A few weeks ago, before the direst report yet on climate change, a climate scientist told me he thought the process had gone too far, there was nothing to be done about global warming. So what happens? I asked. He said emphasis would shift to adaptation. We are now seeing it. On Tuesday, Margaret Wente wrote in The Globe and Mail, “like it or not, we will have to adapt.”

This is far too impressive a word for doing nothing, which it amounts to. As the sea level rises and coastal cities start to go under, you move inland, i.e., adapt. What’s the alternative: sitting there as the tide comes in and covers you? Is this a policy? Then so is moving your hand off a hot stove. It’s nothing, it’s a reaction, it’s refusing to act and calling it a policy!

I can’t begin to count the ways I loathe this term in this context. It lets people who allowed things to get this far off the hook. Just a year ago, when the Conservatives came to power, they cancelled climate-change programs, sacked staff and rejected Kyoto goals. Now they turn around and say the science is “undeniable,” but the damage is largely done. In the charming way of people with power, in politics or media, they never admit they were wrong, even when they “accept responsibility.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s contribution to this verbal miasma is the term “realistic.” In a speech to the Canadian Club in Ottawa this week, he said his government “is ready to take realistic action.” Now there’s a sense of urgency for you, in the face of species-threatening crisis. You’ll do what is realistic, not what is necessary.

Think about the massive mobilizations during the Second World War. Why didn’t our leaders settle for a little realism back then? Realistic isn’t exactly Churchillian. We shall fight them on the beaches — which would be apt for global warming. But whoops, maybe it isn’t realistic. How about fighting them on the parking lots, or by insulating some attics . . .

By their passions you shall know them. Mr. Harper wasn’t too inflamed on the topic at the Canadian Club. “Our government understands that global warming is a serious threat to the health and well-being of Canadians.” That’s awfully measured, to use a Harper term.

But when he spoke of overhauling the justice system he, er, warmed. “We introduced legislation to reverse the criminals’ rights juggernaut . . .” Do you think it occurred to him to use the scary term, juggernaut, for global warming and its impact?

Making “real progress” on the environment, he said, “will require sound science, rational debate and political will.” Hmmm, why sound science? Wouldn’t you normally just say, science? Sound as opposed to what — aha, junk science. The kind that Harper allies at the Fraser Institute — egged on, we now know, by lots of money from oil and energy companies — have always railed against for being alarmist about global warming.

There’s a grace note of passion in this part of his speech, as if he’s still hooked on his old disdain for this kind of science, which wasn’t just junk, it was “socialist” junk, and he can barely spit out his new, positive, will-do version.

It’s hard to imagine Mr. Harper generating even this much controlled enthusiasm on this subject had the Liberals not chosen Canada’s own Mr. Kyoto as their leader. You can see that in the ads attacking Stéphane Dion. Speaking as a voter, I don’t really care if Liberals didn’t “get it done” in their first 13 years in office, provided they really would have in year 14.

You can say the same about a child-care program, which they first promised in 1993 and would have finally, genuinely delivered in 2006, had they not lost office. Of course, you can say the same about Conservatives, if they deliver. But just this week, we learned they cancelled another program that funded “green” buildings. And their plan to “regulate” emissions sounds like it will regulate them without lowering them, and by quite possibly increasing them.

Mr. Harper’s decisiveness has garnered lots of approval in the news media. But I still think it matters what you’re decisive about. “I promise to get up every morning and eat my breakfast . . . There, I did it. Vote for me!”


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.