Letter to the Speaker Requesting an Emergency Debate on Canada’s Position During COP 17

The Honourable Andrew Scheer
House of Commons
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0A6

November 28, 2011

Dear Mr. Speaker,

Pursuant to Standing Rule 52 (2), please accept this as written notice of my intention to move adjournment of the House for purposes of Emergency Debate.  I will rise to make this motion immediately following the conclusion of daily business today as set out in Standing Rule 30(3-4).

I request an Emergency Debate on a specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration.  The matter for debate is Canada’s negotiating position in the 17th Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), taking place in conjunction with the 6th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol in Durban, South Africa (COP17).

I expect that this letter will be too long for you to allow me to present this in the House, as statements of reasons to adjourn for an emergency debate are traditionally brief.  However, I wish to provide you with the background, both on the urgent matter of the COP17 conference and related to precedents from previous Speaker’s rulings under this rule.

As Speaker Jerome commented when called upon to allow an Emergency Debate the decision to allow emergency debate is not easy due to the convention that no argument takes place.

“…I have had occasion to set aside applications under this rule on the ground that the matter was a continuing problem and not one of an urgent nature. Certainly by taking a very restrictive stance in respect of the word emergency in that sub-paragraph I could very easily frustrate the operation of the rule altogether…

“Of course the provisions of the rule are such that I cannot hear any argument…It seems to me that the Chair is in a rather invidious position.  To take too restrictive a stance, again as I say, would mean it would be almost impossible to get the benefit of the rules and to bring to the House a discussion of a matter which is important and requires urgent consideration, although it is not necessarily an emergency or a crisis as the words have been used.”  (Debates, Feb. 22, 1978, p.3128)

In the end of his deliberations, Speaker Jerome granted the “benefit of the doubt” to the request and allowed the motion to adjourn and the Emergency Debate.

The issue at hand is urgent at several levels.

Firstly, the threat of anthropogenic climate change constitutes a clear and present danger.  It is already causing billions of dollars of damage to Canada, causing death and destruction around the world, and, as will be set out in more detail in this letter, can only be effectively controlled if action is taken at the COP17 conference.

Secondly, concerning the specific matter of Canada’s negotiating position to COP17, the matter could not be more urgent.  COP17 opened earlier today and will close December 9th.  There has been no opportunity for members to discuss the matter of Canada’s negotiating position.  The Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development has been undertaking the mandatory statutory review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.  COP17 has not been discussed.  There has been no opportunity to debate COP17 in the House.

Ordinarily, under the practice of decades, Members of Parliament from Opposition Parties would be attending COP17 as part of the delegation of the Government of Canada.  However, as the Minister of Environment has informed the House (November 14, 2011 in Question Period), Opposition Members of Parliament will not be included in the Canadian delegation to COP17.  Each of the Opposition Parties in this House has written to the Prime Minister to request that one Member from each Party be included on the delegation, without any cost to the Government of Canada.  The letter from the Environment critics from the Official Opposition, the Liberal Party and from me is attached to this letter.  The Environment Critic for the Bloc Quebecois sent a similar letter.  We have had no response.  The fact that COP17 opened today forces us to accept that none of us will be part of the Canadian delegation, nor have any opportunity to discuss and debate the issues of Canada’s position on the delegation to Durban.

On Thursday, November 24, 2011, I asked the Hon. Government House Leader in Question Period, if, given the situation I have set out here, he planned to have a debate in the House on the issue of climate change prior to the departure of the Hon. Environment Minister for Durban.  The Hon. Government House Leader replied that he had no such plans.

Therefore, having explored other avenues without success, it is an unassailable conclusion that absent an Emergency Debate in this place, Members of Parliament will have had no opportunity to discuss the role that Canada will play in critical negotiations.

To properly weigh the urgent nature of the matter I place before you, Mr. Speaker, it is necessary to review the advice of Canada’s leading scientists, as well as those of every science academy around the world and the United Nations body created to review the science and advise policy makers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Canada hosted the first international science conference on climate in June 1988 (“Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security”).  The consensus statement of the scientists gathered there began, “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences could be second only to global nuclear war.”

Since that time, thirty three years ago, the degree of consensus has only strengthened and the warnings become more urgent.  The fundamentals of the science were never in doubt.  Some gases in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour) operate to trap some of the sun’s heat near the planet’s surface.  The so-called “greenhouse effect” has been entirely beneficial over the last number of millions of years.  It has allowed life to flourish and humanity to succeed as no other species ever has.  If there were no greenhouse effect, this planet would be too cold to sustain life.  The threat lies in the activities of humanity since the Industrial Revolution, and in particular since the end of the Second World War when use of fossil fuels and destruction of forest cover increased exponentially. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide, which, while not the only warming gas is the most significant.  By direct measurement of air bubbles in Antarctic ice cores, we now know that carbon dioxide equivalent concentrations in our atmosphere are more than 30% higher than at any time in the previous two million years  — from a previous high point of 285 parts per million to over 390 ppm today.  Loss of forests has contributed approximately 25% to the dangerous changes in atmospheric chemistry, as forests absorb carbon dioxide reducing its impact as a warming gas.

