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Prime Minister Stephen Harper answers questions as he takes part in a joint press conference with Korean President Park Geun-hye on Parliament Hill on Monday, September 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

By the time representatives at high-level international conferences meet, decisions as to who is going to say or sign what have often already been made. Showing up is, in a sense, just for show. But symbols matter. Every time Toronto Mayor Rob Ford declined to show up at the city's Pride events, it sent a message. Being there counts. Do you want to be seen as leading on an issue? Or would you prefer to not be seen, and to be seen as avoiding the subject?

Which brings us to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's three-day trip this week to New York. During his visit, he'll address the United Nations General Assembly. He's expected to attend an event on maternal and child health. He'll be at a dinner hosted by the UN Secretary-General. The PM will take part in a question-and-answer session on the economy moderated by the editor of The Wall Street Journal. What the PM will not be doing is attending Tuesday's UN summit on global climate change.

It's not as if Canada is boycotting the event. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq will be there. It's also not as if Canada is doing nothing on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. On Monday, Ms. Aglukkaq annouced a new set of more stringent auto pollution regulations, which aim to gradually increase efficiency and reduce pollution from cars and light trucks after 2017, in a step that mirrors U.S. plans.

Where the government has been missing in action, however, has been on the question of emissions reductions in the fast-growing oil-and-gas sector. The PM has been very good at talking about what policies he won't be adopting. Last year, for example, he said that "we seek to deal with it in a way that will protect and enhance our ability to create jobs and growth, not destroy jobs and growth." He added that "no country is going to undertake actions on climate change, no matter what they say ... that is going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country."

All of which is fair and true – and beside the point. So, the government does not intend to address greenhouse gas emissions, particularly those from the oil-and-gas industry, by adopting a politically suicidal plan of economic destruction? Got it. But what does it intend to do? Telling Canadians what the plan isn't doesn't tell us what the plan is, or if you even have one.

Which may explain why the PM isn't eager to be front-and-centre at a UN meeting on climate change. Between the extremes of shutting down the oil sands – totally unreasonable – and doing nothing – totally unacceptable – there's a lot of middle ground. The government needs to start exploring the territory.