Legends in Our Own Minds

Separating the Myth and Reality of Canada’s Position on Climate Change

In what we hope will be a recurring feature at PATWD, this is a guest post written by Kate Neville, a recent PhD graduate in political science at the University of British Columbia, and Jennifer Allan, a PhD candidate in the same program. It offers a clear-eyed appraisal of the contradictions that exist between Canadians’ environmental politics and our national self-identity.


“No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert
the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for
humanity immeasurably diminished.”

~World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, 1992 (as quoted by David Suzuki)

Two decades later, at the opening of 2013, the warning penned by over 1700 scientists in 1992 seems to have been largely ignored by the political leaders of the world. At best, our collective responses to climate change seem to be small, incremental changes in regulatory limits. Economic penalties linked with emissions are paltry. The conversation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the world’s negotiating platform on climate change — seems to focus more on capturing and sequestering carbon than reducing emissions.

So what has been Canada’s response? Unfortunately, our attitude towards the environment is riven by contradictions between the vast natural wilderness near the core of our national identity and the economic activities threatening the health of that wilderness. We tell surveys that we support action on climate change, yet have elected a government that seems to do anything but. We see ourselves as international mediators and peacemakers, yet our representatives are among the most outspoken obstructionists in international discussions on climate. Ultimately, we need to find ways to resolve these disconnects between our values and our political institutions; until we do, our country’s environmental policy will remain incoherent and ineffective.

The majority of our population agrees that climate change is real and caused by human activity, and supports paying $100 per year to address climate change, according to a recent survey. This rings true to a national identity built on images of pristine wilderness, lakes and rivers, northern swaths of frozen tundra, and wildlife roaming forests and mountains.

Internationally, we think of ourselves as a nation of leaders, of peacekeepers, a country that regularly punches above our diplomatic weight. Therefore, we, as Canadians, might expect our political representatives to assume similar leadership roles at climate negotiations. We might anticipate this in particular since climate change hits close to home: posing risks to our Arctic ecosystems and southern deltas; putting pressure on the natural resource capital on which we depend economically; and cutting to the heart of our identity as a nation defined in part by a love of wilderness spaces.

Yet Canada’s position on the issue of climate change has been described as everything from dawdler to obstructionist. Andrew Weaver, a professor in climate science at the University of Victoria, describes the disconnect between our peacekeeping past and obstructionist present in climate negotiations as “embarrassing.” Yet, our obstructionism is not new. Canada’s role in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations — under a Liberal government — was not as a champion of the agreement, but instead, along with other countries that went on to form the so-called “Umbrella Group,”[1] was an opposing voice to an ambitious emissions reduction agreement. Where the EU wanted clear emissions reductions, Canada, with its allies, sought “flexibility mechanisms.”

In 1997, the country signed on to the agreement, committing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 6% below 1990 levels by 2010. In 2002, Parliament ratified the treaty, though in the interim, the country had taken few concrete steps to achieve its goals. In 2012, Canada withdrew from the Protocol after our absolute emissions rose 17% above 1990 levels, according to the Conference Board of Canada. Canada’s withdrawal means that our representatives will no longer participate in some of the ongoing meetings of the UNFCCC and Canada will not undertake commitments under the next phase (“second commitment period”) of the Protocol. Instead, our negotiators are spending time on negotiations for a separate, future agreement—leaving action on climate change uncertain and our international reputation unimproved.

Although some commentators in the media and many environmentalists assign blame for our international laggard position on climate and other environmental issues to the current Conservative government, it is important not to single out any particular party as the culprit. Admittedly, it is a tempting case to make, given that the current government has undermined the domestic regulatory frameworks for fisheries, oceans, lakes, rivers, and protected areas through omnibus legislation (Bills C-38 and C-45) and shut down environmental research sites and policy forums. Indeed, the lack of effective regulation for fisheries, species at risk, and  development projects, among other things, now threatens the very integrity of the environment on which our health and economies rely. Even so, as our history with the Kyoto Protocol suggests, Canada had a less-than-stellar reputation on climate change long before the arrival of the Conservative majority. For nearly 20 years now, we have been known as a country that, at best, pays lip service to lofty climate action goals without any real focus on the means necessary to achieve them.

How do we reconcile a national identity based on wilderness images with a government that seems to be undermining the very systems on which the natural world depends? How can we understand our concurrent dependence on the environment with our choices in political leaders who seem to disregard that environment? In part, we can turn to the vast physical space our country occupies for part of the explanation, and the domestic economy those physical systems sustain for the rest.

“The energy sector plays a vital role in keeping Canada strong, free and prosperous,” writes Yukon’s Senator Daniel Lang. He goes on, noting “It employs over half-a-million Canadians and contributed a staggering $94 billion to our country’s exports in 2010. It also contributed $35 billion in taxes and royalties in 2008 to various levels of government.” Lang claims oil production is expected to double by 2030 — and the Government of Canada seems determined to realize those gains. Indeed, Lang is echoing Prime Minister Harper’s framing of Canada as an “emerging energy superpower” first proffered internationally in 2007 in a call for a global consensus on climate change.

Yet the strength, freedom, and prosperity of Canada’s energy resources seem to be strangely separate, in the minds of Canada’s powerholders—and even much of the public—from the health, resilience, and integrity of its natural resources. Even as Lang writes of the value of oil and gas to Canada’s economy, research is emerging on their threats to Canada’s environment. Toxins from the oilsands have been clearly shown to contaminate nearby lakes.

