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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Canada has long shadowed the U.S. on climate change Add to ...

Ever since the negotiations leading to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, Canadian governments have hugged the U.S. approach.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gave his negotiators at Kyoto one overriding mandate: Stick close to the Americans. It didn't much matter where the Americans went, Canada would be there.

When, unexpectedly, vice-president Al Gore jacked the U.S. emissions reduction target to 7 per cent below 1990 levels at Kyoto, Mr. Chrétien told negotiators: Go for a 6 per cent target. Mr. Chrétien, ever the politician, figured he could get the political cover needed to persuade skeptical Canadians if he hugged the Americans.

When the U.S. bailed on Kyoto, Mr. Chrétien kept the 6 per cent target, without the foggiest idea how to achieve it. Thus began the long, sad history of the world seeing Canada at its worst, a history whose latest chapter has just been written at Copenhagen.

Once the Bush administration arrived in office, the cry from Canadian business, Alberta and other sources became: We can't move if the Americans don't. Those voices prevailed, because Canada did next to nothing. Emissions kept rising (27 per cent since 1990) although, believe it or not, they rose slightly faster in Canada than in the U.S. under president George W. Bush.

Now, the Harper government insists again that Canada cannot move any faster than the United States. Before considering where this policy will take Canada, consider the difference at Copenhagen (and before) between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Obama has given many speeches at home to Americans about the imperative of climate change. Mr. Harper has never once on Canadian soil delivered a major speech on the subject.

At Copenhagen, Mr. Obama chose to speak to the conference; Mr. Harper did not, just as he refused to address the United Nations General Assembly on the issue, as did so many other leaders. Indeed, Mr. Harper was shamed into attending because Mr. Obama decided to go.

At Copenhagen, Mr. Obama embraced the science of climate change. "This is not fiction," he said. "It is science." He continued, "Unchecked, climate change will pose unacceptable risks to our security, our economies and our planet. This much we know."

By contrast, Mr. Harper (who, like so many in the Reform Party, used to publicly question the science of climate change) said the science is evolving but that, yes, the "preponderance of the evidence" suggests the atmosphere is warming. It was a backhanded acknowledgment from someone who is perhaps aware of that in his own mind, but certainly there are many among his cabinet, caucus and domestic supporters (especially but not exclusively in Alberta) who do not believe the science.

Mr. Obama painted action against climate change as an opportunity. He said, "Changing the way we produce and use energy is essential to America's economic future. It will create millions of new jobs, power new industries, keep us competitive and spark new innovation."

Maybe this is political fluffery - the best way to convince a skeptical country to do something. By contrast, Mr. Harper portrays action against climate change as a downer, something very painful for which everyone must be prepared. For him, action against climate change is like a trip to the dentist: expensive and perhaps painful. Whereas for Mr. Obama, it's a moral imperative and an economic opportunity.

Perhaps this difference in attitude explains why such a higher share of the U.S. stimulus package was devoted to green technologies. According to a survey by the HSBC Bank, Canada has one of the smallest shares worldwide of green investments in its stimulus package, another example of our governments talking one game but playing another.

For all his moral passion and political commitment, Mr. Obama is unlikely to get from Congress anything like what he wants: steep emissions cuts by 2020. The Canadian government must know this likely scenario. Therefore it suits the Harper government politically to shackle itself to U.S. policy.

A House of Representatives bill calls for a reduction of 17 per cent by 2020, but is shot full of giveaways (to big coal, mostly) and loopholes. There is no guarantee that any climate-change legislation will emerge from the Senate in 2010 (see the Congress's wrangling over health care). If something does emerge, it will be a diluted version of the House bill.

Either outcome - no action or diluted target - would be fine for the Harper government, whose heart isn't in the climate change file at all.

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