound down, Canada announced that it was withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord. To say this act elicited some critique at home and abroad would be an understatement for the history books. The environment minister claimed that Kyoto was the past, and that since countries like the United States, China and India weren’t entirely on board, Canada didn’t have to be either.

The current government has made no secret of its skeptical stance on climate change. The booming of Alberta’s oil sands and the government’s near-obsessive focus on the state of the economy have earned the Conservatives support across the country and, arguably, a majority government. There is a significant portion of Canadian society that refutes the scientific consensus regarding climate change—and the fact that these people largely make up the Conservative voter base is no coincidence.

There is little debate among the scientific community on the validity of anthropogenic climate change. Questions remain about the overall causes, but the vast majority of scientific minds agree: the planet’s climate is warming, human industrial activity is the cause, and all nations must work together to drastically reduce carbon emissions if we are to avoid disaster. Much like the so-called controversy over evolution in American public education, the matter is firmly settled within academic circles. Like evolution, the “debate” of whether climate change is real exists only in the world of politics.

If politicians like Stephen Harper want to do nothing to mitigate the effects of climate change, so be it; some minds just can’t be changed. It is foolish, however, to allow them to stand in front of a microphone, unchallenged, and openly deny that humanity is changing our planet’s atmosphere and biosphere. People like the Prime Minister deny climate change not because they believe it isn’t happening, but because they prioritize their own short-term financial gain over the long-term health of this planet and its population. Given how brutally unpopular this choice would be politically if it were to be stated openly and publicly, it is easy to see why they twist facts and spin words to convince voters that all is well, nothing is wrong, and they should continue pumping litres and litres of gas into their SUVs.

The eventual effects of climate change are not yet fully known, but they will certainly reach far and wide. Here in Canada, we’ll likely be spared the brunt of the problems and instead have to deal with mild inconveniences; extreme heat waves and droughts, failed crops and poor air quality are just things we’ll learn to live with. Of course, for the people of Tuvalu, the Maldives and other island nations, the catastrophes are already beginning. The sea will slowly swallow up their countries; their histories and way of life will be destroyed while more prosperous, industrialized nationss continue to churn out greenhouse gases and destroy forests for the oil in the sand below them. Millions of people on low plains and river deltas in Bangladesh and coastal India will lose everything to floods and monsoons, but that’s not really Canada’s problem, is it?

The blame game—the idea that when multiple people contribute to a problem, nobody has to shoulder any responsibility—is ultimately at the heart of the climate crisis. For Canada, the fact that we are responsible for “only” 2% of global emissions allows our government to proclaim it the responsibility of bigger emitters like China and the United States to fix the problem. In other words, our contribution to the problem is so small that it doesn’t matter whether we contribute to the solution. As Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in the Globe and Mail this week, this idea becomes ridiculous when expanded upon: did Canada refuse to fight in World War II because it was mostly a European problem? Have we refused aid to impoverished countries because we have comparatively less money than, say, the much larger United States?

Of course not. We don’t fight HIV, poverty and human rights abuses around the world because they’re our problems alone. We stand up to such things because it is the right thing to do, the good thing to do. We help those in need; we mobilize to protect the values we cherish, because we are compassionate, just, and guided by morality. Why then are we so willing to sit back and allow oil companies to slowly poison the planet around us? Where is our morality now, our Canadian way of interceding to help those in need, be it for polar bears or our fellow human beings?

The Kyoto Accord has its flaws; there is no denying it. But the goal it embodies, the spirit of international cooperation to solve a problem that affects every single human being in every country, is what makes it so vitally important. Those goals are why Kyoto needs to be fixed, not thrown away in a false hope that something better will replace it—it won’t.

From Copenhagen in 2009, Mexico in 2010, to Durban in 2011, we have committed to nothing but some vague, non-binding agreements to “do something”… later. For so many people, in so many countries, later will be too late. It is terrible, then, that Canada of all countries would be the first to throw Kyoto aside, to assign those most vulnerable to climate change to near-certain ruin, under the guise of it being unworkable. The reality though is that we don’t want to pay for it; we have abandoned people for profit and our international reputation has been left in tatters because of it. Unless apathy and greed are now Canadian values, we have nothing to be proud of right now.

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