This week and next, world leaders are meeting in Durban, South Africa for the 17th year in a row to talk climate change at the Conference of the Parties (COP17). The biggest unofficial delegation there is the Canadian Youth Delegation, part of the Youth Climate Coalition, which includes Haligonian Robin Tress, a recent Dalhousie environmental science grad.
"I became acquainted with the devastation of climate change in school," Tress says. "I couldn't not take action."
Last year she attended COP16 in Mexico and became interested in bringing the story of climate change negotiation---particularly our country's shameful role---back home: "I think Canadians have a fundamental misunderstanding of Harper's climate action.
"Our government policies make it look like climate change is not so bad, because we're doing so little about it," she says. "People don't understand how bad it is already, except where it's really obvious in coastal communities and in the Arctic."
Next year the only legally binding agreement negotiators have ever come up with, the Kyoto Protocol, expires. They've got a western black rhino's chance of extending or replacing Kyoto, thanks to interference run by Canada, Russia and Japan.
"They refuse to sign a second commitment period for Kyoto," Tress says, "which has influenced 54 other countries and stopped them from signing too." Largely because of Canada's stalling, the best possible COP17 outcome will be further amendments to a new climate agreement, which has been in the works since 2005 but is incomplete.
The world came close to a "fair, ambitious and binding" deal at COP15 in Copenhagen, but a few holdout countries like Canada and the US monkey-wrenched it at the 11th hour. A watered-down deal was signed instead. President Obama fled the scene after spending less than a day in Denmark.
"The longer Canada stalls, the longer it takes for the world to agree," Tress says now. In reviewing our nation's historical contribution to prevent catastrophic climate change, she notes that we played a prominent positive role until COP12 in Nairobi. That was 2006, the same year Harper's Conservative Party assumed power. Since then, "things have reversed."
The good news is almost every other country in the world wants to do the right thing. Tress says she has observed an increasing level of frustration over Canada's climate crimes. "I'm concerned we'll be kicked out of the conference. Not our proudest moment."
But there is too much on the line to fret over pride. The status quo (staying the course that's seen Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions increase 27 percent since 1990), will result in the "deaths of millions, loss of land, mass human migration, flooding, drought, famine---a clusterfuck," Tress says.
According to the World Health Organization, 150,000 people are already dying each year from climate change. An ambitious, legally binding international agreement is essential if there is any hope of reducing--- rather than massively increasing---that number, and potentially unhinging the conditions that make the planet livable at all.
"If Canada getting kicked out resulted in a global deal on emissions reductions, I'd be all for it," Tress says.
She also observes that the conference itself has an environmental impact, and that an industry has grown up around climate change policy making. Outside the official negotiation rooms in Durban is a gathering called Dirty Energy Week, where more than 100 non-profits and activists have described COP a "conference of polluters," soaked in oil and greed, flying in for a two-week circus, making a mess and leaving.
"It's not the be-all-end-all," says Tress. "We need community-based solutions too, provincial laws on carbon footprint, bilateral and multilateral agreements---you usually get fairer results from regional agreements."
But, as a citizen of a country that is compromising humanity's future, knowing the consequences of having no legally binding protocol to set a baseline for the world and by which to hold all nations accountable, she feels compelled to be there. "Canadians shouldn't be fooled into thinking we're peacekeepers," she says. "Since 2006 our international reputation has gone down the toilet."
She has twice been verbally accosted for representing Canada at climate negotiations, once by an immigration official. "He was upset because our climate action plans really only take effect in 2020---after the window of opportunity has closed."