Harper has chance to leave Canadians a green legacy

Mulroney reminds us that Conservatives can make a difference on environment

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The Gazette, Monday, April 24, 2006

Just because the environment isn't one of Stephen Harper's top five priorities doesn't mean it's not important. Nor does it mean he can't benefit from modest expectations by surpassing them.

Last Thursday's Ottawa tribute dinner to Brian Mulroney was a timely reminder that a Conservative leader can make a difference on the environment.

Mulroney was selected as Canada's greenest-ever prime minister by a jury organized by Corporate Knights magazine, a left-of-centre advocate of responsible business behaviour, for an environmental legacy that includes the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion, the 1991 acid-rain accord and championing the 1992 Rio agreements on climate change and bio-diversity.

Mulroney noted in his remarks that he had raised acid rain with Ronald Reagan in his first White House meeting while still leader of the opposition in 1984. At the time, Reagan's position was that acid rain was caused by trees.

In an interesting echo, one little noticed when Harper first met George W. Bush in Cancun last month, the prime minister raised climate change with the U.S. president. Nor did the public widely notice, though environmental activists did, that climate change was mentioned in this month's Throne Speech.

This is an acknowledgement that global warming, as Mulroney declared, is the most urgent and compelling environmental challenge facing the world today.

The question for Harper, as he develops an environmental policy to be unveiled in the fall, is what to do about it. His answer will shape his own environmental legacy and determine whether, a generation from now, there is a tribute dinner in his honour.

The Kyoto protocol sets a target for Canada reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012. The problem is, our emissions have increased by 24 per cent, putting Canada 30 per cent above its objective. The Kyoto target, as Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has acknowledged, is probably unattainable.

The problem in moving away from Kyoto is that it's hugely popular with voters of all political affiliations, especially in Quebec. Canadians don't generally understand the Kyoto process, but they do understand what it's supposed to achieve - a reversal of global warming.

But that's the point. Kyoto is a process, not a solution. If Harper is moving away from the process, that doesn't mean a failure to engage on climate change. It does mean a new and different conversation.

The country's leading scientific authorities on climate change get it. In an open letter to Harper last week, 90 scientists and stakeholders sounded the alarm on global warming. In their one-page covering letter, they referred repeatedly to climate and climate change. They didn't mention Kyoto even once.

This means the scientific community accepts that Kyoto is a dead letter with this government, if only because its targets are unattainable. It doesn't mean they're prepared to accept a policy of inaction or indifference. If Harper is talking about a made-in-Canada solution, they are calling for "an effective national strategy" to deal with climate change.

They ominously noted "Arctic temperatures have risen at almost twice the rate of those in the rest of the world." The polar ice cap is melting, and the Northwest Passage might be open water within 15 years, which goes directly to the issue of Canadian Arctic sovereignty. A treasure lode of oil and gas lies beneath the ice, raising huge issues of sustainable development.

What to do about global warming? From his own experience, Mulroney suggested staking out the high ground of results, reduction of emissions, before lecturing the Americans on their record, which is only half as bad as ours. Then, he asserted there is no solution without "the constructive engagement" of the U.S., and commitment to lowering greenhouse gas emissions by the emerging economies of China and India. Finally, Mulroney noted the essential participation of private industry. Companies such as Abitibi in forest products and Alcan in metals have met and exceeded their Kyoto targets years ahead of schedule.

It was a Conservative prime minister, John Diefenbaker, who first proclaimed a "northern vision" half a century ago. Mulroney last week pointedly called for a new northern vision. There is a straight line of policy continuity linking three generations of Conservative prime ministers.

As Mulroney spoke of the melting polar ice cap, and the challenges to Canada's Arctic sovereignty, Harper was sitting at the head table, taking notes.

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