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With Obama in the Lead, it’s Time for Canada to Change Course on Climate Change

This post is an opinion editorial that originally appeared in the Hill Times.

VANCOUVER, B.C.—U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent climate speech at Georgetown University has shaken up the atmosphere of complacency around climate policy, and it’s time for Canada to stand up and take notice. The much-anticipated speech unveiled the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and put climate change back at the centre of the global economic agenda, a development that Canada cannot afford to ignore.

As other nations begin the slow transition to a low-carbon economy, Canada’s reputation as a bad actor on the international climate stage will hurt more than just the environment. If Obama’s plan to move to cleaner sources of energy is any indicator, Canada’s reputation as a climate laggard will also hurt our economy.

Although the Copenhagen Accord forged an international agreement to limit the average global temperature increase below two degrees to avoid catastrophic warming, it contained no legally binding plan on how to get there. Since 2009, climate politics have been stuck in a state of paralysis, with nations around the world waiting for others to act first.

Now the United States has made a move.

The U.S. is the world’s largest economy, and the second-largest emitter of CO2, behind China. The steps laid out in the Climate Action Plan are a clear signal to the rest of the world that not only is it time to begin reducing emissions in earnest, but also that the future belongs to those countries who embrace and invest in the low-carbon economy.

For Canada, the implications are clear. The United States is our largest trading partner, and Canada is perfectly positioned to become a leader in providing green technology, renewable energy and innovative solutions to meeting the challenges of climate change. But while we should be putting clear provisions in place to drastically reduce emissions and get a head start on building a low-carbon economy, we’re ignoring the international scientific community and recklessly committing Canada to decades of growing emissions.

And really, committing to a high-carbon economy has been a lot more trouble than it’s worth for Canada.

The Conservative government has worked overtime to suppress and attack scientists and environmentalists critical of rapid tar-sands expansion and a lack of adequate environmental protections.

In early 2012, the Harper government engaged in a campaign to undermine the credibility of citizen groups, philanthropists and scientific bodies that opposed the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.

This effort was designed to demonize environmental and community groups as ideological ”extremists” bent on undermining the Canadian economy.

The rhetoric reached an all-time high last year when Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver accused environmental groups of being “foreign funded radicals” acting on behalf of American charitable foundations. Minister Oliver suggested that American foundations supporting conservation efforts in Canada were working to “undermine Canada’s national economic interests,” although no evidence exists to support this claim.

Accusing American philanthropic foundations of “interfering” in our politics is not likely to foster stronger relations with the US. Given their generosity, we should thank these good Samaritans rather than subject them to treatment they might better expect in Russia or Egypt.

Until now, the Conservatives have been milking the narrative around responsible economic management, intended to nudge public conversations away from the environment and climate change. But that narrative is now looking worse for wear.

Obama was right on the money when he said that arguments against action on climate suggest “a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity.” The same holds true for Canada. Do the Conservatives really think that Canadians aren’t up to the challenge of implementing a low-carbon economy?

Sound economic management doesn’t mean holding on to outdated business models while the world changes rapidly. It means recognizing challenges and opportunities, and drawing on Canadian innovation and entrepreneurship to make clean energy the stable foundation of our economy – well into the future.

Building pipelines and expanding the tarsands may seem profitable in the short term, but in the long run it will cost Canadians billions in both missed opportunities to lead technologically as well as damages to public health and infrastructure. Scientists warn that climate-charged weather events will only become more frequent and severe as global temperatures warm.

At a time when we need to have honest, democratic debate about the future of the Canadian economy, the Conservative government is running public relations campaigns to discredit prominent environmental and scientific leaders while promoting pipelines and the expansion of the tar sands on the international stage.

These shortsighted tactics make Canada look out of touch. We look like a country trying to cash in on the last dirty energy boom before internationally binding restrictions on carbon emissions are put in place. 

Instead of trying to get as much of our high-carbon bitumen to market as possible—at whatever the cost to civil society—we should be spending our political capital to lead the fight against climate change.

To do that, we need leadership that convenes an honest, democratic discussion based on what our best scientists are telling us. We need to cut the funding of slick PR campaigns and prioritize the science-based decision-making that will carry us into the low-carbon future.

As President Obama said so powerfully in his speech, “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Canadians need to ask Stephen Harper if he’s on the same page, and if not, hold him accountable for the consequences of inaction.

Jim Hoggan is founder and president of DeSmog Canada. He is based in Vancouver.

Image Credit: PMO press gallery

James (Jim) Hoggan is one of Canada’s most respected public-relations professionals and the president and owner of the Vancouver PR…

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