Along with the fact that smoking causes cancer, few scientific cases have been more thoroughly documented than the case that burning fossil fuels causes climate change.

And, despite a massive misinformation campaign led by oil giant Exxon, most Canadians understand that our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels is threatening the planet.

This creates a dilemma for Stephen Harper and his right-wing colleagues. They’ve long been close to the oil industry and, on its behalf, have opposed the Kyoto accord aimed at tackling climate change. But they want the public to believe they take the issue seriously.

So last week the Harper government sent Environment Minister Rona Ambrose to Bonn to chair an international meeting on climate change — a move that had all the sincerity of Libya sending a delegate to chair the UN Human Rights Commission.

Taking a page from the Bush administration — the ultimate friend of Big Oil — the Harper government has been advocating a “made-in-Canada” approach to climate change, based on “voluntary” reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

But this is no approach at all. Greenhouse gases don’t just concentrate above a single country; they encircle the Earth. Dealing with them involves international regulation. A “voluntary” approach would be as ineffective as a voluntary approach to paying taxes or parking tickets.

Borrowing another flimsy argument from Bush, the Harper team argues that Kyoto is unfair because China and India aren’t part of the deal.

But these and other developing countries will be part of future negotiating rounds. They were deliberately left out of the first round, in recognition of the fact that it’s the industrialized world that has largely caused the existing greenhouse gas problem.

The U.S. alone emits 25 per cent of today’s greenhouse gases, even though it has only five per cent of the world’s population. Canada produces as much greenhouse gas as the whole of Africa.

So shouldn’t Kyoto demand sacrifices from countries like the U.S. and Canada, rather than from countries where per capita energy consumption is a fraction of ours?

Ambrose, who got her environmental training working for the fiercely anti-Kyoto Klein government in Alberta, says it’s impossible for us to meet our Kyoto targets unless we “shut off all the lights.” But shutting off the lights would be silly and ineffective. Much more effective would be requiring automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars and providing serious funding for public transit.

Something also has to be done about the tar sands, Canada’s biggest source of greenhouse gases. A start would be requiring oil companies to use available emission-reducing technologies, at a cost of 12 cents to 34 cents per barrel of oil produced, according to the Pembina Institute.

This is clearly a manageable cost for an industry rolling in profits.

But the oil companies wouldn’t like it. And with the Harper government — as with the Bush and Klein governments — the planet takes a back seat to Big Oil.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...