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Jody Williams, chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative
Jody Williams, chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative

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Why is Canada not putting climate change on the G20 agenda? Add to ...

In two weeks, representatives from the world's developed economies will descend on Huntsville, Ont., and Toronto for the G8 and G20 summits. As host of these leaders' summits, the Canadian government would do well to reacquaint itself with the meaning of leadership.

Until recently, Canada distinguished itself on the world stage time and again by taking firm and independent stands on issues of international importance. But these days, Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems content to bury his head in the sand (or perhaps more accurately, the tar sands).

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At last December's climate summit in Copenhagen, developed states failed to produce a binding emissions treaty. They did, however, pledge to reduce domestic emissions and provide funding for developing states to take action on climate change. Britain, France and Germany are pushing this process forward - looking for innovative ways to raise funds for developing countries, lobbying for higher emission reduction standards and encouraging international collaboration on this issue both within and outside the UN process. Even the United States, long a laggard on this issue, is demonstrating commitment to action on climate change.

But where is Canada?

Since being elected, Mr. Harper's policy on climate change has been to wait and see what policies the United States adopts. While American collaboration on action against climate change is important, this follow-the-leader approach simply doesn't cut it. The notion that Canada is "harmonizing" its climate-change position with that of the United States is misleading. In reality, Canada is now far behind the United States. While the Obama administration has worked tirelessly to pass climate-change legislation in the face of strong opposition and pledged to make the that country a leader in clean energy, Mr. Harper has defaulted on its Kyoto commitments and continues to subsidize the tar sands.

Now, as host of the G8 and G20 summits, Canada has chosen to exclude climate change from the central agenda. This failure has provoked fresh criticism from other world leaders, the European Union and G20 member states such as Mexico.

Canada's shameful attempt to hide behind the United States stands in stark contrast to its achievements of previous decades, when it led the way in negotiating a range of international humanitarian and environmental treaties.

Let me remind you what Canadian leadership looks like:

In the late 1980s, Canada attempted to negotiate a bilateral treaty reducing sulphur dioxide with the United States. Reluctant to admit acid rain was even an environmental concern, the Reagan administration refused to sign. Undeterred, Canada chose to go it alone - ordering provincial emissions reductions before launching a full-scale attack on the U.S. administration. The tenacity paid off and in 1990, president George H.W. Bush signed the American Clean Air Act, pledging to reduce emissions by 20 per cent. The fight to end acid rain is now considered to be among the greatest environmental success stories of the 20th century.

Less than a decade later, Canada once again demonstrated its leadership on the international stage, when foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy challenged the world to come to Ottawa and sign a treaty banning anti-personnel land mines. Critics argued the push for a total ban was too fast and that without American agreement, the treaty was doomed. As it turned out, the Mine Ban Treaty - aptly referred to as the Ottawa Treaty - became the most rapidly ratified disarmament treaty in history and has been joined by 156 countries. Yet without middle-power leadership from Canada, the issue would have probably fallen off the diplomatic agenda.

I could go on. From the establishment of peacekeeping to the implementation of the International Criminal Court, Canada's legacy of principled diplomatic leadership is admirable.

These brief examples prove two important points about Canadian leadership that Mr. Harper should keep in mind. First, Canada does not have to wait for superpowers like the United States to create positive change. Second, when Canada leads, others follow.

As host of this year's meetings, Canadian leadership will once again be put to the test. Will Canada do the right thing and put climate change on the agenda? Or will it continue to practise a politics of avoidance, and ignore calls by Canadian civil society and the world community to take climate change seriously?

Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on land mines in 1997. She is chair of the Nobel Women's Initiative, an organization based in Canada that she co-founded in 2006.

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