Politicians who almost universally claim to be so well-informed that they can run countries, cannot also claim to be so ill-informed that they do not appreciate the gravity of the unfolding environmental crisis threatening the safety, security and economy of every nation on the planet. This is a contradiction that lies at the heart of politics.
Few politicians, it seems, are willing to confront this contradiction. The result is a hypocrisy that gives token sympathy to environmental issues but rarely acts with the conviction needed to accomplish anything remotely comparable to the challenge. The meaningful acts occur locally, usually in communities and cities, where small gestures of care and stewardship by individuals save a stream, rebuild a salmon run, reclaim an ecology, construct a bike path, promote environmental awareness, or organize against an unwise development. At a national level, however, where significant corrective measures could be initiated to guide important reform, little is done — particularly in Canada. At the international level, where the world’s prime ministers and presidents could direct the fundamental changes needed to address a problem of global proportions, even less is accomplished.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), political effort is suffering from “treaty congestion” (John Vidal, Guardian Weekly, June 15/12). “World leaders have signed up to an impressive 500 internationally recognized agreements in the past 50 years, including 61 atmosphere-related; 155 biodiversity-related; 179 related to chemicals, hazardous substances and waste; 46 land conventions; and 196 conventions broadly related to issues dealing with water. After trade, environment is the most common area of global rule-making.”
And how effective are all these agreements? Of the 90 that UNEP deemed the most important, “some” progress occurred in only 40, “little or no” progress occurred in 24 (including climate change, fish stocks, desertification and drought), “further deterioration” occurred in 8 goals, and an ominous “no data” was available for 14 others (Ibid.).
“The need for change was underscored by the latest Global Environment Outlook,” writes Jonathan Watts in the same Guardian Weekly, “which showed the world’s environment is declining rapidly. In the past two decades, carbon emissions have increased 40% and biodiversity loss has risen 30%. The world community has missed all but four of its 90 most important environmental goals.” This condemnation is repeated by Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP. “If current trends continue, if current patterns of production and consumption of natural resources prevail, and cannot be reversed and ‘decoupled’, then governments will preside over unprecedented levels of damage and degradation” (Ibid.).
Surely political leaders must know this. They cannot circulate in the company of advisors, strategists, civil servants, academics, scientists, diplomats and fellow politicians without considering in their political calculus the worsening environmental situation. They must be briefed by experts before they attend international meetings to discuss climate change, species loss, ocean overfishing, ozone depletion and the widening list of ecological worries that should haunt a normal conscience. Are they so myopic, delusional, compulsive, unimaginative or intransigent that the severity of the environmental warnings and unfolding weather events don’t register as concerns that demand immediate preventative action?
What are they thinking when they weigh the evidence of innumerable experts who warn of impending and escalating environmental disasters yet continue to formulate policies that disregard these warnings? Are they driven by irrational policies, blind ideology, strange perversity or just plain stubbornness. Perhaps their guiding operational principle is raw political opportunism, the notion that their voters are not yet ready to follow a leader into the challenges of environmental sustainability. But this would be a cynical assessment of politicians that defines a leader as a follower, and makes a mockery of their knowledge, abilities and title. Even worse, it’s the shortest distance to catastrophe.
John Vidal attempts to explain the dismal international environmental record of our prime ministers and presidents on several factors. First is the plethora of trade agreements that almost invariably override environmental agreements. Second is the unleashing of corporate power — the transnational operatives that evade or even subvert environmental regulations to maximize profits. Third is the reality that many countries sign agreements with “great fanfare” but then fail to ratify them at home — the United States has done this on at least 10 occasions. Fourth is the “impunity” with which some countries act — “Canada ratified Kyoto but then ditched all promises to reduce emissions.” And fifth, Vidal suggests, is the uncoordinated efforts of 35 United Nations organizations that are all negotiating international environmental agreements without the power to either supervise or enforce any of them.
But, underlying all these explanations and rationalizations is a lack of political will. Our national leaders are not confronting the environmental precariousness of our situation. If, as scientists warn, global warming is to be kept below the critical 2°C threshold, “then we have to peak our greenhouse gas emissions before 2020” (NewScientist, May 12/12). But no agreements will occur before 2015 — if, indeed, they do occur. And then “global binding targets” will not take effect until 2020 (Ibid.) — if, indeed, they are even enforced. By this time, greenhouse gas levels will be sending temperatures well beyond the 2°C safe limit.
Meanwhile, in a scenario that is comparable in its absurdity to the Monte Python “Dead Parrot” skit, we have a Canadian government that is essentially disconnected from the climate change issue. Instead of addressing this threat, it is actively subverting international efforts to address it and is busily entering into trade agreements that will further undermine the effectiveness of the inadequate measures already in place. For anyone who is even remotely concerned about our environmental future, this failure of political will is inauspicious.