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National affairs columnist Gary Mason. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)
National affairs columnist Gary Mason. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

Who can save the planet? Voters Add to ...

A few weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama sat down with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to talk about climate change. It was around the time that the President was putting the final touches on tough, new emissions limits on coal-fired power plants that would seize the world’s attention.

Perhaps it’s easier for President Obama to talk about climate change now that he’s in his final term of office and he doesn’t have to worry about re-election. But he isn’t the only member of the U.S. government who has been discussing the subject in recent days. He has been joined by Secretary of State John Kerry and Catherine Novelli, the government’s Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment. Ms. Novelli, in particular, has been pushing hard the notion that the U.S. needs to begin making the transition to a more sustainable power model.

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Mr. Obama’s remarks to the Times continue to reverberate in environmental and business circles, being that they represent the frankest he has been to date about the threat climate change poses. He admitted, for instance, that reviews undertaken by the Defence Department and Joints Chiefs of Staff have identified climate change as a “significant national security issue” that can no longer be ignored. When asked what he would like to see the U.S. do about it, he was unequivocal: Put a price on carbon.

He said it worked in fighting acid rain and it can work to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. “I believe, though, that the more we can show the price of inaction – that billions and potentially trillions of dollars are going to be lost because we do not do something about it – ultimately leads us to be able to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and help the marketplace discourage this kind of activity,’ ” he said.

Ultimately, he argued, it is the public that needs to lead on this issue and reward politicians who talk “honestly and seriously about this problem.”

If nothing else, it was refreshing to see a prominent world leader speak frankly about climate change. He didn’t suggest for a moment that the economy isn’t important. And he admitted that one of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with issues where the payoff is down the road or the consequences of inaction won’t be felt for some time. Yet, he was also saying the world can no longer afford to take the limited action it has on this file.

It’s a notion others are embracing as well. The Chinese, as economist Jeff Rubin recently pointed out, have declared war on pollution, closing coal plants and taking millions of cars off the road. Warren Buffett, meantime, just announced that his company has committed $15-billion to build wind and solar power projects in the U.S. and added there’s another $15-billion where that came from.

And then there is Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Harper recently reasserted his position that the economy reigns supreme, insisting that if other world leaders were being honest that they would also admit that jobs trump the environment. Standing beside his ideological soulmate, Australian PM Tony Abbott, Mr. Harper praised his Down Under counterpart for killing the carbon tax that had been introduced by the previous government.

It was all rather depressing.

The Conservatives will barely concede there is a climate problem, and to the extent that there is, it’s someone else’s dilemma to solve. Canada has no hope of meeting the targets set out in the Copenhagen Accord and Mr. Harper’s government doesn’t care. Its only concern is jobs, and creating more of them. This is a noble goal, and one every government must be concerned with, but not at the expense of everything else.

Surely, we can hope for a government that can walk and chew gum at the same time; be focused on employment, but also on the pre-eminent issue of our time. I don’t believe for a second that most Canadians accept that it’s okay to kick a problem of our making down the road for our children and their children to deal with.

Mr. Obama is right: The public needs to lead on this issue and do so by starting to reward politicians who are ready to lead on it too.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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