Svend Robinson: Canada's Role in Bali Was Painful to See

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Svend Robinson, Canada’s first openly gay elected official and a leading activist for gay rights, was a New Democratic Party member of Canada’s federal parliament from 1979 to 2004. He is now working with Public Services International, based in France. He can be contacted by email at

This article is posted here with Svend Robinson’s permission; it was originally published on

Two days after the UN Climate Change conference in Bali concluded, with consensus on a “Bali Road Map” to steer negotiations over the next two years leading up to COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, I was diving in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

It was a truly euphoric experience, witnessing the magical colours of coral and fish, and at one point slowly swimming alongside a magnificent manta ray as it made its way gracefully through the crystalline waters off Heron Island.

But the stark reality hit home as well: This reef, and many others like it around the world, face death from coral bleaching and acidification as a direct result of the devastating impact of climate change. Indeed, there have already been two major bleaching events in the last decade, one affecting almost 20 percent of the reef in 1998.

From the loss of coral reefs, to the 40 percent reduction in the North Pole ice cap since 1979, to the many other direct impacts of climate change documented in the graphic report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued in November, there can be no doubt whatsoever that unless the world acts soon to dramatically cut emissions and assist in adaptation to the current and pending impact of climate change, the consequences are disastrous for our fragile planet.

The respected climate scientists of the IPCC, joint winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, have urged measures that will limit the increase in the average temperature of the planet over pre-industrial times to 2 degrees Celsius. For the threatened island states attending the Bali conference, though, even this is too much. Unless the rise is held to 1 degree Celsius, they argued passionately, their islands face dramatic consequences, including disappearance. They are already facing serious impacts from climate change, including loss of fish species and salination of their fresh water supplies.

The science is compelling, and demands a response that acknowledges not only the failure of developed countries to meet their current 2008-2012 Kyoto targets, and their abject failure to live up to the promises made to developing countries to assist them in adaptation and technology transfer, but also the need to do much more in both the short term to 2020 and the long term to 2050 if there is to be any hope of averting disaster.

I attended the Bali climate change conference as a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) delegation, comprising almost 90 trade unionists from around the world. I was there representing my new employer, Public Services International (PSI), a global union federation based in France. One of my responsibilities in this challenging new position is to coordinate the work of PSI on climate change, and to ensure that the role of the public sector is recognized as absolutely vital in this fight.

Indeed, given the reality that, as Nicholas Stern acknowledged, climate change is the greatest market failure in history, we cannot leave the response to those same failed market forces. There must be far more public support for research and development in this area, for public transportation and energy efficient housing and other buildings, for public utilities including energy, water and waste management, (not nuclear energy or disastrous oil sands developments, but major investments in alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro and geothermal), energy conservation, and of course far more public resources for disaster avoidance and response. Instead, we see the destructive impact of the deification of the market, with policies of privatization, deregulation and selling off of public goods – still the failed mantra of agencies such as the World Bank, OECD, WTO, IMF and others.

Cuts in tariff revenues of the poorest countries will weaken public resources needed to tackle climate change. In fact, there is grave danger that the WTO’s policies will significantly hobble efforts to fight climate change if trade rules and patent protection are allowed to trump needed policies. Just as the WTO had to be shamed into changing TRIPS patent rules to allow desperately needed affordable drugs to be produced to fight HIV/AIDS globally, so too must those rules be changed to allow the urgent transfer of needed technologies. Instead, we witnessed in Bali business bellyaching about the impact on profits of such changes. And in a vivid illustration of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” at work with a vengeance in the wake of the climate change crisis, there were over 300 companies registered in Bali as NGOs seeking to profit from the lucrative potential trade in carbon emissions, the modern day equivalent of polluters purchasing indulgences, as the Transnational Institute’s Kevin Smith has cogently argued.

As a former MP, who has been part of Canadian delegations at many international meetings over the years, it was particularly painful and sad to witness the incredible erosion in Canada’s respect at the Bali meeting. From the condemnations of people like Rajendre Pauchri, head of the IPCC, to Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN body in charge of climate change, the UNFCCC, to the daily critiques of respected international climate change NGOs, to the searing criticisms of so many of the delegates from other countries with whom I spoke, to the unbelievable performance of Environment Minister John Baird, it was tough to be a Canadian in Bali.