The scientific debate that took place back in June 1988, which I attended and helped organize as the Senior Policy Advisor to the then-Minister of Environment, the Honourable Tom McMillan, revolved not around these fundamentals, but only to the question of whether the expected destabilization of global climate was already being felt.  The late Dr. Ken Hare, one of Canada’s most eminent scientists, was the first to declare that the extreme heat waves and other severe weather events were due to climate change.  Others suggested it was too soon to tell.  Weather fluctuates.  Extreme events occur.  Climate scientists often refer to the ups and downs of what we thought of as normal weather as “noise.”  For years, much of the debate was whether or not the indisputable signal of human-caused climate impact was “rising above the noise.”

Actuarial tables assess risk in “one in one hundred year” events.  Over the last few decades, as more and more “one in one hundred year” events occur in the same decade, the global consensus has confirmed that there is extreme confidence in the probability that loss of Arctic sea ice, rapidly retreating glaciers, extreme droughts, severe flooding, melting permafrost, and warming and rising oceans, among other phenomena, are due to human interference in the climate system.   The signal is now very clear above the noise.

No longer do scientific gatherings discuss the future possibility of loss of sea ice or retreating glaciers.  We are experiencing the impacts of climate change now.

What is not adequately understood in our daily press is that the fact of living in climatically destabilized conditions does not mean that human societies can now adapt to such conditions and ignore the fact of rising greenhouse gas concentrations.  Make no mistake: adaptation is essential.  We can no longer avoid devastating climatic events from storm surges, rising sea levels, to deluge rain fall.  All of our infrastructure, the whole of the built human environment, was built for a different climate. Our resource industries – agriculture, forestry and fisheries – thrived in a different climate. That climate no longer exists and, within a span of centuries, we will never get the old climate to return.  Adaptation will be costly, but it must be done, in Canada and in the developing world.

The urgent threat, the clear and present danger to which I referred, lies in something called “runaway global warming.”  Put simply, in the very near future, on current trend lines, humanity is likely to unleash a self-perpetuating cycle of accelerating atmospheric warming.  Scientists already project that dangerous climate change, i.e. that above 2 degrees Celsius of warming, will lead to significant loss of biodiversity, in the range of 50% loss. It is difficult to project where “runaway global warming” will lead, yet it is easy to recognize that the carrying capacity for human and all life will be severely restricted. This is something that must be avoided at all costs.

What would unleash runaway warming?  Human-induced climate change is creating conditions which themselves increase warming. This is due to something called “positive feed-back loops.”  For example, global warming is causing the melting of permafrost, across the Arctic.  What was frozen ground was originally muskeg, swampy ground, with lots of methane.  In permafrost, the methane is locked up and out of the atmosphere.  As the formerly frozen ground melts and collapses, methane is liberated to add to atmospheric warming.  So too do drier conditions increase forest fires.  As forests burn, more carbon dioxide is released; carbon that had been locked up in the fibre as a result of photosynthesis.  Another example is due to warming oceans causing melting of Arctic ice.  The ice itself is part of a global cooling function.  Through something called the albedo effect, the white ice reflects sunlight back to space.  As ice melts, the dark ocean water is revealed.  The dark water readily absorbs the sunlight and heat, faster melting the ice to reveal more dark water to absorb more heat to more rapidly melt Arctic ice. And so the warming accelerates.

To avoid runaway global warming, all the 192 parties of the UNFCC and all 191 parties to the Kyoto Protocol, have agreed that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced dramatically to avoid global average temperature exceeding a 2 degree Celsius rise above the average global temperature at the time of the Industrial Revolution.  We are already approaching one degree C above those levels. For those who think the global average temperature of 1-2 degree rise sounds trivial, it is worth noting that to melt the last ice age took a warming of only 4-5 degrees C. Two degrees C is huge.  Many scientists believe that 2 degrees C is far too high.  Probabilities of avoiding runaway global warming at 2 degrees C may be on the order of 50-50.

That is why in Cancun at COP16 it was accepted that nations should consider efforts to more deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees.  Low-lying island states have adopted the rallying call “1.5 to stay alive.”

