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Obama's climate action — and Harper's moral failure


For Canadians who care deeply about acting to stave off dangerous climate change, President Obama’s landmark speech today outlining his administration’s climate action plan likely induced mixed feelings: delight to see the President speak so clearly and resolutely about the moral obligation to take action and to back those sentiments up with some concrete action. And distress at the clear contrast in both tone and substance we get from our Federal government here in Canada. 

Stephen Harper’s record on climate inaction is deplorable: repudiating the Kyoto accord, blocking progress at global climate talks, muzzling climate scientists, scuttling funding for climate research and science. And we are still awaiting industry regulations to address greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas companies, a policy critical to meeting our modest goal of reducing emissions by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020.

But what was so evident for anyone listening to Obama’s speech is that the Harper government does not share the view that there is an ethical imperative to act.

Obama spoke fiercely against climate deniers, about a profound moral duty to posterity, and he reiterated the sound scientific consensus that warrants taking action. These remarks might qualify him as a “radical” to Canada’s Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver, who recently said that scientists believe the threat of climate change is exaggerated and that, in any event, Canadians aren’t worried about it.

It’s hard to imagine Mr. Harper, Mr. Oliver, or Environment Minister Peter Kent drawing clear lines between climate change and the extreme weather events  from floods, to droughts, to forest fires  wreaking havoc around the planet. Obama did exactly that, adding that “those already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it.” 

As Albertans pick up the pieces from unprecedented and devastating flooding, it is high time our leaders start talking about the serious costs already being felt, and the obligation to act to both mitigate and adapt immediately.

The Harper government, trapped as it is in a fossil-fueled growth mentality, does not seem to share Obama’s vision of building a robust clean energy industry to fuel domestic growth and a global low carbon economy.

That lack of vision could be doubly costly. 

During his speech, Obama fired a warning shot that ought to make the government think twice about doubling down on fossil fuels. Speaking to his pending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline from the “Canadian tar sands” Obama said the "net effect on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will be allowed to go forward." Obama was clear that the project will meet approval only if it does not "significantly exacerbate the problem of climate change.”  

To date, Mr. Harper’s climate policy has been little more than to follow whatever happens south of the border. Perhaps the government will move to match Obama’s modest plan, which includes new carbon pollution standards for power plants, the doubling of U.S. renewable energy-fueled electricity by 2020, forest conservation efforts, and efforts to “lead” global efforts to build a global low carbon economy. Either way, we must ask ourselves: why must our government be dragged into making policy to address the climate challenge? 

Canada should be leading the fight of our own volition. There are sound reasons, both practical and intensely moral, for doing so.

Photo: Justin Sloan. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.