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Minister of the Environment John Baird speaks with the media during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday December 6, 2010. Baird presented a boundary proposal for the Lancaster Sound Marine conservation area. (Adrian Wyl/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Minister of the Environment John Baird speaks with the media during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday December 6, 2010. Baird presented a boundary proposal for the Lancaster Sound Marine conservation area. (Adrian Wyl/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

Climate-change reputation in tatters? Try blustering Add to ...

A theory of sports suggests that a good offence is the best defence. It's a theory the Harper government has put into practice all week around the environment.

With the Cancun climate-change summit approaching, the Harperites knew that, once again, Canada would be pilloried on the world stage. Sure enough, on Day 1, before part-time Environment Minister John Baird arrived, Canada once again was awarded Fossil of the Year, finishing first, second and third in a vote of 500 environmental groups worldwide.

Still, some kind of public-relations strategy had to be developed. True to personal form, and consistent with the government's overall PR approach, Mr. Baird went immediately on the offensive. Before leaving for Cancun, he announced - or, more properly, announced once again - the creation of a marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound off Baffin Island. After all, some sort of environmentally friendly announcement had to be made, or made again, before the drubbing began in Cancun.

Even before his departure, Mr. Baird began blaming China, India, Brazil and others for not doing nearly enough to bring down greenhouse-gas emissions. It was largely the fault of developing countries such as these that the Kyoto Protocol failed, he claimed, and why a new climate-change agreement wouldn't work.

Canada is right to urge big developing countries to do better and more than what they've thus far proposed. Canada also would be right to do something serious itself before lecturing others, since Canada has the worst record in the advanced industrialized world.

Mr. Baird's aggressive message - a classic instance of throwing stones at glass houses - was designed entirely for Canadian consumption, since Canada long ago lost any shred of credibility on the world stage for climate change.

Not only did Canada manifestly fail to meet emission reduction targets set by a previous (Liberal) government, no one who knows the climate-change file believes in the Harper government's reduction target - a 17-per-cent decline from 2005 levels by 2020.

Mr. Baird claimed Canadian emissions had fallen 2 per cent in 2009 - true, but almost entirely due to the recession, not government policies. For Canada to reach the Harper government's 2020 target, emissions would have to fall by 1.5 per cent each year for a decade - something that has never happened. Moreover, it's impossible for Canada's overall emissions to fall by 17 per cent while Alberta's rise by 14 per cent, as anticipated by the provincial government.

The world understands this. It knows Canada is deeply hypocritical when it criticizes others, because Canada, as one of the world's largest per capita emitters, attends every climate-change meeting with dirty hands, empty rhetoric and inadequate policies. It knows the Harper government doesn't like the climate-change file, wants desperately to protect the oil and gas industries, and doesn't believe there's a single vote in climate-change action.

No one at Cancun would pay serious attention to Mr. Baird. His bluster was intended for domestic consumption, to reassure those Canadians - many of whom are lodged in the Conservative Party and the media's right-wing elements - who want no action taken against climate change.

The bluster was also intended, perhaps, to divert attention from yet another devastating report on the government's lack of action. This one came from the Auditor-General's Office, to which the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development reports.

Of course, the commissioner condemned the government's climate-change policies, or lack thereof, but he had more sweeping criticisms. He reported on "some common weaknesses in how the federal government is managing environmental and sustainability issues." There has been, he found, "a pattern for unclear and unco-ordinated actions. This has been aggravated by the overriding problem of a lack of sustained leadership."

Nailed abroad/nailed at home meant a government potentially on the defensive. So the PR response: Bluster.

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