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Over to you, Prime Minister.

U.S. President Barack Obama, heretofore lacklustre on the environment, is seeking to become a climate-change president. On Monday, his administration announced a plan to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants by 30 per cent by 2030. Those plants are the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Mr. Obama's first term was about health care. The environment, as shown by other initiatives as well, is a centrepiece of his second. This is hardly good news for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

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In the past, when Washington was inactive on climate change, it was easier for Ottawa to be the same. Not now. Now the Conservatives risk standing alone as idlers. If you want to gain support for pipelines such as Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, it helps to have a credible plan on climate change. The Conservatives don't. On environment protection, Canada's ranking is rock-bottom, according to Washington's Center for Global Development – 27th out of the world's wealthiest 27 countries.

There's still time. The Conservatives could quickly follow on Mr. Obama's example. They could fulfill their long-ignored promise to bring in regulations on emissions in the oil and gas sector. But, as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was saying Monday, don't bank on it. Climate-change deniers and skeptics hold a lot of sway in the Conservative Party, in contrast to Mr. Obama's Democrats.

This opposition to more regulation of the oil sands won't be eased on account of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu's boneheaded outburst on the weekend. He spoke of the Alberta oil patch in terms of filth, negligence and greed. That only polarizes the debate, when what's needed is a balanced approach.

In responding to Mr. Obama's move on coal, the Conservatives can say that they have already put regulations on coal plants in place. But Canada uses far less coal than the United States, and as Ms. May notes, our regulations are feeble. As for energy-sector emissions regulation, the Conservatives can say Washington hasn't moved forward on such regulations either. But the U.S. is on a path toward achieving emission targets; Canada is not.

Mr. Obama merits no special kudos from our land. His administration's interminable delay on Keystone has been all about politics. But the President is acting on the environment from the viewpoint that climate change is not some faraway problem, that it is here and now. He recently took to the airwaves, documenting the impact of weather extremes across the United States, region by region.

Here, we have no idea when or if emission regulations are coming. Remember former environment minister Peter Kent? He made headlines for gagging the country's scientists and gutting environmental oversight bodies. But he did push for the regulations, only to be rebuffed by the Prime Minister's Office. His successor, the rarely visible Leona Aglukkaq, has been silent on the matter.

Mr. Harper doesn't seem to have changed his outlook much since 2008, when he responded to Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's plan for a "Green Shift" carbon tax. Mr. Harper called the plan a threat to national unity and said it would destroy everything his government had built. "It will actually screw everybody across the country," he said.

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Last month, the Conservatives announced a five-year, $252-million national conservation plan. It was intended to ease opposition to Northern Gateway, which the government is expected to green-light this month. But the critics see it as a paltry sum.

The government has endeavoured to keep the environment file away from the headlines. But Mr. Obama is upping the ante. Pipeline issues are coming to a head and there are reports that a new El Nino warming trend is on the way this fall, with implications for North America.

Pressures are ramping up for the Conservatives to start getting serious about climate. They needn't be listening to voices like Archbishop Tutu's. But there is a middle way.

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