A tale of two countries


This is a story of two countries. One of them, a country called Canada, signed the Kyoto Accord. The other country, the United States of America, rejected it.

The Kyoto Accord has a simple purpose: to encourage the people of the world to produce less carbon dioxide than they produced in 1990, by six per cent. Carbon dioxide is produced when you burn stuff, especially gasoline, coal, diesel fuel, or wood. You can’t see it, but it’s there. It rises into the upper atmosphere and gets stuck, keeping warm air trapped beneath it, like the glass walls of a greenhouse on a sunny day.

That’s why our springs now arrive earlier and our winters later. That’s why glaciers are melting and why ice doesn’t form until December in many Nunavut communities.

So did our country, whose government signed the Kyoto Accord around 1997, find a way to burn less stuff? No, we did not. Since 1997, Canadians managed to burn far more fuel than we burned in 1990. We now produce 24.2 per cent more carbon dioxide than we did that year, with no reductions in sight.

The prime minister who signed the Kyoto agreement on our behalf, Jean Chrétien, did much bragging about how Canada, the rosy-cheeked Boy Scout among nations, will do its part to combat global warming. So does his successor, Paul Martin, whose fake sincerity is even more convincing than Chrétien’s.

The truth, however, is that we Canadians have done nothing to comply with the obligations we undertook when our government signed the Kyoto Accord. And to this day, our federal government has produced no coherent policy or plan to meet them.

Instead, they put on a show. They hired a CBC comedian by the name of Rick Mercer, paying him $85,000 to appear in a series of television commercials produced by Environment Canada at a cost of $26 million. In them, we see Mercer prancing down a city street, shouting at us about something called the “one-tonne-challenge.”

A focus group survey conducted for the government by a polling firm reveals that few Canadians actually understand what the Mercer ads are trying to say. “None of the participants could articulate what the challenge is about or why it is important. They had no understanding of why they would want to participate or even what a tonne is,” the survey report said, as quoted in a news story published this past July by the CanWest News Service.

An earlier polling survey, done in the fall of 2004 by the Environics firm, showed that only 16 per cent of Canadians care much about climate change anyway, partly because many Canadians actually welcome the idea of warmer winters. “Climate change continues to receive almost no profile as an issue of national importance,” the Environics report says, as quoted by the CanWest News Service last July.

What about the other country, the one that rejected the Kyoto Protocol? In the same period of time, the big bad United States did better than Canada. They’re producing only 13 per cent more carbon dioxide than they did in 1990.

That’s a long, long way from the global target set out in the Kyoto Protocol. But given that the U.S. never promised to meet those targets in the first place, that’s not bad. It partly reflects the success of energy efficiency efforts taken by a variety of state and local governments throughout the U.S., which go forward in spite of the Bush administration’s hostility to the Kyoto Accord. In many cases, those efforts exceed anything that self-righteous Canada has ever done. New York City, for example, now runs one of the biggest hybrid bus fleets in North America, and is introducing hybrid taxis.

It’s actually not true, technically, that the U.S. never signed the Kyoto agreement. When he was president, Bill Clinton signed it, but knew it was a meaningless gesture. That’s because the U.S. Senate, by a margin of 95-0, voted in 1997 never to ratify a climate change agreement that does not include rapidly growing developing nations like China or India. (The U.S. constitution requires that international treaties be ratified by legislators.)

The Bush administration likely deserves much of the scorn that’s been heaped up on it for its opposition to Kyoto, but until the U.S. congress changes its position, George W. Bush’s signature would be as meaningless as Bill Clinton’s.

Nevertheless, it’s the United States that the Inuit Circumpolar Conference seeks to punish in its petition to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The ICC has gained much publicity over the past two years simply by talking about this case. Now that their petition will be adjudicated, it remains to be seen how much of their legal claim will survive the scrutiny of the commission’s judges. They make a complex and unusual legal argument, and there’s no certainty that it will achieve any of the goals set out in it.

It’s ironic, however, that the country that has committed the most egregious breach of promise, hypocritical Canada, should face no consequences for its failure. JB

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