Canada's Role at UN Climate Talks: "Profoundly Hypocritical"

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Welcome to diplomatic doublespeak 101

By Richard Littlemore
(From, December 9, 2008) 

Canada’s lead negotiator at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Michael Martin, has declared – unequivocally – that Canada is not blocking progress at the talks this week. But in a morning briefing to the Canadian arm of the International Climate Action Network today Martin made it just as clear that Canada has no inrtention of being part of that progress.

It would appear from his recently reported comments that Martin has been suffering a fair amount of criticism for Canada’s stance at the climate conference in Poznan. Specifically, Canada was assumed to be blocking agreement on a reasonable greenhouse (GHG) gas reduction target for so-called “Annex 1” countries, the wealthiest signatories to the Kyoto Protocol.

On the contrary, Martin said this morning. Canada is fully supportive of the reduction currently being discussed. However, “it’s not Canada’s view that we can do a number within that range.”

Welcome to diplomatic doublespeak 101.

The entire conversation occurring in this Polish city is steeped in acronyms and insider jargon and, where GHG reductions are concerned, it is impossibly convoluted. For example, the “range” Martin mentioned is a GHG reduction target of 25 to 40 per cent from 1990 levels – meaning that the Annex 1 countries (mostly the rich countries that created the greenhouse gas problem in the first place) would commit to reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by that amount before 2020.

But Canadian emissions are currently 22 per cent ABOVE 1990 levels – and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made it abundantly clear that it has no plan for turning our oily supertanker around.

Asked then to explain how Canada can support a 25- to 40-per-cent range without having any intention of conforming to that range, Martin said, “I don’t want to try to wordsmith that here. We all know how complicated these things are.”

Actually, we don’t ALL know. It would be impossible for Canadians (or anyone in the world) to comprehend the level of complexity of a UN negotiation without actually watching one in progress. There are rooms stuffed with negotiators all poring over documents, each with different sets of ‘i’s to dot and ‘t’s to cross. There are bureaucrats, like Martin, trying to smooth the ground for politicians, like Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who is due to arrive at these talks later in the day.

Martin’s job – an impossible one, really – is to create sufficient negotiating room that when Prentice arrives and says Canada has no intention of cutting its emissions to the degree that scientists say is necessary, he won’t be embarrassed.

It’s hard to imagine, and even harder to watch for the environmental activists for whom Martin has been making time most mornings for the last week and a half.

Martin says, “It’s not our plan or our desire to somehow slow the momentum at all” of the climate negotiations. “But, we have to be clear on what we said we would do nationally” to meet international climate goals.

What Canada has said it will do is close to nothing, a point that is increasingly galling to the Climate Action Network folks in the room. Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network (CAN) Canada broke down today and expressed that despair directly to Martin. Canada’s performance on the climate file over the last 15 years has been “abysmal,” he said.

Notwithstanding our wealth and privilege – outstanding by every international standard – “we have done as poorly on this issue as any country in the world. How are we going to make up for our record on this?”

Martin didn’t answer the question, but he made careful notes of Saul’s comments. Then he reiterated his position: Canada, he said, is working hard to make progress at the talks. He just can’t commit his political masters to do that which they refuse to do.

While calling Canada’s position “profoundly hypocritical,” Saul went on to acknowledge the difficulty of Martin’s role. Although these briefing sessions have offered little more than a chance for CAN to build a personal relationship with Canada’s negotiating team, at some point in the future, that may have been a worthy investment in time, Saul said, adding that perhaps, on some future occasion, one party or the other will be able to pick up the phone and make an important call.

May the day come sooner than later.


  • The Canadian delegation should be indicted for crimes against humanity and nature. They are climate criminals covering up for their real bosses, the fossil fuel companies. But they’re supposed to be our representatives. That’s a joke.

    Martin is just playing the “good cop.” He sounds as though, morally, he’s in the same position as Gore in the 1992 Rio Summit – pushing through a bad policy while trying to be a nice guy about it – but pushing it through anyway. Whether it’s Baird’s bullying or Martin’s double-speak the result is the same.

  • While one can only feel sympathy for the Canadians in the face of the obscenity of their ideologically driven Rightwing regime putting money before life (have these vermin ever done otherwise?),here in Australia we must deal with feelings of betrayal as well. Well, most people concerned over humanity’s future must deal with these emotions. I must confess that my innate cynicism and scepticism concerning the pre-election blatherings of Rightwing politicians has served me in good stead regarding our current Rightwing ruler, Kevin Rudd. After conning the public, Obama style, that he was an agent of ‘change’ after the moral and spiritual debacle of the Howard years, Rudd has ruled as a Howard clone. Nowhere more so than in anthropogenic climate change, where he has dissembled, prevaricated and ultimately caved in to the troglodytes of the business parasite class. Does anyone else share my conviction that the Right intends climate catastrophe to occur, perhaps to cull most of the earth’s population, in the insane belief that they can ‘ride it out’. Even naked pecuniary self-interest and contempt for future generations no longer seem sufficient to explain their ongoing and hardening opposition to any real action.