Cancun might be a flop, but our environment plans can flourish

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The UN climate change negotiations wind to a close today in Cancun, but the hot air has long since gone out the room. This time around, nobody really expected a meaningful new climate treaty to be signed. And yet the urgent task of dealing with climate change remains.

The Canadian government continued to obstruct the implementation of real solutions to what the secretary-general of the UN says is "simply the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family." As Canadians, we see ourselves as global citizens. But our government's actions on the international stage do not match our values. Our Environment Minister John Baird's appearance in Cancun has been akin to throwing sand in the eyes of the climate activists protesting outside the summit.

Throughout 2010, we have watched people experience the impacts of climate change. The sea is literally swallowing some low-lying island states as water levels rise. Thousands of people in China, Pakistan and elsewhere have been driven from their homes in search of shelter as they are being hit by more severe and more frequent storms.

Even right in B.C., where I write this, the impacts of climate change are staring us in the face, like the dead, red pine trees -- killed by a proliferating mountain pine beetle plague. These impacts have crippled our once powerful forestry sector.

As world leaders fiddled, or even fueled this climate disaster, people worldwide are looking for local ways to make a difference. As it turns out, B.C. and Vancouver have a critical role in this struggle. It is perhaps poetic that the birthplace of Greenpeace, David Suzuki, Adbusters and the Wilderness Committee is now poised at a strategically important location in the fight to phase out the use of fossil fuels to stop run away climate change.

Most of the world leaders gathered in Cancun still seem to be taking their cues from big oil and the big banks who are fighting for their lives and undermining climate action. We don't need Wikileaks to make it clear that the oil sands in Alberta are of course the primary factor motivating the Harper government to block climate action. At a time in human history when the world needs to wean itself from an addiction to oil, our prime minister hopes to triple oil sands extraction and exports in the next 10 years. B.C. is a choke point right in between the oil in Alberta and the new expanding markets in Asia. In that sense we can punch way above our weight in the fight against climate change.

With the world still reeling from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, most people in Vancouver likely don't know that in 2007 safety regulations were quietly slashed without any public consultation in order to let bigger tankers pass through the Vancouver harbour. Now, twice a week massive oil tankers, carrying three times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez squeeze through our narrow, shallow and busy harbour to export crude oil to the world's biggest source of climate changing pollution. If the big oil companies have their way, the Kinder Morgan pipeline will expand and increase exports to 10 tankers a week in Vancouver and even more will be piped across northern BC through the proposed massive Enbridge gateway pipeline.

If we in B.C. are to be Canada's "Gateway to the Asia-Pacific" then we must be responsible gatekeepers. By phasing out oil tankers from the west coast of Canada we can help jumpstart the transition that is needed to post-fossil fuel transportation options, less automobile dependent urban design and energy generation that respects the environment and local communities.

This week's vote in the House of Commons to ban tankers from the north coast of B.C. is a good start. It's ironic that Harper can play such an obstructionist role in the UN process yet he can't stop his own parliament from voting to take action that would do more to limit fossil fuel dependence than anything coming out of Cancun.

Ultimately, this is a question of trajectories. In the next 30 or 40 years almost all the existing infrastructure we have today worldwide will need to be replaced. The only question is: will we replace it with billions of dollars worth of the same mistakes or will we evolve into making more ethical investments in smarter technology? Answering this question the right way should be the focus of our expanding trade with China and the Asia Pacific region.

None of us were really holding our breath for a climate solution to come out of Cancun. So rather than letting another failed negotiation get us down, let us instead recommit to local campaigns like the one to phase out oil tankers from our coast and transform Canada's economy. If we act now, we can help the world kick its oil addiction before it's too late.

Ben West is the Healthy Communities Campaigner for the Wilderness Committee.

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