An inconvenient message for Ottawa

Climate change. It’s the greatest threat the world faces; or it’s something you don’t have to worry about because it’s a) too big to worry about, b) someone else’s problem, c) a hoax, d) all of the above.

A three-volume report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released earlier this year should be enough evidence that global warming is very real and a huge threat to the only world we have. Whether it’s the biggest threat to mankind or just one of the top three threats is immaterial at this point. It’s something that needs to be addressed.

Which means making changes to our way of life, something few of us in the fortunate Western world really want to do, no matter how concerned we are about climate change. It’s perhaps not surprising then that interest in climate change amongst our political leaders is inversely proportional to the powers our leaders have to effect change in our way of life.

The federal government is least interested in taking serious steps to address climate change. On Saturday in Vancouver David Suzuki ridiculed Stephen Harper’s government for setting “aspirational” targets to reduce green house gas emissions.

The provincial government of Gordon Campbell is newly keen on reducing green house gas emissions and carbon footprints (far keener than other provincial governments), but has yet to get into details of how to achieve those reductions. At the same time it has signed the Western Climate Initiative with six states and Manitoba and is working on a cap and trade system, the Campbell government insists on maintaining the option of oil and gas exploration off the coast and encouraging mining in the north.

Municipal governments have been leaders in reducing carbon footprints and green house gas emissions for years. In 1991 the Union of British Columbia Municipalities endorsed its first resolution for taking action on climate change. South of the border, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’s Climate Protection Agreement, an initiative to advance the goals of the Kyoto Protocol, has gained wide support amongst local politicians across the U.S. and led to the U.S. Conference of Mayors launching its own Climate Protection Center. And in Aspen, Mayor Mick Ireland is considering requiring a carbon footprint statement from all new developments in that town, with each development required to become carbon-neutral over a 20-year period.

Some of the wisest and most powerful environmental advocates in the world were in Vancouver last week, preaching to the converted. At the UBCM’s annual meeting Thomas Homer-Dixon told municipal leaders that in addition to protecting the environment and reducing green house gas emissions they should prepare their communities for climate change’s inevitable consequences, including flooding, droughts and more frequent and severe storms.

Saturday evening, in a warm-up speech before former vice-president Al Gore gave his Inconvenient Truth lecture, Suzuki listed some of the evidence scientists have published and calls they’ve made for governments to act on climate change, dating back to the early ’90s. Individually, they weren’t enough to get senior governments or industry leaders to take meaningful action. Despite the mounting scientific evidence, it’s only in the last two years that climate change has reached the tipping point and risen to the top of the list of public concerns.

This ascent itself is worthy of a study. Undoubtedly one of the people responsible for climate change’s current prominence is Al Gore.

Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie and his subsequent lecture tour has convinced millions to pay attention to melting polar ice caps and pine beetle infestation; to plastic grocery bags and turning lights off. But while individually we may have begun to take climate change seriously — a recent Globe Scan poll of 20 nations found Canadians among the most concerned citizens in the world about climate change — the individuals in Ottawa and Washington who can have the biggest impact have shown the least interest.

Of course, if Slate columnist Christopher Hitchins is right and Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize next week, then goes on to become the Democratic nominee for president of the United States and then wins the 2008 election, the inverse proportion of power to climate change commitment may suddenly be reversed. Even the Canadian government would be forced to take notice and take action.

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