Climate action COP-out in Paris?

Like a large and geographically shaggy Rip von Winkle, Canada is waking up.

We just got through an entire federal election within which nothing but the most cursory, superficial references were made to the biggest threat to our future. We debated the niqab more than climate change.

So, turn the page. Sunny ways. We are shaking off not merely a bad political experience. We have been suffering from collective repressed memory syndrome. The stupor has been profound. My friend, Bill Henderson of Chilliwack fame, wrote me the other day, “As Neil Sedaka almost said in 1962: “Waking up is hard to do.”

While the rest of the world has been negotiating a very weak and watered down climate treaty, our society has been unaware. By gagging the scientists, cutting funding to their research, and excluding opposition parties from annual UN climate negotiation delegations, the Harper government succeeded in dramatically reducing media coverage, political discourse and public information of climate impacts, science and solutions.

Now we are hours from the Paris climate conference set as the deadline for a comprehensive new treaty on climate action. Even before the brutal terror attacks of November 13, going to Paris for the climate negotiations was not going to be fun. The negotiations have not been going well. I know because for years I have been the only MP (other than the Conservative environment minister of the day) to attend.

The climate negotiations take place within the organizational structure of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was signed by world leaders back in 1992 in Rio at the Earth Summit. It is legally binding and every country on earth has ratified its terms. It called on all nations to avoid dangerous levels of climate change while working to adapt to those levels we could no longer avoid. While making the big promise, no specific targets or timelines, such as in the Montreal Protocol on ozone were included.

Every year since the UNFCCC entered into force there has been the equivalent of an annual climate parliament. They are called COPs, for Conference of the Parties. The goal has been to move from the big promise to specific actions.

COP3 was in Kyoto and delivered a promising first step. No one ever thought Kyoto was more than a down payment on future action, but with the US and then Canada sabotaging the agreement by pulling out, hopes were pinned on a new, more comprehensive approach.

We are still suffering from the damage done at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen in 2009. That was the last deadline. And it failed in spectacular fashion to deliver a climate pact. The Copenhagen Accord, which was described as “politically binding,” negotiated by US President Barack Obama with a handful of government leaders invited to a hotel room outside the conference itself, and did serious damage to the multilateral system. It remains an outrage that the process was hijacked for domestic US political interests. The impact was nearly fatal. And we are still very far from a legally binding treaty for COP21 due to the US position.

Ever since then, the nations of the world have been working to put in place some form of treaty to move the world off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Sadly, the best and strongest opportunities to do that are no longer even considered. Lost to us is the possibility of the kind of treaty we negotiated in Montreal to protect the ozone layer.

Back in 1987, we negotiated a treaty that was legally binding with trade sanctions to punish nations that violated the treaty by using ozone-depleting substances. The Montreal Protocol worked. But by 1997 at COP3 in Kyoto the industrialized world was no longer prepared to consider enforcement mechanisms. Even without enforcement mechanisms, most Kyoto parties that took on commitments actually met their targets. Canada never faced any penalties for withdrawing and failing to meet ours. But we damaged international progress, not to mention our reputation.

In Mexico at COP16 the wreckage of Copenhagen was reassembled into something that held the promise of a treaty. And 2015 was the new deadline. Ever since then, step by step, COP by COP, we have negotiated aspects of the next treaty. One cannot say we are sprinting to the finish line. The laborious negotiations can best be described as limping.

There are a myriad of unresolved issues – how deeply will countries commit to reduce emissions (in treaty terms “mitigation”)? How will we prepare for levels of climate change that we can no longer avoid (“adaptation”)? To what extent will industrialized countries compensate developing countries hit hard by extreme weather events likely due to climate impacts (“loss and damage”)? How is all this to be financed (the Green Climate Fund)? What of the role of forests?

Into this rather bleak picture, Canada can now play the role of last minute hero. A new government, untied to the weak targets tabled by the previous government, could inject new energy into the whole process. PM Justin Trudeau could improve prospects for a strong treaty. We can push for the very strongest terms with required 5-year reviews. We could re-ratify Kyoto. Canadians need to tell our new government that we have woken up. And we demand real action.

Originally published in NOW Magazine.