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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference. Courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

Copenhagen Day Twelve

They have looked into the abyss

By David MacDonald

In the final hours of this roller coaster conference, Australia’s Prime Minister acknowledged, “We have looked into the abyss.”  The day after, the headline in a leading Danish newspaper screamed, “YOU BLEW IT!” It may be a bit too soon to declare this summit a success or failure.

Leaders concurred they must meet the challenge of climate change but failed to sign a binding agreement. U.S. President Barack Obama said it was a first step, and it was. Only a year ago his predecessor was in total denial. It’s wrong to think that nothing has changed.

Obama’s active presence in direct meetings with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao represented a dramatic improvement in the engagement of world leaders. It was good that our prime minister finally agreed to show up in Copenhagen but it was discouraging that he was not among the 20 key leaders whom Obama met — especially so when you consider that in a few months Stephen Harper will be hosting the Group of 20 in Toronto.

What exactly was accomplished in Copenhagen? There are no identifiable or enforceable targets, there is no real financial commitment and there is no agreement on monitoring and reporting. On the positive side, the scientific assessment of climate change was widely accepted. There was also progress on forestry protection and potential allocation of some financial assistance. The fact that leaders from over 100 countries invested their political capital is a new and important dimension.
The unprecedented public interest and concern is also significant. And Oceans Day was an important first. The health of the oceans is now becoming a central focus of climate change.

What next? This issue should no longer be confined only to minsters of the environment. The participation of governments must be broadened to include ministers of finance and others. And the UN’s processes must be strengthened to prepare more effectively for the heavy work that must lie ahead.

We Canadians are faced with an interesting dilemma. Our prime minster seems either unable or unwilling to assert his leadership. But we have provincial, territorial and municipal leaders who do understand this gravity of this issue and are prepared to act. Canada is a federation with significant powers available to the provinces. What if they decide to act together?

2010 promises to be an important year for Canada and the planet.

This is David MacDonald’s final report from Copenhagen.

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