While Canada’s position as a foot-dragger in international climate negotiations may not be new, is it inevitably fixed? Over 60% of Canadians voted for parties more environmentally-progressive than the Conservatives. As Canadians concerned with action on climate, and with domestic environmental protection, can we see a way through and out of this disconnect? What will it take to shift the awareness of enough Canadians to make political leaders change their actions, or to convince them of the impossibility of sustaining economic growth on a planet in crisis?

Our domestic identities of pristine wilderness, international do-gooder, and energy superpower currently compete for the hearts of Canadians and priorities of the government. Yet, this is not inevitable. There is another aspect to our identity, which could build a bridge among these seemingly disparate views: Canadians have a talent for non-conventional resource extraction. Innovation in the energy sector is part of our national narrative too, from the first nuclear reactor at Chalk River, to massive and successful investments in hydroelectric power, to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for shale gas, to, most famously, oil sands bitumen.

Admittedly, in recent years this innovation has been focused on non-renewable, high-emissions energy sources. This can change, however: we can become innovators in the kinds of energy that will be in demand tomorrow, and not just today. We bemoan being left behind in terms of innovation, so why not invest in innovation in our economic strength—energy—and look toward the future? Already, countries’ demands for renewable energy are on the rise across the globe. While everyone knows China leads the world in coal-produced energy, fewer seem to notice that it is also competing for dominance in the production of solar cells. Even Qatar, in the heart of the oil-rich Middle East, announced significant investment in manufacturing solar photovoltaic panel manufacturing. The question for Canada is: do we want to be at the forefront of tomorrow’s energy, or left behind with sooty hands?

As the Idle No More movement gains traction, and opposition to the Northern Gateway Pipeline becomes mainstream, these movements show us there are other ways to spark national conversations about important issues. We can, collectively, make a decision to reassign priorities and find synergies among our schizophrenic identities. We already are, concurrently, hewers of wood and planters of trees; equally, we can be both drillers of oil and gatherers of energy from the sun, wind and water. We can be poised for energy greatness while increasingly leaving the carbon in the ground: thereby benefiting not only our country’s economy, but also our citizens’ health, our national identity, and our global reputation, today and tomorrow.

photo credit: The wind turbine atop Grouse Mountain just outside Vancouver, by emmerogers via photopin cc

[1] The Umbrella Group is a coalition of countries with rather dubious climate records, including Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and the United States, that often cooperates at international meetings related to issues of climate change. During the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, the coalition was called JUSCANNZ (Japan, US, Canada, and New Zealand).


2 thoughts on “Legends in Our Own Minds

  1. Great post, and I think it brings up an interesting question. Do you think that these grass roots movements are enough to actually create real political change? Or are we speaking of two very different battles?

    Arguably the strongest piece of environmental legislation that has been created in the past decade has been Ontario’s Green Energy Act. It was a bold chance, that will allow Ontario to be coal free by next year and has dramatically increased renewable energy projects in the province. And it came about with relatively little grass roots support, and instead was largely due to the Energy Minister at the time being so impressed with what he saw happening in Germany that he figured he could transport it to Ontario.

    Now if you contrast this with Canada’s largest environmental failure of the past decade (the collapse of action on the Kyoto accord) which had dramatic grassroots support but was quashed by Conservative Provincial Leaders and failure to plan by the Chretien government, the question becomes, are these grassroots actions the most effective way for environmentalists to fight their battles? Or is their money better spent on working at higher levels directly speaking to Ministers?

    In the end, it is probably a mix of both, as public persuasion has been shown to be successful, especially when it comes to more local issues such as pipelines. But the entire discussion is an important one for the environmental community to have.

  2. First, thank you for a very thoughtful comment. We aren’t familiar with the Ontario Energy Act, but it sounds a bit reminiscent of Chretien’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. He personally believed it was the right thing to do and strong-armed his Cabinet into ratifying the Protocol. It is worrisome, perhaps, that we need to wait for leaders inclined toward environmentally-responsible action in order to see progress.

    We agree that there are two games here: one to convince our elected leaders, and the other to convince our fellow Canadians, on the need for climate action. Yet, these are not necessarily separate enterprises. It’s true that political systems such as Canada’s can elect politicians who do not create policies representative of public opinion. Our electoral system means that a party with a minority of the popular vote can win and our parliamentary system means that fewer people are responsible for decisions (the PM, Cabinet, the party in power). This small group is more likely to be in the same party and generally agree with one another. Contrast this to other systems, with proportional representation systems or presidential systems, where smaller parties–like Green parties–can become important parts of governing coalitions. Our politicians can be isolated from public opinion, except when they face election every four years. So yes, there is a separate reason to keep lobbying our politicians.

    We also need to try to elect politicians who care about the environment, which relates to the second, grassroots, game. One third of Canadians deny the existence of climate change. Businesses threaten that any environmental action will cost jobs. Without grassroots action, to convince citizens and businesses that climate action is part of Canada’s future, our elected leaders will have convenient crutches to justify their continued business as usual. Grassroots action can overcome the barriers posed by our electoral system and parliamentary system.

    Perhaps a future post should focus on whether pulling out of Kyoto is in fact Canada’s biggest environmental failure. We’re inclined to disagree, given that even if we met the rather modest Protocol goals, they would barely scratch the surface of Canada’s contribution to the problem. Yet, it was a highly symbolic act, which matters in its own right. Accordingly, it might be worth considering in greater detail the comparative weight of symbolism, versus concrete policy action.

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