Climate-change criminals

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It’s remarkable how fast a country’s status can change in a few short years. From a nation that was seen as a leader on the environmental file a few short years ago, Canada is now perceived around the world as an environmental outlaw.

On climate change, Canada’s negligence since we signed the Kyoto Treaty in 1997 – under both Liberal and Conservative governments – is well known. Indeed, among the G-8 group of industrialized nations meeting last week in L’Aquila, Italy, Canada was dead last in reducing its production of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. This fact was made public just before the summit, much to Canada’s shame and embarrassment, in the “G8 Climate Scorecard,” released jointly by the World Wildlife Foundation and the insurance company Allianz.

Less well known is the active sabotage that Stephen Harper’s Tories have undertaken internationally to undermine support for action on climate change.

Since its election in 2006, the Harper government at first worked as George W. Bush’s henchman in trying to create rifts among the international community in an effort to forestall agreement by insisting that poor, developing nations be held to the same standards as the rich countries that caused global warming in the first place. Even in the Obama era, as evidenced by a government strategy paper unearthed last month, the Tories have continued to play the role of spoiler by trying to get smaller, less developed members of the European Union to withdraw their support for EU standards on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Now, as a report on the consequences of climate change released last week by Oxfam makes clear, this sabotage by our government is no less than criminal. Titled Suffering the Science: Climate change, people, and poverty, the Oxfam report chronicles the devastating impacts on Third World populations around the globe that result from our inaction on climate change.

Drawn from data and reports in the 100 countries in which Oxfam operates, the report notes that 26 million people have already been forced from their homes and 200 million more could be homeless by 2050 because of hunger, land loss and environmental degradation. Another 375 million people are likely to be affected by climate disasters in the near future, such as the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005 or the cyclone-related flooding that killed tens of thousands in Burma last year and in Bangladesh this past May.

“Without action, most of the gains that the world’s poorest countries have made in development and ameliorating the harmful effects of poverty in the past 50 years will be lost, irrecoverable in the foreseeable future,” the report states. “The impacts on people’s health are frighteningly diverse. Climate change is bringing water- and insect-borne diseases of the tropics to hundreds of millions of people with no previous knowledge of them.”

In an observation that will be familiar to the people of Eeyou Istchee and other Northern peoples, the report also relates a common feeling that the seasons themselves are levelling out. In a section titled “What happened to the seasons?”, it quotes people from many areas of the globe, who say that seasons appear to have shrunk in number and variety, while winters are generally warmer. Rainfall is more erratic, and tending to be shorter in duration and more violent. “Unseasonal” events such as heavier rains, drier spells, unusual storms, dense fogs and temperature fluctuations are increasing. Finally, winds and storms are felt to have increased in strength.

During a July 6 press conference in Ottawa to release the study, Oxfam Canada spokesperson Joanna Kerr didn’t pull her punches on Canada’s share of responsibility for climate change – especially the lack of action to combat it.

“As one of the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases, our pollution is literally killing the future of the poorest people on the planet,” Kerr said. “Canada has taken unprecedented measures to respond to the financial crisis; we should do the same thing for climate change, for which the human cost is just as real as job losses or home repossessions.”

In L’Aquila, the G-8 managed to set new greenhouse-gas reduction targets, less ambitious than those envisaged in Kyoto a dozen years ago, but they are still just that: targets. The real test will come later this year, during the United Nations climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen in December, when the world has an opportunity to set legally binding rules to keep global warming under control.

With a new U.S. administration apparently committed to meeting its commitment, the world has a new opportunity to make good where it couldn’t in the Kyoto Treaty. The only question for Canada is, will we play by the rules? Or will a government devoted to Alberta oil producers – and little else – again try to wreck the world’s chances to correct past mistakes?

It may take a change of government to change our environmental bad habits. There is abundant evidence that the Conservatives still question the existence of global warming and the necessity to combat it. But one thing is clear: Canada’s reputation hangs in the balance, and our responsibility for the lost lives and lost opportunity should we stand in the way of change once again is nothing less than criminal.

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