Church leader slams Canada's PM on climate change

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Stephen Harper fails the tests of truth and accountability

by Mardi Tindall,
Moderator, United Church of Canada
Ottawa Citizen, December 14, 2010

Last week, Canada was ranked the fourth worst out of 57 countries evaluated for their climate change performance by environmentalists. It’s a shameful ranking for a country that could do so much better.

As the elected leader of Canada’s largest Protestant church, I have some sympathy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Every day people appear with countless expectations — many of which are contradictory.

The challenge of leadership is to meet such contradictions with integrity. I believe our integrity as elected leaders is rooted in accountability: accountability to truth, which requires a clear-sighted view of the present; accountability to democracy, which requires that we honour our communities; and accountability to our children, which calls us to envision the future we are creating.

When the Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311) was defeated in the Senate after three times being supported by the House of Commons, Prime Minister Harper called the bill “irresponsible” and argued that its targets would throw “possibly millions of people out of work.”

This was a failure of leadership on at least three counts. Harper was not the first prime minister to fail this test. But his response is instructive for anyone wishing to understand the demands of leadership in this emerging crisis.

First, the prime minister fails the test of truth. The science of climate change is based on scientific concensus. The accuracy of various future scenarios can be disputed, but there is no longer any serious question that significant change is accelerating.

Nor is there any doubt that ignoring climate change has serious economic consequences. The major conclusions of economist Sir Nicholas Stern’s 2006 Review on the Economics of Climate Change are widely accepted: that the financial benefits of early action on climate change outweigh the costs — and that costs will increase rapidly if we fail to act.

This understanding is also shared by senior business leaders. On Nov. 8, for example, the week before the Senate killed Bill C-311, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives called for “a comprehensive national policy on carbon pricing that recognizes the imperative of addressing climate change.”

Yet the prime minister takes precisely the opposite position, without even acknowledging this broad consensus. Hardly a clear-sighted view.

Second, leaders must be accountable to the community.

I’ve just returned from visiting communities in Western Canada, hearing troubling stories about the effects of global warming. It was, in fact, in Alberta where people of every economic sector — the oil industry included — shared with me their deep concern about our economic future if we don’t understand the need to limit emissions. These concerns were given expression, however imperfectly, in the Climate Change Accountability Act.

The United Church of Canada’s national governing body, like the House of Commons, is composed of elected representatives from across the country. As the elected leader and presiding officer, I am accountable to my community for respecting the decisions of this body.

It would be irresponsible of me to ignore the deliberations of duly elected representatives in favour of others with whom I might agree more. I believe it is equally irresponsible of the prime minister to disregard the will of a majority of the elected members of the House of Commons.

Third, leaders must be accountable to the future. The climate change impacts that we have seen are modest compared to what our children and grandchildren will experience if we don’t act. The next few generations will need to cope with increasing food shortages due to drought, dislocation of coastal populations, and a multitude of impacts on health. Tomorrow’s children may judge far more harshly than today’s polls.

Ultimately, in a democracy, all of us are called to exercise leadership. For the sake of our own integrity, we too must be accountable to truth, to our communities and to our children. Each of us must search our own conscience on this issue. How are we meeting the test of leadership? How are we failing? How can we be more effective leaders?

That said, a prime minister has a unique position of leadership, and there are some actions which only government can take.

It’s time for the prime minister to exercise accountable leadership on climate change. Now is the moment to introduce urgently needed legislation to follow the failure of the Climate Change Accountability Act. I believe he would find wide support if he did.

1 Comment

  • Harper and his party have failed another test — the test of civility. About a year ago one of Harper’s MPs stood up, leaned across the desk in his constituency office, glared at me, and in a loud, angry tone threatened: “I’ll throw you out of my office on your ear!” Seems he didn’t like the pointed questions I was asking him about climate change and his government’s policies.

    Equally astounding, at one point, he made this alarming admission: “If we get this wrong and if doomsday kicks in, then it kicks in. We couldn’t do anything to change it at that point.”

    This gives a whole new meaning to playing dice with the future wellbeing of Canadians and, for that matter, of all life on the planet.

    A full account of this encounter is available on my blog: The day a Harper MP threatened to throw me out of his constituency office. Part 1/2: The Meeting