As Peter Kent, the Minister of the Environment, prepares for the international climate-change conference at Durban, he is right not to prematurely raise expectations that the federal government will commit Canada to an intensified version of the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire next year. But he should take an active part in the formation of a worldwide consensus – the necessary condition for a truly international climate-change agreement.
Governments led by Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper have all refrained from giving practical effect to Kyoto. Likewise, in the United States, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have made major attempts to establish a climate-change regime that could reverse the warming trend. And in the Canadian election of 2008, the voters showed that they were not convinced by the ambitious climate-change agenda of Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader.
No single country, or any group of a few countries, can diminish greenhouse-gas emissions on their own. As things now stand, there is a sharp divergence between developed and emerging economies on how to distribute the burden of reducing those emissions.
Pending the emergence of a genuine global consensus, practical national policies may have to be of a kind that will please no faction. For Canada, the limited but noticeable carbon tax introduced in British Columbia by Gordon Campbell, when he was the premier, is a good model.
People must continue to be conscious of the dangers of the warming trend. Regulations and programs that have real impacts, but not drastic ones, will keep the public conscious of the whole problem. The "nudge" concept advanced by the influential book by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, is not enough by itself, but is one sound principle of moderate action in a period when it is hard to arrive at an effective international treaty.
The propensity of numerous governments to make unrealistic commitments on climate change invites suspicions of hypocrisy. Instead, Mr. Kent, and the Harper government as a whole, should show strong leadership, at Durban and elsewhere, toward realizable goals.