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COP19 Climate Conference Gave Me No Reasons for Optimism During a Cold Gray November


“Since golden October declined into sombre November
And the apples were gathered and stored, and the land became brown sharp points of death in a waste of water and mud”.

T.S. Eliot viewed November much like I do.  And this year, especially, when hereabouts it got cold early, with lots of rain and nary a speck of blue sky.  Not to mention the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination – not one to celebrate, but I do remember being in that genetics lab, looking at some misshapen fruit fly – curly wing, eyeless, perhaps – and learning that the world had changed.  Its been a bad November this year.

ice on rock cropped

November can have a somber beauty; or it can rust the soul, leaving you desperate
for the lengthening days of Spring

Those of us who follow Canadian politics have witnessed certain right-of-center leaders jumping over each other to prove they are more entitled, less than scrupulous, and definitely capable of Clintonian parsing when pretending to answer questions.  Some of them seem to have lost any veneer of civility they ever possessed, but maybe smoking crack does that to you.  Some of them can stand up daily in the House of Commons, and speak untruthfully while looking as wide-eyed innocent as …  as what .. as that bright-eyed kid you grew to hate in grade school.  Some who are left-of-center have done a good job of exposing the hypocrisy, but I fear for the time when they may begin to believe there are no bad apples on their side of the House.  And all this theatre, which does entertain until it embarrasses, is over the trivial bits – the drunken stupors, the occasional driving while drinking, the expense claims that should never have been made.  Meanwhile the serious business of governing goes on, and the mis-speaking, the bold untruths, the messy nastiness are all just a bit better hidden.

Ford Harper Duffy

Rob Ford, Stephen Harper and Mike Duffy – they inspire us all to try to become better people.

And so we come to COP19, the Warsaw climate conference which set a record for accomplishing less in two weeks than any previous international conference on climate change.  Its accomplishments were so sparse that the mainstream media simply stopped saying much about it after the first couple of days, and one has to rely on the blogosphere to learn much of what went on.  Why did such a blatant demonstration of lack of intent have to happen in November?  At least in March we would have been able to sense that the cheerful days of Spring would be upon us soon.  In Warsaw, Canada teamed up with its new best friend, Australia, to subvert negotiations, having delivered, just days before COP19 commenced, a public message of congratulations to the Aussies.  Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary, on behalf of Harper and, by extension, Canada, congratulated the new Aussie Premier’s decision to scrap their carbon tax and join Canada in flagrant climate denial.  Aussies, please believe me, not everyone on this side of the Pacific thinks Tony Abbot is a good deal for your country.

australian-pm-tony-abbott-with-canadian-pm-stephen-harper sean kilpatrick

Tony Abbott, new Aussie PM being congratulated by Stephen Harper, Canadian PM
on his denialist approach to climate change.  Photo © Sean Kilpatrick

Once at COP19,   Canada and Australia competed for the coveted Fossil awards, and the Aussies won handily.  I suspect the judges were so impressed by the abrupt about-face by Australia that they forgot Canada’s stalwart ineffectiveness on climate change over the past four climate conferences.  Still, in any sporting competition, coming second to Australia is far from a poor finish – Canada can hold its head high.  Indeed, the judges who named Australia Colossal Fossil for 2013, also gave Canada a special Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award for its long-term body of disruptive work.  They said,

“As long as Canada and the Harper Government put their addiction to the tar sands first,
Canada will continue to be a Fossil champion.”

Just to keep the inattentive confused, the Harper government continued to put out positive statements that claim progress.  Our government is taking action to address climate change,” said Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Environment Minister who appears not to “believe“ that the sea ice is melting in her Nunavut homeland.  If that was not positive enough, she said on returning from COP19,

“Canadians should be proud to know that our leadership is being recognized on the world stage.  In fact, while I was in Warsaw, I heard from representatives from Mexico, China and Colombia, who all praise Canada
for its environmental record.  They did this because they know we have
taken significant actions to protect the Canadian environment.”

Sounds pretty good, right?  But then there is the truth about Canada’s performance.

Canada’s GHG emissions increased slightly in 2011 compared to 2010 (702 million tonnes CO2 vs 701 in 2010), and we are now on track to achieve an overall reduction by 2020 of just 3% from 2005 levels, despite our commitment to reduce emissions by 17%.  We are further from that goal than we were a year ago.  According to the International Energy Agency, Canada is now (2011) the 8th largest emitter of GHGs due to combustion of fuel in the world, and per capita the third highest among larger countries (in addition to the USA and Australia, there are 11 small countries such as Luxemborg, Trinidad, Kuwait and Qatar that emit more per capita than Canada, data from CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion 2013).

