Canada's International Reputation in Jeopardy

(By Dr. David Suzuki) Pity poor George W. Bush - the much-maligned president is at an all-time low in the polls. And if Canada's new prime minister wants to stick around, he should learn from Mr. Bush's presidency and avoid making the same mistakes.

Pity poor George W. Bush - the much-maligned president is at an all-time low in the polls. And if Canada's new prime minister wants to stick around, he should learn from Mr. Bush's presidency and avoid making the same mistakes.

Little mistakes - like flouting important international agreements. Mr. Bush pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example, in spite of scientific consensus that the problem is urgent and a public that sees global warming as a serious problem.

Right now, Prime Minister Harper is one-upping the president by flouting, not only the original agreement, but also international law. Although the United States and Canada both signed Kyoto back in 1997, only Canada actually adopted the agreement in 2002. So Canada is legally obligated to reduce emissions, the United States is not.

Yet, our new federal government seems bothered not a whit by such details. Instead, it has said that the Kyoto targets are too hard for Canada, so it won't even try to meet them - essentially thumbing its nose at the international community and the other Kyoto signatories (the majority of whom have already reached their targets or are on track to meet them by the 2012 deadline).

As one of the world's largest, most northerly nations, Canada has much to lose from a changing climate. Warming at the poles is much more pronounced than it is closer to the equator. North of the Arctic Circle, temperatures have risen many times more than average for the Northern Hemisphere.

For these reasons, one could argue that in our own self interest Canada should be leading the world in both climate change research, as well as climate change solutions. And here's another reason: Canada's vast, frozen tundra is also currently a huge carbon sink - that is, the soil holds carbon that could otherwise end up in the atmosphere and speed up global warming.

In fact, many scientists are worried about what will happen when the ground melts and that soil heats up. This could speed up the decomposition of organic matter and release more carbon dioxide and methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. In other words, Canada's vast northern landscape could itself become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. This is why Canada has so much at stake, and has a duty to work towards solutions.

Recently, the federal government hinted that its approach to reducing emissions would involve regulation. That would be a good step, but only if the regulations involve strict targets and timetables. Voluntary targets, which have proven to be popular among governments because they aren't controversial with industry, simply don't work. Unless there are strong mandated targets and timelines, Canada's emissions will continue to rise.

Canada's previous government had earmarked $150 million to arctic research as part of its contribution to the 2007-2008 International Polar Year. But Prime Minister Harper's recent budget did not mention this funding. Further, the government has said that it will develop a new research policy based on "value for money." What this means is anyone's guess. Important science does not always pay off with direct financial gain. Will scientific research become politicized in Canada, as it has under President Bush, with politicians deciding the value of research?

One can only hope not. Canada has a strong international reputation as a trustworthy, just nation and also as an environmental leader. All of these positive attributes are currently at risk. Ignoring commitments, politicizing science and dumping on the environment are not exactly sources of pride. Canada's new prime minister would do well indeed to look south of the border for inspiration - and see what happens to the popularity of leaders who ignore the wishes of those they serve.

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Source: David Suzuki Foundation

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