Every year, the world’s nations—well, the 196 countries that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—congregate to hammer out global agreements designed to stabilize and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If you’ve heard of the Kyoto Protocol (you know, the one Canada famously and embarrassingly withdrew from a few years ago), then you’re familiar with the UNFCCC and its work.
As global agreements like Kyoto are negotiated, it’s only natural that there are varying degrees of foot-dragging by countries that perceive themselves to be at risk from a shift to a low-carbon economy. I’m looking at my own country (Canada) here, what with our tar sands and all, but we’re not the only ones; the cast of characters is long and includes heavy hitters like the US, Australia, Russia, India, China, and many more, depending on the particular issue being debated. With the intense flurry of activity that comes with each Conference of the Parties (COP), aka that big annual climate meeting, it’s easy for this evasiveness and obstruction to go unnoticed. Thankfully, the Climate Action Network hands out daily Fossil of the Day awards during each COP to make sure those parties who are trying to impede progress get called out. I’m so appreciative of their efforts that I decided to make a mosaic about it, with the central elements being, you guessed it, fossils. Big clunky fossils that have a certain inertia to them, yet hint at the possibility of movement (there’s got to be some tiny bit of hope, right?).
In recent years Canada has won an embarrassing number of these awards. I couldn’t find an exact number anywhere, but doing a quick tally by skimming CAN International’s blog about the awards, I counted at least 36 Fossil of the Day awards (either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place, or sometimes all three in the same day), plus 5 Colossal Fossil awards (even worse than a Fossil of the Day award), and even a lifetime achievement award, all since 2009. I cringed with shame as I went through all those blog posts that recounted the various ways Canada, under the leadership of Stephen Harper (who came to power in 2006, so all of these awards were on his watch), had been a giant pain in the negotiations’ butt. Where we used to be held up and admired as good environmental stewards, we have now lost all credibility and are an international environmental pariah and laggard. But there is a glimmer of hope.
As some of you might know, Canada recently elected a new government. It’s no coincidence that I left this piece until close to the election. I even put the finishing touches on it on election night, just as Justin Trudeau made his victory speech, as I felt there was something poetic and fitting about that. I instinctively knew that how I was going to title the piece and blog about it was directly tied to the election outcome. Had Stephen Harper—who was not particularly fond of environmentalists and public servants (both of which I am) and scientists—formed another government, this post would likely be very very short. The title of the piece has always been “Fossil of the Day” in my mind, but the bracket was up for debate, depending on the election results. Or so I thought. If it had been another Conservative government, I had hoped that I would have the courage to make “From leader to laggard” the bracketed subtitle. But I was convinced that I would change it to something more hopeful (or at least neutral) if the outcome was more favourable. That is, until the day after the election. With the mosaic finished and this blog post half written, I turned my mind to the title. After much debate and careful consideration, I finally decided that the piece had to be called “Fossil of the Day (From leader to laggard)” no matter what. Because Canada has fallen so far. Because there is so much damage to repair. And because, while promises of hope and change are nice, I need to see this borne out in concrete action. So “From leader to laggard” remains, as a reminder of what has happened to my country and its standing on the world stage, and as a challenge to the new Liberal government to step up and make good on its promises.
The Paris climate conference (COP21, happening November 30 to December 11) will be one of the first indications Canadians get of the true intentions of this government with respect to climate change. I will admit that I am somewhat skeptical of the utility of global climate change agreements on the whole—they are painstakingly negotiated to the point where they represent the lowest common denominator and can really only go as far as the least ambitious party in the room. They’re also slow moving and not legally binding. But they can send a message and set the tone for action at all levels. So while I will always advocate for local solutions implemented sooner rather than later (as opposed to unwieldy international agreements), I will also be keeping my fingers crossed for a meaningful agreement coming out of COP21, where it’s expected that parties will pen the follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2020. And I will also be desperately hoping that Canada will clean up its act and not come home with so much “recognition” this year.