A Northern View: Canada’s Climate Claims and Obligations

May 16, 2012
Reneging on Kyoto, Keystone pipeline drama, pain at the pump, re-aligned Arctic sovereignty, melting outdoor hockey rinks – all these aspects of climate change are being discussed in Canada.

However, Canadians, as potential citizens of the next energy superpower, need a more comprehensive and enriching debate. Climate change adaptation measures, at home and abroad, are inevitable, but the issue has largely been ignored by the federal government thus far.

To many Americans, it may seem that Canada has equated energy production with national prosperity, but Canadians are increasingly concerned about the human security and eco-justice implications of ongoing climate change as well. Lack of leadership at the federal level on Kyoto-related energy efficiency and emissions mitigation has been partially offset by actions at the provincial and municipal levels, but climate change is occurring now and it demands a coordinated response from the federal government, the only political apparatus capable of channeling the resources necessary for making a solid contribution to global climate change adaptation.

A moderate predictive scenario suggests that the regional impacts of climate change will be very expensive: the UN projects the global Green Climate Fund will require up to $100 billion a year by 2020. Water stress – too little, too much, or the perception of either – may be the most common theme. Coastal flooding, shoreline erosion, glacier retreat, chronic water shortages, loss of biodiversity and habitat, increased spread of invasive species, extreme weather events; taking preventive action against these (beyond the obvious call for reduced emissions) will be prohibitively expensive for most communities around the globe, including the coastal and northern regions of Canada.

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification has become a conduit for the argument that drought and land degradation related to climate change justifies southern demands for northern investment in initiatives in Africa and elsewhere. As a high emissions per capita nation, Canada has an obligation to contribute to such international efforts.

But I also don’t see why the indigenous peoples of the circumpolar north should be denied claims as permafrost thaws and ice-cover vital for subsistence hunting disappears. Citizens of small island states, to whom adaptation may well mean the abandonment of their homeland, have charged willful ignorance or purposeful negligence of their plight; so too might riparian communities along Canada’s many ocean shorelines, lakes, and rivers. Farmers, fishers, First Nations communities: all will need to adapt. We need to start seriously planning ahead to meet climate change scenarios, instead of burying the issue under the tar sands.

Of course, people will adapt to shifting conditions; such is the imperative of survival. And there are many ingenious ways this will materialize. Indeed many mitigation and adaptation strategies blend together as hybrids today. Building more effective alternative energy systems can be seen as much as responses to climate change as preventive measures and involve both public and private sector funding, for example.

However, paying for adaptation is another matter, and here it is vital in my view to stress the potential role of infrastructure spending by the federal government. Much of Canada’s current fiscal restraint is indeed a welcome development if the government cuts back on waste and redundancy, but not if it serves as a veil for sacrificing principles of eco-justice – the idea that those who made the least contributions to and benefit the least from environmental problems should not bear disproportionately higher risks.

Of course there will be nasty disputes ahead about the accounting, accountability, legitimacy, and purpose of climate change adaptation funding for Canada, in or out of the UNFCCC process, but let me draw just a few general conclusions at this stage:
  1. There is an ethical imperative to contribute to international adaptation funding, perhaps just as great an imperative as traditional efforts to help former colonized countries. It’s not just about money, at least not directly: Canadian technical, policy, and financial expertise should be harnessed for this purpose as well.
  2. Unlike in other policy areas, there is no way to unload or pass the buck on climate change adaptation efforts: they demand the utilization of centralized resources redistributed throughout the country and through multilateral funding mechanisms.
  3. Adaptation funding should not, however, supplant more traditional emergency, humanitarian, or environmental funding. It should be seen as a supplement, albeit one with increasing importance, but not as a new form of dependency or gold-rush of aid-with-obligations opportunities. The current government is right to worry about accountability issues.
  4. But accountability goes both ways: we need at least to get the accounting and communications right on this, thus the need for open dialogue and ongoing consultation. Killing the well-respected National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, which consulted various Canadian stakeholders on key environmental questions, was not a good start.
Climate change adaptation funding and related technology transfers must be a vital aspect of Canada’s pursuit of energy security, and should not be relegated to the realm of afterthought. Canada can make a substantial contribution here and, given its current movement toward increased fossil fuel production, has an acute obligation to do so, both at home and abroad.

Peter Stoett is the Fulbright Research Chair in Canada-U.S. Relations at the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute and professor in the Department of Political Science at Concordia University, Montreal.
Original link to New Security Beat here.

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