February Empowers, Brings May Flowers: A Greenhouse Valentine

And to show what a WILDLY romantic pair my bride and I are, we spent Valentine’s evening at a meeting of the World Federalists. Now there’s a dedicated, thoughtful bunch. (“In schoolyards, cities and democratically governed nations, agreed rules help ensure a peaceful social order. Why not for our global community?” The WF movement has been quietly working at this for decades, and their program and aspirations are worthy of more attention than they get. As their evening’s speaker, they’d brought in Elizabeth May, Order of Canada member and head of the Sierra Club nationally, and my lady has long been an admirer. I’ve joined her now. May is passionate, funny and vividly intelligent. I’ll join the Club, too. My favourite quote from last night: “Climate change can be narrowly categorized as ‘an environmental issue’ in the same way that drowning is ‘a water issue’.”

Ms. May took us through the history of climate change in a lively and superbly informed way. It is interesting, in the light of the present mania for security, that the first international conference on climate change (in June 1988) issued a report called “Our Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security”. It’s also interesting that this conference was hosted in Canada and co-sponsored by the Conservative government of Mr. Mulroney. The subsequent 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was the one where President Bush the First threatened to boycott the session if there were to be ANY figures, targets or timelines for action discussed there. After all, he insisted, “the American lifestyle is not on trial”. Ahem. And so Rio spoke only in vague terms about “dangerous levels of anthropogenic [human-produced] carbon” in the atmosphere. (Meanwhile, the scientists in Toronto four years earlier had said this: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences are second only to global nuclear war.” Gulp.)

Only the third subsequent “Conference of the Parties” to the climate change convention adopted in Rio – now I finally know what the “COP 11” acronym for the recent Montreal conference actually meant – was finally able to arrive at some targets for reduction of carbon pollution. (These are the infamous “greenhouse gases”, like carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4)). These targets were, in the light of the scientific consensus, shockingly modest.  They were clearly acknowledged — at least among non-governmental organizations — to be feeble ones that, at best, could buy us a little time (the UN scientific agency had recommended, in 1990, reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the order of 60%; by 1997, COP 3 adopted only single-digit targets). You might even remember the name of the city where COP 3 was held. Yes. Kyoto, Japan.

And we’re still struggling to get nations, most notably our own, to commit to the low Kyoto Protocol targets. (By the way, tomorrow is Happy Birthday, Kyoto: on February 16, 2005, with Russia’s ratification of the treaty, two things occurred. One, the United States and Australia were left as the only two nations that signed the Kyoto protocols but refused to ratify them. Second, Kyoto became legally binding. The protocols, that is, not the city.)

So COP 11, last fall, was held in Montreal, with 8000 people in attendance, including Bill Clinton (though not officially – the Americans apparently would have walked had he spoken to the Conference itself). It was very significant. First – and the American government was not happy about this, according to May – the Conference was being held in North America for the first time, and thus was much more difficult for the western media to ignore. The unwillingness of the American delegation was a matter of public interest and debate. As key environmental “tipping points” approach – the Gulf Stream is slowing down, the stupendous Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are eroding, and each of these evolving situations is potentially cataclysmic – the Montreal conference was a major sign of hope. The allied non-governmental organizations (yes, acronym-lovers, the NGOs), such as the Sierra Club, had set out an ambitious set of goals, of which even the most optimistic felt that few could actually be adopted. Through a fascinating process of infighting, influence and genuine international intrigue – all-night sessions, mysterious Russian dealings, perhaps even the American delegation blinking in the face of a geopolitical stare-down – every single NGO goal was eventually adopted. This is good news for polar bears, Bangladeshis, Rideau Canal skaters and coastal cities. This is good news for the world, though it’s not much more than a start.

As the Montreal Conference of the Parties was about to begin, the Liberal government had just fallen. Its finest moment may have come on its deathbed. Ms. May praised former Prime Minister Martin’s administration for bringing COP 11 to Montreal, and especially lauded the immense preparation and committed Chairmanship of former Environment Minister Stéphane Dion. I found it quite wonderful, in the face of all the easy cynicism about government, to hear of useful contributions and real engagement by our political leaders.

It’s not all sunshine, of course. Elizabeth May has no shortage of dire warnings about the consequences of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels and the attendant effect on our global climate. People like her, though, are seen less and less as mad voices wailing in the wilderness. Valentine’s Day or not, the world still needs a wake-up call, and it was good to hear that there are real signs of attention and action. And as serious-minded as they are, the World Federalists did not forget to bring  May flowers. That was sweet. (See how romantic I am?)