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A Greenpeace activist dressed in a polar bear costume demonstrates in front of Parliament Hill to call on Canada's Conservative government to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, in Ottawa in January 2007. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
A Greenpeace activist dressed in a polar bear costume demonstrates in front of Parliament Hill to call on Canada's Conservative government to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, in Ottawa in January 2007. (Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

John Ibbitson

Kyoto withdrawal shames us all Add to ...

The Harper government’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol tarnishes Canada before the world. Liberal and Conservative incompetence and mendacity are to blame. You and I are to blame. And Lehman Brothers had something to do with it as well.

It isn’t easy for a country to descend, in the space of a single decade, from crusader to pariah, as Canada has done on the environment. But our political leaders were up to the task.

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The first, worst mistake occurred at Kyoto itself in 1997, when then prime minister Jean Chrétien told Canadian negotiators to meet or beat the American commitment, whatever it took. The problem was that while the American commitment was ambitious, Bill Clinton never expected the Senate to ratify that commitment, and he was right.

The Liberals found themselves stuck with Draconian targets that, if met, would hobble oil sands production, hammer big industry in Ontario, and send home-heating bills through the roof. Their solution was to study the issue. And study. I remember sitting through an interminable briefing in 2003, in which officials patiently explained how Canada would meet its Kyoto targets. The only problem was that there was this enormous gap, which was to be closed through “future reductions.” It was like having a household budget in which Miscellaneous was bigger than Mortgage.

We knew then, and some of us started writing, that Canada was unlikely to meet its Kyoto commitments.

When Paul Martin became prime minister, his ambitious agenda included getting Kyoto back on track while reviving Liberal fortunes in the West. This was interesting, since the two goals were mutually incompatible. But before we could assess how Prime Minister Houdini planned to pull off this amazing stunt, he was gone, and Stephen Harper was in charge.

The Conservative Prime Minister made no effort to hide his skepticism over the treaty and his determination not to allow carbon caps or carbon taxes to undermine the Canadian economy. Still, polls showed that most Canadians were deeply concerned about climate change and wanted the government to take action.

The first effort, in 2006, was such a mess that it cost Rona Ambrose her job as environment minister. After that, Mr. Harper took a personal interest in the matter, and that interest consisted of vetoing any meaningful action. The Conservatives were willing to take steps to reduce the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions, but not the actual level of emissions, which would have crimped the oil sands’ expansion plans.

And then, in 2008, the investment bank Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the cascading damage threw the entire developed world into recession. By then, as Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Reid observes, voter concern over climate change was already on the wane.

“Global warming peaked as an issue when Al Gore won his Academy Award in 2007, and has basically declined since,” he said Monday. “And when the economy went up the hit parade, the environment went down precipitously.”

Ipsos regularly tracks and ranks voter priorities. Concern about the environment peaked at 27 per cent in late 2007. By last summer it had plummeted to 13 per cent.

In the 2008 election, the Liberals under Stéphane Dion ran on the environment; the Conservatives ran on the economy; the economy won.

By then it was perfectly clear that Canada would never meet its Kyoto Protocol commitments. It would never come close. Rather than be formally found to be non-compliant, Environment Minister Peter Kent Monday night announced Canada was withdrawing from the accord.

Canada gave its word to the world. Canada broke its word. The final confession was as shameful as it was inevitable. No one should feel anything other than ashamed. Not the Conservatives, not the Liberals, not us.

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