Please Professor, can I have an extension?

Coming up to what many call the most important environmental summit in the history of the world, last week’s Barcelona intercessional was a disappointingly anti-climactic indication of what is to come (and it would be heartwrenching if the next meeting follows this listless precedent).

The fuzzyness of the Barcelona conference center

Searching for focus at the Barcelona conference center

Barcelona inaugurated the widespread downplaying of expectations. As we come closer to Copenhagen, negotiators realise just how slowly the talks are going – little of the messy details have been settled while the deadline is fast approaching. The cost of running in circles is beginning to show, but political leaders have yet to step up and break the deadlock. Instead, like dysfunctional students working on a group project, they’ve asked for an extension: “Professor, can’t we just submit a draft? Maybe an outline? Does the project really need to be finished in December?”…

But isn’t this why deadlines were created in the first place? Without deadlines we would dither indefinitely, go for long lunches, take extra holidays, have pointless meetings. I for one never get anything done without a heavy expectant deadline breathing down my neck. I put it off to the last minute, everything seems lost, and then miraculously (!) I pull through at the last minute.

Secretly, I’m still hoping for the miraculous ending of these talks. Maybe the drama will get us excited. If this were a Hollywood movie, the set-up is perfect. Here we have a poor underdog climate treaty that will ultimately triumph over all odds.  In the penultimate scene (Barcelona), everyone announces that it can’t be done, that we should lower our expectations. The G-77 and the African block-out walk out, revealing the deep underlying tensions between rich and poor countries. The problems seem profound and inalterable, and as spectators we must resign ourselves to a sad ending. But then! The final scene! Everything pulls together, heroes everywhere answer their calling…  and the climate treaty is victorious!!!

But don’t believe me, that would ruin the suspense.

In the meantime, let’s pretend it’s all going to the dumps for real, and do everything we can to prevent that. Which means we need to understand what is actually going on.

Why do the talks keep going in circles?

Well, Canada is a prime example. We are a rich industrialised country with a reputation of international cooperation. Canadians overwhelmingly think climate change is a political priority. Unlike our neighbours to the south, for the most part political leaders have stopped questioning the reality of climate change and understand that something needs to be done.

We had a team of over 20 negotiators at the talks. My last blog included Canada’s final statement to the plenary and a Q & A with our chief negotiator Michael Martin. From these sources, it would not seem that Canada is not being visibly obstructionist.

But, read between the lines, and you might think the political will behind the negotiators is NOT empowering them to be actively constructive (gasp!). One would almost think they have directions to work towards a weak treaty (double gasp!).

In Barcelona, Canada’s vague use of terms and a few questionable comments raised the ire of the international community and singled us out. Day after day, Canada was presented with the dubious honour of the Fossil of the Day (a mock award acknowledging those who do the most to block the negotiations). In response, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said he was no ‘boy scout’, and to “bring it on”! (Isn’t it hilarious when figures of authority borrow words from their kids?).

Specifically, Prentice said he was willing to accept being isolated by the international community – it was the inevitable cost of being a ‘tough and fair’ negotiator at the talks. (Ahem, can we collectively define ‘tough and fair’ – I’m not sure my definition is the same as yours Mr. Prentice).

Hence the stalemate. Ultimately, Canada is not willing to make any concessions in the name of stopping dangerous climate change.

Why do would I suspect such a thing? Because of the Alberta oil sands. As a megaproject responsible for a significant portion of the nation’s growth in emissions, they have been targeted repeatedly as one of the worst environmental projects in the history of the world. They are the reason Canada refuses to act on climate change. Apparently, this government will not do anything to halt this economic powerhouse.

But despite Canada’s refusal to compromise, they don’t want to be perceived badly. So they keep a low profile.

I wonder how many countries are doing the same thing? How many negotiators are working on a treaty that their bosses don’t actually want? And we wonder why things are going in circles – that’s exactly how they want it to be.

Well, like dysfunctional students on a group project, we need the supervisor to step in and enforce the deadline. I volunteer my mother, she’s good at telling people when to stop wasting time.

It just has to get done, somehow. We need tough governments who realise the problem, live up to their responsibilities, and do their fair share.

With love, not from Barcelona anymore


  • Denise Kouri

    Canadian leaders — stop wasting time! Let’s live up to our responsibilities.

  • Rafael Pagliuca

    What’s the point of getting loads of money destroying the planet? It’s just paper. We need to protect things that really matter. If we all live with love and harmony, money will be irrelevant.