Harper Heads to G8 Summit on Climate Change

To hear his critics tell it, there are only two possible stances Prime Minister Stephen HARPER might adopt on CLIMATE CHANGE at the annual G8 summit: pro-Europe or pro-U.S.

Harper Heads to G8 Summit on Climate Change

To hear his critics tell it, there are only two possible stances Prime Minister Stephen HARPER might adopt on CLIMATE CHANGE at the annual G8 summit: pro-Europe or pro-U.S. There's no denying those have been the two dominant positions during tense negotiations in the run-up to the June 6-8 meetings in the German resort town of Heiligendamm. This year's host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, is leading a European push for a strong consensus on combatting GLOBAL WARMING, such as setting a target of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Americans are having none of it, with President George W. Bush's negotiators reportedly demanding that timetables and targets be gutted from draft versions of the summit communiqué.

Which side Canada is on seems at times to depend on who's doing the talking. Environment Minister John Baird first appeared this week to endorse Merkel's position. Then Harper shifted the emphasis, stressing the need to bring the U.S. and China aboard for any deal to fly. The reality, according to University of Toronto political science professor John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group, is that Canada isn't squarely in either the European or U.S. camp, instead sharing a middle-ground position with Japan. Could it be the beginning of a new mid-Pacific orientation in Ottawa's foreign policy?

That might be going too far. Yet Japanese and Canadian talking points have been strikingly similar. Both countries stress that after the Kyoto agreement timetable ends in 2012, any new deal going forward must include the big economies that never joined that original UN pact. "In order to have a post-2012 effective international protocol, we need to have all major emitters, including the United States and China, as part of that effort," Harper said. A Japanese spokesman echoed that thrust in rejecting Merkel's approach, saying, "Japan cannot agree with this because we should think about how we can invite non-Kyoto members such as the U.S., China and India and others."

The G8 is as good a forum as any for beginning work toward that broader pact. The world's most elite heads-of-government club is no longer only about its full members, the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Russia. A cluster of key emerging economies called the "plus five" - India, China, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa - is increasingly part of the summit process. If they agreed at Heiligendamm to future emissions restrictions, that commitment would, at least in principle, respond to the long-standing U.S. demand for developing countries to share the burden of combatting global warming. "It would destroy the fundamental point of Kyoto that global warming is all the fault of the old, rich, white, imperialist North," Kirton said, "and the poor countries of the South can do anything they want until they are as rich as us."

Harper's assertion that his officials were working toward a truly global agreement was hard to independently verify. Most of the key pre-summit talks are carried out behind closed doors among so-called "sherpas," the personal representatives appointed by the G8 leaders. Environment groups closely monitoring the process, however, were not detecting hints of any particular forcefulness on Canada's part. "Canada is hiding," said Hans Verolme, director of the WWF's climate change program, "and letting the Americans do the negotiating for them - that's the impression I'm getting from talking to the negotiators."

But Kirton cautioned against assuming Harper will not have much impact. Recent G8 history shows Canada is capable of finding sometimes surprising ways to make itself heard. At last summer's get-together in St. Petersburg, Russia, for instance, Canadian officials took the lead in pushing for a robust G8 reaction to the war that broke out in Lebanon just before the leaders assembled. Russia, as the host, had proposed a joint G8 statement on the conflict, which Kirton said amounted to "UN-style boilerplate," a neutral plea for peace that was careful not to suggest who was to blame in Israel's battle against, mainly, Hezbollah fighters. "The Canadian approach," he said, "was, 'No, this started because a terrorist group attacked a democratic polity named Israel.' " And that became the basis for the communiqué the G8 finally issued.

Harper may find it trickier to make his mark this time around. Crafting a response to last summer's rapidly evolving Middle East crisis called for skilful professional diplomacy; inserting Canada into this year's climate change clash might demand a more personal approach. As a former climate change skeptic, who only recently embraced the need for serious, long-term emissions reductions, Harper looks uniquely positioned to appeal to Bush to make the same sort of conversion. "Harper is valuable because not long ago he was where Bush is," Kirton said. "He gives the Europeans confidence that North Americans can move."

Maclean's June 11, 2007