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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Canada, of all places, should understand climate change Add to ...

Ontario and Quebec have been baking for months. The fields have turned beige, starved for water. In Vancouver, by contrast, it’s been wet most of the year.

Britain, with the Olympics opening today, has experienced the wettest year since record keeping began, which in Britain means a long time ago. In Russia, too, widespread flooding in the south has caused massive disruptions.

The United States is experiencing the hottest year on record. Most of the country’s warmest years have come in the past decade. Worldwide, the 13 warmest years on record (record keeping began in the 1880s) have come in the past 15 years.

And so on, year after year. Weather changes yearly do equate to a changed climate, but when a pattern takes hold over a sustained period of time, as it has, then something is happening. And that something is of course climate change, which among other effects brings on more extreme weather conditions, more often, as we have been experiencing.

Every August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits the Canadian Arctic, an excellent idea for which he deserves congratulations. And yet every year, something quite odd occurs. Mr. Harper goes and sees how the geography of the Arctic is changing rapidly, makes policy announcements about defence procurement and economic opportunities flowing from these geographic changes, but almost never speaks about what’s causing the changes: climate alterations.

It’s odd because few places on Earth are experiencing more clear evidence of climate change than Canada – the loss of Arctic ice, permafrost changes, mountain pine beetle infestations, extreme weather, a warmer climate – and yet the government seldom, if ever, speaks about the issue.

The same sort of silence prevails to a large extent in the United States, where President Barack Obama was elected after having spoken extensively about the challenge, only to realize that it was not a winner politically. And his opponent in this fall’s presidential election, Mitt Romney, who once warned of the dangers of climate change, now says the thing is a bunch of hooey, which is the kind of dizzying change of position the previous Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, also displayed.

The disconnect between evidence and silence in both countries is heightened by the purveyors of disinformation who deny the existence of climate change or ascribe it to mysterious sun spots or other freak events. These voices, mostly on the far right of the political spectrum, are definitely listened to by many Conservatives and Republicans.

It is evidently more difficult to persuade Canadians and Americans to take serious action when they have witnessed a parade of international meetings fail to corral the world’s states into anything remotely resembling collective action. Why should we act when few others are acting is a potent political argument for those who want little or nothing done? Nor is it simple to encourage action today for something with such long-term consequences.

Instead, countries have offered their individual commitments, ranging from nothing to serious, with no mechanisms to force countries to adhere to their own commitments. That is why it is entirely possible for a government such as Canada’s to make a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, knowing full well that the target will not be reached with the panoply of existing policies. By 2020, chances are all these Conservative ministers will have passed from the political scene, just as most of the Liberal ministers whose governments failed to fulfill commitments are departed.

It is easy – one sees this in the Canadian media all the time – to be cynical, but there are many encouraging signs, too. Many businesses have figured out that saving energy is sound strategy. Municipalities are working on a range of initiatives – not waiting for far-away Ottawa. Almost every province is taking action, some more aggressively than others. And most citizens, if the polls are correct, think a challenge still exists, even though they do not ascribe great importance to tackling it, especially if it means a change in their own behaviour.

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