Leona Aglukkaq has the world's most thankless job. Every day, Stephen Harper's Environment Minister has to say with a straight face that the government cares deeply about climate change, takes it very seriously and is going to do something about it any day now. This charade has been going on for years. It should be obvious to the smallest child by now that the government isn't going to do a thing about climate change unless it absolutely has to.
I wish Mr. Harper would just come right out and say so. But he won't. The reason is that every country must pretend to play the climate game. The only current exception is Australia, which ditched its carbon tax because it was so politically unpopular. What a relief – at least now we have a rival as the world's worst climate bad guy.
This week, Mr. Harper almost came close to coming clean. He said it would be "crazy" to try to limit carbon emissions in the oil patch at a time when oil prices are plummeting. Of course, he said much the same thing when oil prices were soaring.
The progressive classes (to say nothing of the political opposition) are obsessed with Mr. Harper's refusal to take action. In an interview last week with Ban Ki-moon, the CBC's Peter Mansbridge did everything he could to get the United Nations secretary-general to agree that Canada is among the world's worst climate villains.
Actually, we're no more villainous than we've ever been. Under Liberal PM Jean Chrétien, we signed on to the Kyoto Protocol and made a promise on emissions targets that we were never going to meet. (Kyoto was doomed from the start in any case, because the U.S. Senate unanimously rejected it.) Now we've made another promise to reduce greenhouse gases to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. Barring an economic collapse, this won't happen either. As energy economist Andrew Leach has pointed out, it would require the "the equivalent of taking every vehicle currently in use in Canada off the road – permanently."
There is, of course, a middle ground between doing the impossible and doing nothing. And many thoughtful people, including Mr. Leach, think Mr. Harper would be smart to find it. They argue that the PM's lack of leadership on climate change does the oil sands more harm than good. It makes Canada a ripe target for the industry's opponents, and an international pariah.
My guess is that Mr. Harper's calculations on climate change (unlike, say, U.S. President Barack Obama's) are zero per cent moral and 100 per cent political. Above all, he is a realist, and he doesn't really care what the international community or Mr. Mansbridge or Greenpeace think. He cares what the voters think. And he's betting that enough voters think Canada would be insane to take costly action on climate change unless everybody else, or at least the United States, is doing it as well.
I have no idea if Mr. Harper is a skeptic about climate change. But he is undoubtedly a skeptic about the effectiveness of global action. No developing country in the world will agree to grow less to help the climate. As Eduardo Porter put it in The New York Times, "the development imperative will beat the climate imperative every time." And no developed nation will allow itself to be held accountable to outsiders. Mr. Obama's good intentions will expire in 2016. And China, whose grand pact with the United States will allow its own carbon emissions to soar until the year 2030, has balked at outside scrutiny.
In fact, the biggest news from this week's climate gabfest in Lima – one observer called it "the green blob's annual ritual" – is that the dream of a grand global deal is officially dead. Even the negotiators have finally admitted that it can't be achieved. Instead, they're aiming for something much more modest – a deal in which every country will make its own emissions pledges, suited to its own circumstances. Sure, that'll work. And if they don't comply, maybe they'll get 20 lashes with a wet noodle.