It is not often that an emperor’s clothes are torn from him in full public view, but that is precisely what happened to Stephen Harper at the Commonwealth summit in Kampala.
On the crucial issue of climate change, Harper had one ally when he arrived in Uganda, the right-wing government of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Alone among the fifty-three countries at the conclave, Canada and Australia opposed the inclusion of binding greenhouse gas reduction targets in a Commonwealth statement.
The problem for Harper is that midway through the meeting, the Australian people threw John Howard’s government out of office and resoundingly chose the Labour Party, which plans to sign on to the Kyoto Accord, to govern the country.
That left Harper all by himself in Kampala. After long negotiations between the Harper contingent and the rest of the Commonwealth, a “compromise” statement on climate change was agreed to, a statement which drops mandatory targets in favour of “aspirational” goals.
Aspirational targets are the Alberta’s oil patch’s synonym for hot air. Having had his robes stripped off in Kampala, Harper still is outfitted with his fig leaf. We can expect that leaf to be front and centre on his persona when he returns to parliament. Harper will insist that while the Commonwealth’s eventual statement dispensed with hard emission targets for developed countries, it declared that developing as well as developed nations should “aspire” to greenhouse gas emission reductions. Or, as a Calgary oilman might say, hot air for everyone, hard targets for no one.
Earlier this month, Environment Minister John Baird claimed on CBC television that Canada was on the same page as Europe on climate change, but that Canada has set out to construct a bridge to nations such as the U.S. on the issue at the global climate change conference in Indonesia next month. He insisted that Canada has a special talent for bringing people together.
His bridge building metaphor implies an effort to find common ground on which two groups of countries with different approaches can stand. But at Kampala, it was all the other countries that had to build a bridge to Canada. The result was a statement on climate change that had been modified due to Canada’s efforts.
The Harperites will no doubt point to the Commonwealth statement as evidence of Canada’s growing influence in the world. But now that Australia has gone over to the European side on climate change, to whose shores can Harper and Baird construct their bridge?
The obvious answer is the United States. The trouble, though, is that even the Americans are not standing still on the issue of climate change. Most Americans now revile George W. Bush, who is Harper’s only remaining foreign ally on the issue. Next fall the United States will elect a new president who will be almost certain to take a tougher line on global warming than the Harper Conservatives.
The Harper Bridge is a bridge to nowhere. The sad fact is that as long as Canadians have this government at the helm, we will be bringing up the rear on the greatest global question of our time. Or to keep up the metaphor, we will be sitting on a shoal, connected to the rest of the world by the Harper government’s pontoon.
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