Cancun, Climate change, and Canadian Democracy

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The East Block of the Parliament Buildings has a special charm. High ceilings, stained glass windows and larger offices produce much less of that harried buzz evident in the frenzied offices of MPs located elsewhere on the Hill. The East Block mostly houses the offices of Senators, those elders responsible for “sober second thought” in Canada’s well-designed system of federal government.

On the afternoon of November 16th I found myself waiting comfortably in the beautiful East Block building, where I was to meet Grant Mitchell, a Liberal Senator from Alberta, and sponsor of a climate change bill. But then the bells started ringing…

The bells, of course, call members into the Chamber for a vote. And, while my meeting was cancelled that same afternoon, the Climate Change Accountability Act went down to defeat by a tally of 43 to 32. The Senate had dealt the global environment a massive blow – without even debating the legislation before it.

Implications for Canadian democracy?

In the following days, the media commentary focused on the implications for Canadian democracy when unelected Senators defeated a bill that had not once, but twice (due to a prorogued House) been passed by Parliament. Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, fumed, “The last time a House bill was defeated by the Senate, without being referred to committee, was more than 80 years ago.”

Prime Minister Harper’s October 2008 statement, “We don’t believe an unelected body should in any way be blocking an elected body,” was repeatedly thrown back at him by the NDP, which had sponsored Bill C-311 in the House of Commons. But Mr. Harper did not apologize for consistently opposing such “completely irresponsible” legislation. Conservative Senators blamed the Liberals for mistaking Senate procedure.

Senator Mitchell countered that the legislation had sat in the Senate for over 6 months and that the Conservatives simply had no intention to stop delaying it. According to Senator Mitchell, “All (the legislation) asked for was a plan. You’d think we’d have a plan two weeks before we go to Cancun, wouldn’t we?”

UN climate conference in Cancun – a lost opportunity?

After the dismal results of the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen, there was little expectation of a positive outcome from the conference in Cancun, Mexico, taking place from November 29 - December 10, 2010. Fewer heads of state showed up for the event where success seemed elusive. And the economic recession (while responsible for the good news that world greenhouse gas emissions decreased in 2008) meant less money for climate change, and less public attention given to the issue.

Canada’s inaction on climate change attempts to be justified because of what others are not doing. With the U.S. Congress now sporting a Republican majority, the Democrats’ cap and trade plan won’t be adopted. And since Ottawa has pledged to move in tandem with U.S. policy on global warming, the policy vacuum has migrated north.

In June, Canada announced $400 million for climate adaptation programs, as part of the three year, $30 billion commitment the world made in Copenhagen. But Canada did not ensure that this financing is “new and additional.” (Canada has actually frozen development assistance funding for the next three years.) Nor is the Canadian money in the form of grants – 72% of it will be provided as loans.

Indeed, a December 6th Climate Change Performance Index placed Canada in 54th spot (among 57 countries) for its climate change record. On December 7th, Canada’s federal environmental commissioner decried “the overriding problem of a lack of sustained federal leadership” on environmental issues. Thousands of stimulus projects were excluded from environmental screening in this country. And during the Cancun conference Canada won six “Fossil of the Day” awards from environmentalists!

So how could politicians from all parties speak of the Cancun event as a success?

Cancun as a “building block”

According to the Pembina Institute’s Clare Demerse, who was in Cancun, the meeting “showed that the inclusive UN process for climate change negotiations can work.” In spite of no new steps and little clarity reached, Cancun did deliver agreement on transparent emissions measurements and elements of the Green Climate Fund to assist poor countries to adapt. Most importantly, however, according to Elizabeth May, Cancun set a “foundation” for the important COP 17 meeting, that will be held in Durban, South Africa in November 2011, on the major issue of what will be agreed to after the Kyoto Agreement expires in 2012.

A role for communities of faith

A growing number of faith communities see the links between the need for “climate justice,” authentic worship, and responsible ministry. Catholic aid agency Development and Peace released its first statement on climate change. The World Council of Churches called for a “fair, ambitious and binding agreement” on climate change at Cancun. The Moderator of the United Church of Canada has carried out a “Spirit Express” tour by train, stopping in 20 communities to speak at town hall-style events to discuss faith and environment issues. Many international development agencies of the churches, including the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and World Vision, joined CPJ in organizing public meetings on a faith-filled response to the climate crisis.

Faith groups recognize that under existing UN climate agreements, we have the responsibility to help poorer nations reduce their emissions, and adapt to climate change. But the best way we can approach the Durban meeting is to curb, and then lower, our own emissions.

We just can’t ask the Senate to vote on it.

Joe Gunn serves as Executive Director at CPJ.

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