Canada’s international reputation in jeopardy

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.

Vol. 7 No. 35
May 17, 2006
Science Matters
by David Suzuki
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
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
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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