Canada’s Climate Change Accountability Act Killed By Conservative Senate

At each of the last three climate summits, Canada has been deemed the world’s Colossal Fossil — the country that has done more to sabotage an international climate agreement than any other. After events yesterday, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Canada will retain its title in 2010 at COP-16, and the world will pay the price, especially the developing nations that can least afford it.

In a move that is unprecedented in Canada’s parliamentary system, the unelected Senate has subverted the will of the House of Commons by killing legislation that would have set medium- and long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets that have been vetted by climate scientists as not only attainable, but necessary.

A private members bill — the Climate Change Accountability Act (C-311) — had passed the House of Commons in the spring, despite every effort by the minority government to derail it. As required, it was then sent to the upper chamber for study and final approval. The Senate occasionally delays legislation, but for the first time in Canadian history, a Conservative majority killed the bill outright with a little procedural sleight-of-hand. While experts believe that the methods deployed are not illegal, they do fly in the face of 143 years of parliamentary tradition.

“This was one of the most undemocratic acts that we have ever seen in the Parliament of Canada,” said Jack Layton, New Democratic Party leader. “To take power that doesn’t rightfully belong to them to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of the House of Commons representing a majority of Canadians is as wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in this country.”

The irony is that the Conservatives came to power promising to reform the Senate. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had campaigned fiercely against the unelected legislative body’s ability to slow legislation, which he claimed thwarted the will of elected Members of Parliament. Yet after an election victory, Harper quickly reversed course, and appointed dozens of Conservative senators to what is often called a “chamber of sober second thought.”

No thought went into this defeat. It was pure politics. Senate leaders noted that a number of key opposition senators were missing, and voted to defeat C-311, which called for greenhouse gases to be cut 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Harper doesn’t see a future for clean technologies, and believes that the Climate Change Accountability Act will bankrupt the country.

“It sets irresponsible targets, doesn’t lay out any measure of achieving them other than […] by shutting down sections of the Canadian economy and throwing hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people out of work,” Harper said. “Of course, we will never support such legislation.”

That plays well to his base, but public opinion polls consistently rate global warming as a real concern for most Canadians. Yet most don’t seem to realize that not only is Canada a laggard when it comes to global warming, it’s an international saboteur.

Canada has had a minority Conservative government for since 2006, and it won’t surprise anyone to learn that global warming isn’t high on the Conservative agenda. Their power base is oil-rich Alberta, home of the infamous tar sands, and they have been enacting policies which ensure that Canada will be trapped in a fossil fuel economy for years to come.

Harper doesn’t even believe that global warming is real, and once described it as a socialist construct to extract money from wealthy nations. His government’s position on global warming has tarnished Canada’s reputation abroad, transforming the country from a respected middle power to an international pariah. Proof of the animosity now being directed at Canada came earlier in the fall when — for the first time in history — the country was denied a seat on the UN Security Council. Last year, several nations drafted a motion to have Canada expelled from the Commonwealth for its global warming intransigence.

Canada will arrive at COP-16 with the same policy that it brought in 2009.  At Copenhagen, Canada pledged to cut its GHG emissions by 17% by 2020, using 2005 as a baseline. That sounds fine, but the devil is in the details. Most nations have chosen to use 1990 as a baseline for measuring emission cuts. If the Conservatives under Harper had deemed that baseline acceptable, Canada’s emissions will actually be about three percent higher in 2020 than in 1990.

More than likely, they’ll be much higher than that, since Canada hasn’t taken any significant steps to cut its carbon out put with the sole exception of following the US lead on CAFE standards.

“This reckless approach to climate change must stop. Global warming is an urgent problem that requires urgent solutions,” says Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. “Stephen Harper has done what he always promised never to do — use unelected officials to counter the will of Parliament and the Canadian public.

“As we head into the United Nations climate talks in Cancun later this month, it is unacceptable that Canada’s only climate change legislation has been defeated after years of majority support from our elected members of parliament and their constituents.”

Clare Demerse — of the non-partisan Pembina Institute — was equally shocked by the defeat.

“It would have been difficult to watch the Senate defeat this groundbreaking legislation under any circumstances. But to see it lost in this way is even tougher: C-311 was defeated without any debate, without the chance to call a single witness to explain what it offered, and at a moment when key supporters of the bill happened to be away from the Senate.

“I think that Canadians deserved better.”

Richard is a writer and editor based in Halifax, Nova Scotia who specializes in clean technology and climate change. He's the founder of One Blue Marble, a climate change activism blog and web site.