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Climate change action needs common ground

It is human nature to be hypocritical since we do not often practice what we preach.

It is human nature to be hypocritical since we do not often practice what we preach. So why was there such surprise over the Copenhagen Summit, where states effectively negotiated a treaty that does nothing? Saving the planet was a secondary goal to the aspirations of global leaders: developing states were rubbing their hands together, anticipating the riches they would gain, while the emerging markets — India and China — knew their growing importance in the international system meant little would be done to force them to change their ways.

In the so-called developed world, these leaders too had their own agendas. While rallying to the environmental cause, appeasing interests back home, they ignored the obvious fact that they were still exploiting the natural resources around the globe. In the wake of all of this political posturing, Canada was villainized and the oilsands were the primary target.

This is not an attempt to defend the exploitation of our natural resources under our current methodology, but rather to shed some light on the actions of Canada’s prime minister. Just like his European counterparts, he too must address the growing concerns over environmental issues. This is the political reality all politicians face. Unlike these other leaders, however, he openly acknowledged the need to protect Canada’s economy, which includes our jobs and lifestyles.

Though change is constant and we must adapt, the reality of life is that we do not want to change. We like what we have, measuring our success by looking backwards, and our politicians know this; their political careers are intrinsically linked by protecting our self-interests. That is why when the Jean Chrétien government signed the Kyoto Accord in 1995, they exempted the auto industry from having to participate in attaining those environmental goals to protect the industry and their own political interests in Ontario and Quebec. Why would this Conservative government act any differently?

The structure of our political system is like the fulcrum of a pendulum that swings between two points. On one side is the ever-changing ethical, moral, philosophical and scientific landscape where environmentalism finds itself rooted. On the other side is the economic reality of our system. As the pendulum swings back and forth between these two points, politicians try to make policies that can most effectively deal with the matter at hand. Though there must be some common ground, rarely does anyone look for it. Instead, the matter becomes polarized as others seek to exploit the discontent to their advantage and create a no-win situation. Harper knows this, as does Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton, as they are constrained by these same realities.

The environment is just as much an economics issue as it is a matter of ethics, morality and philosophy. That is the common ground. But both sides are unwilling to change and politicians dare not upset the equilibrium. Industry will have to adapt by virtue of the rising costs, but while we continue to consume, there is no immediate need to change. On the other hand, the environmentalists need to strive to find the economic solution, creating their own industrial revolution, if they truly want change. While the world awaits such changes, the planet will continue to be victimized. When are we going to walk the walk?

John Kennair is an international business consultant who lives in St. Albert.