Baird had invited delegates, including those from Canada, among them the largest youth delegation at the conference, to an evening meeting to hear about Canada’s policies on tackling climate change. Instead, on the platform were three Canadian businessmen extolling the virtues of their companies. Baird left the room without a word, leaving it to an embarrassed Pierre-Marc Johnson to come up with the feeble excuse that the Minister had to attend negotiations. This was the only event scheduled for Canada, and Baird was a no-show. No wonder, given the obstructive role Canada played at the conference, siding consistently with the United States and Japan in blocking efforts to strengthen the Bali road map.

There were, however, a number of hopeful developments in Bali. For the first time ever, there was a strong trade union delegation, actively lobbying for effective action on climate change (see the ITUC statement, and the statement of the PSI). There were a large number of youth delegates from around the world, including as mentioned earlier the biggest group from Canada, energized and active at the conference.

Indigenous people from around the world, including from Yukon and Nunavut, spoke out eloquently about the impact climate change is already having on their lives, including being driven from their ancestral lands by deforestation in many areas. They made an impassioned plea for strong action on deforestation and degradation of forests, both tropical and boreal, as part of the fight against climate change and to protect biodiversity and indigenous lifestyles. There was a significant presence of women activists underscoring the gender dimensions of climate change, and noting that there can be no climate justice without gender justice.

Cities and regional governments from around the world also met in Bali and are showing real leadership in fighting climate change at the local level, under the leadership of Vancouver City Councillor David Cadman. A Solidarity Village gave voice to local Indonesian activists and groups, such as Our World is Not for Sale, to present alternate visions. And of course it was very exciting to hear newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his new Climate Change Minister Penny Wong (also the first openly lesbian Cabinet minister in Australian history) pledge their commitment to the Kyoto Protocol in Bali. I was heartened to hear NDP Leader Jack Layton promise that he will make this issue a cornerstone of NDP policies in the coming election as well.

Now of course the hard work starts, over the course of the next two years leading to Poznan in Poland next year and Copenhagen in 2009, to ensure that the Bali Road Map does not lead us to a dead end of another massive market failure in responding to the crisis of climate change. Hopefully people around the world will demand that their representatives – elected or otherwise – take the strong action mandated by scientists to confront the enormity of the climate change crisis now.

Governments, and the public sector, must be at the heart of that action. If not, those magnificent coral reefs in which I swam will be but a distant memory in a barren world whose leaders failed to live up to their responsibilities to this and future generations. We must not allow that to happen.


  • Thanks for sharing these sentiments. I’d be embarrassed, too. We’ve come to expect better from Canada. We know better than to expect ANYTHING reasonable from the U.S. (so, yes, I have you beat in the embarrassment department, being a U.S. citizen).

    Your experience in the Great Barrier Reef will not be shared by future generations. I read it’s a given that our coral reefs will die. Where is the outrage?

    Society’s obsession with economic growth and denial about the ecological limits of our planet represent huge obstacles in our path.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  • It is neither government, not the public sector, that is at the heart of anything.
    This is sheer rubbish and nothing more than a naked attempt to place the blame for global warming where it truly belongs.

    The human activity that is almost entirely the cause of global warming is the burning of fossil fuels. The supply and marketing of fossil fuels has almost entirely been in the hands of the private sector, driven by the FREE market. That is why nothing has been done to curb the burning of fossil fuels.

    Public transport could have done much to minimise the impact of the internal combustion engine. Restrictions on air transport, both freight and passenger, could make an enormous impact on atmospheric pollution. Neither is being done. Why? Because it would be to the detriment of the private sector and its pursuit of profits, come what may.

    The private sector and their political hacks have been foremost in denying the significance of human activity on global warming. They have funded research directed to that end that global warming is NOT caused by burning fossil fuels (much as the tobacco companies did some years ago when they claimed that ‘smoking is good for your health’). Downright lying is an integral part of advertising and is the normal way of presenting products and services of private industry to the public.

    Politicians and private industry have one common goal: deceiving the public!

    No, Mr Robinson, don’t try to pass the blame onto the public sector, nor hold the public sector responsible for putting right the iniquities of private industry whose sole aim is to maximise its profit. It wont wash, and nor will it enable proper action to be taken against the primary polluters.