Prime Minister Stephen Harper's reluctance to put climate change on the agenda of the Group of 20 summit in Toronto next month could well be for one, or even all, of the reasons his critics suggest: an ideological opposition to getting in the way of Big Oil or any other industry; a small-minded approach to defining Canada's longer term interests; just a slight doubt that global warming is really such a big deal.
It's also possible that Mr. Harper is taking his position as chairman of the next G20 meeting very seriously. He could well be doing what he thinks is right to give this group a fighting chance at growing up to become an institution capable to providing global leadership.
Thanks to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Harper is going to have to come clean, or at least cleaner, on this question.
It would be wrong to accuse Mr. Harper of using his position as chairman to block a discussion that everyone else wants to have.
Speaking at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington last month, Arkady Dvorkovich, the chief G20 negotiator for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, said his country's position on the environment mirrored that of Canada. Mr. Medvedev and his counterparts from Brazil, China and India issued a statement after their meeting last month in Brasilia that implies they believe the proper place for discussing climate change is at the UN. Even Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who is facing re-election, has backed away from earlier pledges to bring his country into the fold of nations committed to a strong global mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Canadian officials are extremely wary of trying to do too much before the G20 has time to adhere as a unit. Some explain privately that the agenda should be kept compact in order to better the odds of reeling off a couple of victories before the year is out. The thinking is that objectives need to be kept obtainable: Wins create momentum; momentum creates confidence; confidence creates ambition; ambition creates the will to tackle bigger problems. But for now, completing an overhaul of financial regulation and co-operating on economic policy seems plenty ambitious. Adding a topic as sensitive as climate change risks upending the entire G20 project.
That's the argument for avoiding a discussion of global warming in Toronto. The counter argument says avoidance is tantamount to abdicating leadership.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy already has made clear that the G20 will discuss climate change when he takes over the presidency of the group next year. Mexico, a G20 member, is hosting the next UN climate conference in Cancun in December. It's reasonable to assume the Mexicans would like that conference to be a success and that direction from the G20 would go a long way toward setting the tone for the talks. Seen this way, Mr. Harper's refusal to put the environment on the agenda in Toronto is the equivalent of sticking his head in the ground.
Mr. Ban clearly thinks it's time for the G20 to become something more than a crisis cabinet. Whether the G20 is in fact ready for more than that will be up for Mr. Harper to decide.