Shauna Sylvester: Day 1 enroute to COP21 in Paris

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      By Shauna Sylvester

      We’re 3,300 kilometres into our flight to Paris on a full plane. A small child in front of me, wearing a cozy that makes him look like a spotted calf, struggles to stay awake. His parents try to calm him.

      My heart goes out to them. While it has been a number of years since I’ve been in their position, my parenting instincts come alive whenever I hear a baby cry.

      In 10 days, my child, now 20, will return home from a year away. I count the sleeps. When she left she was a self-proclaimed climate-change activist—a member of her university’s 350 club and an articulate spokesperson against the expansion of an Alberta oil and gas pipeline to the West Coast.

      She, like many of her friends, shuns driving, rallies for better transit, and begs to live in a smaller home to minimize her ecological footprint. Then after spending time volunteering in Nicaragua and trekking in Peru, she told me she had to leave Vancouver and explore the world.

      Initially it was for four months, but that grew to six months and then a year. And now that year is coming to an end and I am preparing to welcome her to a new and smaller home in the West End of Vancouver.

      As I adjust to sharing my space again, I wonder if her experience of working and traveling overseas will alter her North American environmental ethos? Will she have a new appreciation for the needs of developing countries? Will justice, poverty alleviation, and human rights be a part of her understanding of climate change?

      As I read through my briefing notes on the Paris climate conference, I’m reminded of the days of my youth when I was actively involved in the preparations for the Rio Summit. It was a heady time when Canada was punching above its weight on the international stage. An enlightened Canadian businessman named Maurice Strong (who sadly passed away last week) was the global conference convenor and Jean Charest, Canada’s environment minister, led a large delegation consisting of elected officials from all parties, NGOs, business leaders, and officials from across government departments.

      It felt like the beginning of something big—a moment in time when the world finally acknowledged the importance of the environment and the need to protect it through collective action. Agenda 21 was created to address a range of global environmental problems including deforestation, biodiversity, desertification, and ocean acidification. The issue of climate change emerged in the negotiations as early scientific warnings about the impact of increased carbon in the atmosphere started to appear in mainstream media.

      But not long after the news outlets packed up from the Rio meetings, the agreements started to stall and the goodwill began to sour. Confronted with the “right to develop” demands of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and the escalating costs of mitigating the environmental damage caused by centuries of western industrialization, the so-called “developed countries” shifted their energy away from environmental concerns to focus on domestic debt reduction, post-Cold War structural adjustment programs, and free trade.

      In Canada the shift was gradual. In the early to mid-1990s, Canada continued to play an important role in convening global environmental gatherings on water, climate change, and airborne contaminants. But by 2000 that leadership began to wane. By 2010 and the Copenhagen climate conference, Canada’s reputation had plummeted and we became known as a global laggard.

      So what is different in 2015?

      If media stories are correct, a great deal has changed. First, Canada is back on the map. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, buoyed by a majority made possible by young voters like my daughter, has declared that Canada is ready to play a global leadership role in fighting climate change. And he recognizes that government alone can’t do this. Unlike his predecessor, he arrived in Paris with a delegation that included opposition party members, provincial premiers, mayors, business leaders, and environmental activists.

      Canada is also bringing a fresh approach. Trudeau and his forward looking environmental minister, Catherine McKenna, recognize that in order to get an agreement, they need to address the fundamental stumbling block to all international climate change negotiations: money to compensate developing countries for disproportionately using up the global carbon budget.

      When 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of the world’s resources, it is difficult to make the case that poor countries—those most impacted by the extreme weather patterns caused by climate change— should bear the burden of the cost.

      Minister McKenna recognizes that and opened Canada’s negotiating position with a commitment of $2.65 billion over five years to help mitigate emissions and support poorer countries to adapt to the new realities of climate change.

      It was an important gesture—one that transcends traditional interest based politics of North America and encompasses a perspective of global realities.

      While I recognized that Canada alone will not change the outcome in Paris, the pledge and initial posture of our government is a good start. And after years of inaction, it’s inspiring to see our country re-emerge as a constructive player.

      It is also refreshing to see two young political leaders in Trudeau and McKenna adeptly work to bridge the North-South divide in Paris. As a parent, I wonder if they too left home for an extended period in their youth to discover the world. 

      Shauna Sylvester is director of the SFU Centre for Dialogue, founder of Carbon Talks, and cofounder of Renewable Cities.