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Spurned by Harper, Elizabeth May joins Afghan group at climate summit

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, shown March 21, 2013.

PATRICK DOYLE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Spurned by the Harper government, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May attended last week's Warsaw climate summit as part of the Afghanistan delegation – helping that poor, war-ravaged nation prepare for a looming climate crisis that could further strain its already-stretched resources.

Until a few years ago, the federal government invited opposition MPs to be part of Canada's official delegation to UN climate summits, giving them access to the closed-door sessions where key compromises are hammered out.

But that courtesy ended after dramatic failure of the Copenhagen summit. So, for the past two years, Ms. May has worked with officials from small states – last year it was Papua New Guinea – at the annual conferences. In her role as Afghan delegate last week, she attended negotiating sessions on their behalf and briefed them on key developments, including poor-country efforts to win financial support for their efforts to adapt to a changing climate.

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From that vantage point, Ms. May watched in Warsaw as the least developed countries in the world urged the industrialized world, including Canada, to get more ambitious with their climate policies. And pleaded for help to prepare for the impacts of global warming, which the United Nations predicts will hit the world's poorest people the hardest.

Last week, Conservative MP Colin Carrie accused Ms. May of grandstanding in Warsaw, of only being there to "get attention." With low expectations for progress in Warsaw, neither the new Democratic Party nor the Liberals sent their environment critics, and there were virtually no Canadian media in the Polish capital. Even the country's environmental community cut back their usual contingent for the annual summit.

But the Green Party leader said that it is important that opposition parties keep up pressure on the Harper government, and lend support to poorer countries that operate on the margins at the UN summit.

"We sacrificed billions of dollars and Canadian lives to help Afghanistan be free of Taliban and al-Qaeda," she said in an interview Monday. "How could a Canadian fault me for volunteering to assist their capacity in dealing with climate change? Because not having contributed to it at all, they are experiencing its impacts."

After arriving in Warsaw as an observer, Ms. May got a frantic call from an Australian academic who was advising the Afghan delegation, and who was desperate for some help.

Leading the three-person delegation was the deputy minister from an environment department that is only 10 years old. The country has both an adaptation plan and an emissions reduction plan though it produces little actual greenhouse-gas emissions given its lack of energy production. But it has "absolutely no resources to put either plan in effect," the Green Party MP said.

What emerged from Warsaw did not leave her hopeful that an international treaty can be concluded at the Paris meeting in 2015 that would actually keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, as world leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, have promised.

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At the fractious Warsaw summit, negotiators went a day late to reach a vague agreement in which countries will indicate by early 2015 what "contributions" – both financial and further emissions reductions – that they are prepared to make towards a treaty to be concluded at the end of the year.

And that means the Harper government will have to not only show how it will get on track to meet its commitment to reduce emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, but will also have to lay out a plan for deeper cuts post-2020.

But Ms. May said there was virtually no political will in Ottawa or other rich-world capitals to undertake the deeper reductions that scientists say are necessary to avoid catastrophic climate changes.

"If we go above 2-degrees global average temperature increase, it's really a question of Russian roulette as to how long human civilization will survive impacts," she said.

Shawn McCarthy covers energy from The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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