Further, the improvements that have been achieved by Canada have been almost entirely due to action at the Provincial or community level, or to convenient adjustments to rules for how to count forested land (it’s a sink for carbon).  Ontario’s phasing out of coal-fired power plants has had a major impact on Canada’s GHG emissions, as have actions in Quebec and British Columbia to put a price on carbon.  The Harper government, meanwhile, has been talking about regulations governing emissions by the oil and gas sector since they first came to power six years ago, but there is no sign any regulations are going to appear any time soon.  Asked about the regulations, Minister Aglukkaq told the House of Commons environment committee last week, “It is at this time for me premature to say when they will be ready. There has been good progress in that area over the last few years.  I can’t give you a timeline but work continues.”  So reassuring, and unfortunately, Canada is not alone in failing to get serious about this existential problem.

Aglukkuq by Fred Chartrand CP Montreal Gazette

Minister of Environment Leona Aglukkaq estimating how much ice has melted in the Arctic, or how long it will be before regulations are finally produced to govern the Canadian oil and gas sector.  Photo © Fred Chartrand/CP

At some point very soon, the scientific data will force reasonable people to conclude that it is now impossible for the world to avoid a warming in excess of 2oC.  It is already impossible if countries are not going to start taking climate negotiations seriously.  The CBC recently reported comments by Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and a former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Mary Robinson World-Climate-Summit-640x426

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights trying to talk sense to Canada during COP19.  Photo © Mary Robinson Foundation

She views climate change as a human rights issue, and offers two important messages to Canadians:

“Moving to a low-carbon economy would be very good for Canadians’ futures, and for everyone’s future.  And as well as that, we don’t have a choice.  We’re running out of time”.


“How can Canadians not see that their grandchildren will share the world with nine billion other people (by 2050)?  I have no certainty at all that it will be a livable world.”

She also made the difficult point (for Canada and for the oil multinationals) that we are going to have to leave a lot of that oil, gas, and oh so ethical tar sands in the ground if we are to have any chance of keeping temperatures to less than a 2oC rise.

None of Mary Robinson’s messages are new, all of them are correct, and the science that underpins that third message gets stronger every day.  So how do we get the world’s human population to actually take note?  On this dark late November day, I fear we may not be able to do so until it is far too late for a gentle transition into a new world.  If a whole series of 100-year floods, a succession of unprecedented storms, the most powerful tropical storm to ever hit land, extreme fire seasons, major losses in Arctic sea ice, and widespread mass bleachings of coral reefs cannot impress upon us that the climate we have known is changing rapidly, how bad must the climate get before we wake up?  If the UN’s recent upward revision (John Wilmoth, Director, UNDESA, Press Conference 13 June, 2013) of the anticipated global population in 2050 from 9.2 Billion to 9.6 Billion cannot convince us that our population growth remains out of control, and if the frequent alarms regarding food and water shortage cannot convince us that we are already pressing up against real limits to growth, what level of tragedy must be splashed across our TV screens before we wake up?

wired vs in nature

Too much of this…                                            and not enough of this?
Images from The Economic Times, and Back2Nature

Or are those TV screens the real problem?  Are those of us with reasonable standards of living now so detached from nature that we can no longer make the connection – that the environmental crisis is a crisis for us because we cannot live on a rocky sphere hurtling through space if its ecosystems cannot support our lives?  We will become reconnected to nature when the natural systems that provide our food, water, and other requisites collapse.  T’would be a far far better thing if that reconnection could be helped to occur sooner.  I’ll probably feel a bit better once the sun shines for a few days.

2 thoughts on “COP19 Climate Conference Gave Me No Reasons for Optimism During a Cold Gray November”

  1. and I only recall ‘April is the cruelest month’ but this November has been mean and nasty on all fronts; weather and political. Your blog is powerful so how do we ‘get the message out’? Certainly, Robinson’s message is not going to resonate in Ontario, desperate to mine the ring of fire, a process which has to include huge emissions in the development and extractions process and certainly not a time to be pointing fingers at Alberta. The most powerful social movers are children but this is a message way too complex and if parents need jobs in the ‘polluting’ industries to put food on the table- it’s a hard call.
    The saddest part is the complete lack of media coverage of our failure at the conference in favour of our failure to have elected or appointed representatives who can ‘behave themselves’- the environment isn’t ‘news worthy’, drunken spendthrifts are.
    I wish I had suggestions much less answers but keep on posting and speaking and hopefully one day more of the masses will begin to ‘hear’.

    1. Agreed. Slowly there will be momentum to demand changed policies. But will the momentum grow quickly enough?

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