Skip to main content

So what that Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto died long ago. Most of the countries that ratified Kyoto, starting with Canada, failed to meet their greenhouse-gas reduction targets. Big polluters – the U.S., China and India – didn't accept targets.

At the Durban climate-change conference, Canada got paddled by other countries. But Canada's reputation has been trashed so often, and with such evident good reason, what's one more blow?

Canada mocked its own greenhouse-gas reduction targets before, and it's mocking them again. The Harper government has a target of a 17-per-cent reduction from 2005 by 2020. The Environment Department's own figures, released in July, showed that emissions have risen by 7 per cent since the Conservatives took office.

No one – not senior civil servants, not foreign diplomats, not academics, not even people in the oil and gas industry – believes Canada will bring down its emissions by 24 per cent (17 per cent plus 7 per cent) in the next eight years. Canada struts on the world stage, naked as a newt, and can't fool those who know what's really going on.

It's easy to mock Kyoto. It failed to halt the upward surge in emissions for many reasons, the most important being that global warming represents the classic example of the tragedy of the commons. That tragedy – well-known to students of human psychology, international relations and economics – means that, when all degrade something held in common, the temptation exists for none to accept responsibility. Every contributor to the degradation finds reasons for inaction.

It's said, for example, that since Canada "only" contributes 2 per cent of total emissions (while being among the largest per capita emitters), it should really do very little. Ponder that argument. Has it ever been seriously advanced – in war or peace – that Canada isn't doing its part in world affairs? Did Canada say in two world wars, "Sorry, since we can't be the decisive actor alone, we'll take a pass"? Should Canada refuse to give foreign aid because its aid alone can't eliminate poverty? Should Canada withdraw from a multitude of international institutions because it's smaller than other member countries and thus can't do much by itself?

To put the argument this way is to see how false it rings against our traditions of responsible international participation.

This is akin to the pernicious folly of the "ethical oil" argument now embraced by the Harper government (and the oil industry, of course) to justify doing little to reduce emissions from the oil in the tar sands.

In secular philosophy and organized religion, ethics has been about defining and pursuing the notion of the "good." This "good" is usually set as an optimum, never attained but always kept as a goal. Ethics is not about claiming virtue because behaviour is better than the worst possible behaviour, but rather it's measured against the nominal sense of the "good."

The argument that Canada's oil comes from a more virtuous place than Libya under Moammar Gadhafi or Venezuela under Hugo Chavez would be like saying Canada's human-rights records is "ethical" because it is better than North Korea's, or our economy is "ethical" because it's fairer and more productive than Zimbabwe's.

The 2-per-cent and "ethical" oil arguments, therefore, represent perversions of principles on which to base international participation. They insult Canada's history and traditions, but they play exceptionally well with a certain segment of the Canadian public.

According to a recent international poll, Canada has the highest number of citizens (22 per cent) of any economically advanced country who deny that human activity causes global warming. We can fairly presume the vast majority of this 22 per cent are in what we might loosely call the conservative world in Canada. They read the anti-global-warming newspapers and commentators, and they rely on the handful of academics who debunk global warming.

The poll numbers suggest that about half of Stephen Harper's supporters are climate-change deniers and skeptics. His government pays heed to this core, the world and its climate be damned.