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globe editorial

Fewer election issues illustrate the divide between political rhetoric and political challenge more than climate change.

Successive federal governments have offered some mixture of three things: the grandiose, unrealized promise; the parochial gesture; or "the hand," tuning out of the conversation altogether.

There is a different way, one that marries vision with pragmatism, and gives flesh to the sound principles we have been espousing in the fight against climate change. To get there, it will take a renewed investment in research, a national vision that includes other levels of government, and more astute politics.

First to our failures: The grandiose promise was most evident in the signing and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. In theory, the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were committed to reducing Canada's greenhouse gas levels. But in a time of plenty, they did little, and Canada's emissions increased substantially during their time in office.

The partly unrealized promise is also evident in the Conservatives' trumpeting of the Copenhagen Accord. It includes a $30-billion, three-year fund for developing countries, to help them reduce their emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change, but Canada has not committed to funding its full share.

The parochial gesture is oft-deployed. Tax credits for home energy retrofits - effectively a subsidy for the middle class - for which both the Liberals and Conservatives dangle $400-million to the voters, are the most egregious recent examples.

Tuning out is also an option, the one Stephen Harper has pursued for most of his two mandates. It's also a tried and tested strategy employed by many of our companies engaged in oil sands development - they have effectively ceded the rhetorical terrain to international NGOs. The Liberals, too, are guilty. Michael Ignatieff has a cap-and-trade proposal in his platform, but he has barely raised it, probably because of the Conservatives' effective attacks against Stéphane Dion's carbon tax proposal in 2008.

In each instance, domestic politics trumped real opportunities for Canadian leadership - so that our domestic policies and stance have helped to marginalize Canada on the world stage.

But the opportunities for Canada to seize the mantle of climate change leadership are legion.

We can still make an impact in clean energy and climate change research. Canada is already experiencing the effects of climate change first hand. And yet we are letting funding for our northernmost Arctic climate research laboratory, known as PEARL, expire.

Or take clean energy research. In the recession, China, the U.S. and South Korea ramped up their investments, while Canada did little. Add in Brazil's investments in low-carbon fuels and Europe's lead in wind turbines, and Canada risks being left behind - standing at the end of the technology pipeline, instead of helping to build it.

The good news is that Canada's geography and natural heritage are ripe for sensible development that yields low-carbon, low-impact, high-value energy and electricity. We are wisely spending on research into cleaner oil sands extraction. We now need to focus more on research and development that taps our substantial wind, hydro and geothermal resources.

We have had a piecemeal approach, with laudable federal support for some efforts (such as the Lower Churchill Falls development), but not for others.

The result has been complaints from Canada's two biggest provinces. Ontario, which is closing its coal-fired power plants with little federal support, has a stronger case, while Quebec, which opposes hydro development it can't control, is behaving more parochially.

But what if the federal government brought the provinces to the table, and worked toward a truly national energy and electricity strategy? A strategy that anticipated a price for carbon, but focused on research, and the export of more of our natural goods to the United States and abroad, would increase our prosperity, and our international credibility.

Much of that credibility is already there: A prime example of Canadian leadership was the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. It includes a suspension of logging on nearly 29 million hectares. Preserving these trees will help Canada reduce its emissions, and provides a carbon sink for existing emissions. Canada's political leadership should be promoting the deal at every turn.

Ultimately, fighting climate change takes many levers. Many of the high-level principles Canada has articulated - regional co-operation, especially with the U.S.; an expectation that developing countries contribute to the solution; a recognition of the enduring need for carbon-based fuels - have been sound. We now need to take actions locally that give life to and gain respect for our principles.

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