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The United Nations Climate Conference, COP 21, which opened this week in Paris, has been rightly billed as a defining moment in the global effort to combat climate change.

In 2009, COP 15 in Copenhagen was promoted with similar urgency as a critical junction in human history. What in fact unfolded in Denmark did not inspire confidence. The major industrial nations continued to gloss and exaggerate the significance of their emission-reduction plans. The countries of the developing world grew ever more shrill in their demands, turning a tin ear to political realities in the north in a manner destined to doom the process.

Saudi Arabia had the audacity to demand compensation. The African nations spoke of reparations, as if a carbon conspiracy had been afoot since the dawn of the industrial revolution. China offered to reduce its carbon intensity, a sleight of hand that would allow absolute emissions to rise, provided they did not surpass the surge of industrial growth that had left 300 million Chinese without potable water, and condemned 300,000 to die each year from toxic air. India effectively stated that, having been slow to modernize, it deserved a turn at poisoning the world. The fact that we are all in this together, and that we have to take collective responsibility for this particular moment in time, seemed utterly lost on the formal delegations.

All of this raised an obvious question. If the fate of the world hangs in the balance, if a projected rise of sea levels promises to flood the Nile delta and inundate the homes of 120 million people in Bangladesh and India, if entire island nations in the Pacific are being washed away, and if the glaciers of the Andes and the Tibetan plateau, source of life for half of humanity, are melting, then why has not our response been in any way commensurate with the severity of the crisis? Why have we not fully mobilized and declared war on global warming?

According to Rajendra Pachauri, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the climate crisis could be fully mitigated and the world's economy transformed with an investment equivalent to 3 per cent of global GDP. By way of comparison, the United States devoted 40 per cent of its GDP to achieve military victory in the Second World War. Shipyards in Long Beach and Sausalito, Calif., spat out Liberty ships at a rate of one a day for four years. Ford Motor Co. alone produced more industrial output than the entire country of Italy. Farm boys of 17, after seven months of training, were flying B-17 bombers over Germany. The U.S. and its allies recognized a mortal danger, reached an inescapable conclusion, and went to work. If climate change is the threat we now know it to be, why has the international response been so fundamentally tepid?

On my last day in Copenhagen, I put this question to Carter Roberts, head of the World Wildlife Fund. The situation, he suggested, comes down to four basic possibilities. If the scientists are wrong, and we do nothing, little changes. If they are wrong and we act, the worst that will happen will be an economic stimulus that will result in a cleaner environment, a more technologically integrated world and a healthier planet. If they are right, and we do nothing, the potential consequences are at best bad, at worst catastrophic, with scenarios so bleak as to defy the darkest imaginings of science fiction. If the scientific consensus holds, and we aggressively marshal our financial resources and technological brilliance to confront the challenge, we will be able to, for a relatively small investment, head off potential disaster and make for a better world. It was difficult to conjure a losing scenario, save that of inaction.

One can only hope that as delegations and world leaders gather in Paris, the events and lessons of the last years will have finally registered. Under new leadership Canada has a remarkable opportunity not simply to repudiate the policies of the past, but to move forward with ambitious goals and firm targets that will announce to the world that we are back as a nation at the leading edge of global efforts to move away from a carbon-based economy toward a new vision of hope for the planet.