Where is Canada's PM Harper's new plan on Climate Change?
Public anxious to see government take leadership role and treat global warming as a serious issue, writes James Ford
Climate change presents a serious challenge to the social and economic well-being of Canada and the world at large. Yet the current Conservative government is not taking the problem seriously. We are in desperate need of a "made in Canada" plan that has conviction and leadership, a plan that can re-establish Canada's tarnished international reputation.
The evidence is there for all to see that the climate is changing. The 2005 hurricane season in the U.S. was the most active and destructive on record. In 2003, more than 30,000 premature deaths occurred in Europe as a result of one of the worst heat waves on record. Glaciers across the world are shrinking at such an extent that by mid-century Glacier National Park in the U.S. will have no glaciers. Sea levels are rising so fast that many small island states in the Pacific have no future. New Zealand has already indicated that it will take the first climate refugees when Tuvalu becomes uninhabitable due to sea level rise. And recently, the World Meteorological Office confirmed that nine out of the last 10 years have been the warmest on record.
Here in Canada we are at the forefront of climate change. Indigenous communities in the Arctic, which rely economically and culturally on hunting and fishing, have complained that changing sea ice patterns, shifts in seasonal temperatures and even changes in the prevailing wind direction have interfered with traditional hunting activities. A recent international scientific assessment predicts Arctic temperatures to climb, ice cover and thickness to decrease and extreme weather events and storms to happen more often if no action is taken.
It is not only indigenous hunters who are worrying. Climate change is threatening the resource industries that sustain so many small communities across Canada. Unusually warm winter temperatures this year forced the premature closure of ice roads supplying diamond mines in the Northwest Territories. Warmer winter temperatures are a serious obstacle to future resource development in the north, since access to diamond mines and oil exploration sites is only cost effective when lakes, rivers and tundra are frozen.
Epidemics like the pine beetle infestation in B.C. have occurred because of a decrease in the occurrence of extreme cold spells and will become more common throughout Canada as the climate continues to change. And with temperatures and the occurrence of drought predicted to increase, forest fires will become increasingly common.
Our urban centres are also suffering. In summer 2005, the extreme temperatures and humidity, lack of rain and severe storms that plagued Toronto and southern Ontario placed considerable stress on energy supply, infrastructure, emergency services, health-care systems and water resources. Consider it a dry run for what lies ahead under climate change. Extreme weather events — ice storms, thunderstorms, tornadoes and so on — will occur with greater frequency.
While Stephen Harper remains unconvinced about climate change, leading scientists, world leaders and the public at large are observing our changing climate with increasing concern. Leading climate scientist and former director of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, John Houghton, describes climate change as a "weapon of mass destruction." This month's special edition of Vanity Fair describes climate change as "a greater threat than terrorism," a sentiment echoed by Britain's Tony Blair.
Even the Queen has expressed her concern over the problem posed by climate change and lack of action by the world's largest emitters (i.e. Canada and U.S.). And much to the embarrassment of the Bush administration, the Pentagon recently identified climate change as a major threat to world security. In the scientific community there is now little doubt that human emissions are responsible for these changes.
Harper's recent declaration on Kyoto reflects a lack of vision on climate change. The Conservatives' plea for a "made in Canada" approach is merely a smokescreen for no action. For sure, Kyoto has its drawbacks: it doesn't include China or India, its targets are too weak, it will have little impact on climate change and it doesn't include the world largest polluter, the United States. If we are going to replace it, let's take a lead and develop a "made in Canada" plan to be proud of, a plan that shows our commitment to justice and human rights; a plan that significantly reduces our greenhouse gas emissions; a plan that doesn't use the United States as a baseline for judgment; a plan that helps Canada develop a lead in renewable technologies; a plan that allows business to thrive and be environmentally friendly; and above all, a plan that will show other nations our commitment to tackling one of the biggest problems of the 21st century. Canada has not shown leadership in international affairs for far too long; it's about time we stood up and showed the way.
What would such a plan look like? Fixed, legally enforceable emission targets on our largest polluters are essential. The reason Canada's emissions are 24 per cent above what we committed to in Kyoto is because previous Liberal governments have largely followed a voluntary approach. Evidence shows this doesn't work. It is important that incentives are put in place to encourage people to walk to work, take public transit and purchase cars with smaller engines. Financing must be made available to companies to help them improve their energy efficiency and switch to renewables. It is important that money is put into improving public transportation, especially our rail system, which needs expanding dramatically. Urban planning will also have a role to play: low density suburban development not only takes up valuable land but locks us into a gas-guzzling lifestyle.
Developing a plan to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions will not be easy and leadership is required from the government. Canadians want a plan to be proud of, a real "made in Canada" plan.
James Ford is a PhD candidate in the department of geography at the University of Guelph.
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