The best scientific advice suggests that in order to avoid exceeding 2 degrees C it is imperative that the rise in global emissions be arrested by 2015.  In fairness, it must be noted that some respected scientists believe that exceeding 2 degrees C is now inevitable.  However, I believe responsible governments and Parliaments must accept the consensus and never abandon hope that reductions today will spare our children and grandchildren.  As a mother and a grandmother and as a Member of Parliament and Leader of the Green Party of Canada I refuse to abandon hope while such hope remains.

This brings us back to point one in the stated reasons for an Emergency Debate: that this is a singular issue of urgent importance in the national interest.  This issue transcends any one Minister or Department.  It concerns itself with every aspect of our economy, energy security, as well as promising, in response to the requirement to reduce emissions, unleashing a new economic revolution of new, sustainable energy sources and more resilient and healthy communities.

Recently in response to the International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook for 2011, Christiana Figueres, the UN climate chief, said “what we are looking at is not an international environment agreement — what we are looking at is nothing other than the biggest industrial and energy revolution that has ever been seen.”

If one accepts, as the Government of Canada has done in approving texts from COP16, as well as the non-binding political document negotiated outside the U.N. system, called the “Copenhagen Accord,” that emissions must be kept at or below the level of 2 degrees C, and that caution requires that consideration be given to further reductions to avoid exceeding 1.5 degrees C, then we must ensure global agreement, with time to implement it, such that global emissions cease rising and begin to fall no later than 2015.

By now, in this explanation, I am sure you will appreciate the urgency with which nations from around the world gather in Durban.  To achieve a global agreement that will actually halt the growth in GHG emissions by 2015, negotiations in 2011 must make substantial progress.  The key issue in Durban will be the agreement to negotiate a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol.

Any reference to Kyoto in this House is so distorted by misunderstanding and partisan rancour – on all sides of the House – that the most significant realities of that agreement are lost.

We have allowed ourselves as Members of Parliament to harden into “pro” and “anti” Kyoto positions.  We are stuck in a debate that is over.  The first phase of Kyoto ends December 31, 2012.  It is to the second phase of Kyoto that we need to turn our attention.

The Government of Canada has a stated position that all countries must be in any new agreement.  All nations on earth, 191 countries, have ratified the Kyoto Protocol with the exception of the United States.  In partisan debate, “Kyoto” is referenced only in terms of the targets Canada accepted in 1997, but the Kyoto Protocol is far more than that.  After fourteen years of further negotiation, the Kyoto Protocol represents an architecture, a governance structure, for the next phases.  It includes reporting mechanisms to which Canada still adheres. It includes complex rules, now agreed upon by 191 countries. Thus, it represents the best opportunity to reduce global emissions.   There is no time for developing a new instrument with the detail and rigour of the Kyoto framework.

It is impossible in the brief back and forth of Question Period to fully explore the benefits to Canada of committing in Durban to be part of the negotiation of the second commitment period under Kyoto.  The European Union and other countries have put forward the notion of negotiating the second phase while ignoring those countries choosing not to participate.  We could find ourselves in later years running to catch up, rejoining an agreement that disadvantages our economy because we were not in the room when the agreement was negotiated.

The more severe risk is that the developing world will refuse to consider any agreement that is not built on the Kyoto framework.  This threat has been clear in many of the recent, failed and disappointing rounds of talks.  If we want an agreement that includes China, India and Brazil, then, to be blunt, it’s Kyoto or nothing.

Canada is at this moment in a powerful position.  We have a choice.  On currently announced positions, we will go to Durban and, likely, be blamed for the catastrophic breakdown of negotiations on which our children’s future depends.  Or, we can accept that all the key aspects of the Government of Canada’s announced goals and intentions are best served by negotiating a next phase of the Kyoto Protocol.  Canada can negotiate the same target now established by the current government.  The nations seeking a responsible global agreement to reduce emissions will be very grateful to Canada.  Again, to be blunt, Canada represents 2% of global emissions, but stands in opposition to the agreement that will address the other 98%. It is likely that without Canada’s more extreme anti-Kyoto position at COP17, the only other Kyoto ratifying parties now stating they will not enter the next round of negotiations, Russia and Japan, will rejoin the process. Canada could leave Durban with the praise of governments around the world.  The power to create a favourable negotiating climate for talks that may be the last chance to avoid runaway global warming is not one to be exercised without democratic debate.

In other words, Mr. Speaker, it is urgent that Members of Parliament have an opportunity to share perspectives before a conference on which so much depends.  We will not have another opportunity.

Yours respectfully,


Elizabeth E. May, O.C., M.P.
Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands
Leader of the Green Party of Canada