Published by Senator Grant Mitchell on 15 November 2010
Climate change in Canada’s North should not be exploited by this government as just some opportune excuse to buy new military equipment; it will fundamentally change communities and ecosystems, and it is raising issues of Arctic sovereignty. To be sure, the Prime Minister has focused the government’s attention on Canada’s Northern sovereignty in an unprecedented way. The paradox, however, is that the North has become an issue requiring this attention to sovereignty because of climate change, an issue Mr. Harper all but denies and has systematically failed to address in any meaningful way.
The North has proven particularly vulnerable to climate change with temperatures rising even more quickly in northern areas than in much of the rest of the world. This has meant that the ice cap has melted at an unprecedented rate opening up sea passages that themselves are subject to sovereign ownership challenges. It has also meant opening access and the promise of access to land and subsea resources that once were simply out of the realm of sovereignty assertion by other countries because of their inaccessibility.
It has affected the traditional lifestyle and livelihood of Aboriginal and Inuit groups. It has reduced the annual lifespan of ice roads, thereby limiting easier access by northern communities to supplies. Melting permafrost will begin to damage and destroy structures and roads. In short, climate change is reducing the ability of the people of the north to assert sovereignty by demonstrating regular use of the land, sea and resources.
While climate change is at the root of the problem, Mr Harper’s response to this has been to do nothing about climate change. It is simply beyond belief that the Arctic Foreign Policy Statement delivered by his Minister of Foreign Affairs this summer failed to even include the phrase ‘climate change’. It seems increasingly unlikely that we will have any sort of meaningful commitment to climate change action any time soon either. The government’s climate change policy is predicated on mimicking US action and, with the Republicans winning in the US midterms, the government’s proposed cap and trade system and its 2020 GHG reduction objectives seem “dead in the water”. (We can reasonably ask the question: since it is this government’s policy to do on climate change whatever the US government will do, and since the US government will now be driven to do what a Tea Party driven Republican Congress tells it to do; can it be that Canada’s climate change policy will actually be determined by the US Tea Party?)
Any of the government’s climate change programs have been little more than announcements with very little action taken and no effort to relate their potential impact to reduction targets. In a note of tragic comedy, the website of the government’s Northern Strategy features the ‘Turning the Corner’ plan as one of its key accomplishments and initiatives. On the other hand, the ‘Turning the Corner’ plan, which would have included a cap and trade system, has in reality been dead for so long that the National Roundtable took it out of its review of the Government’s climate change programs and progress because nothing has been done to implement it. How the government plans to come even remotely close to meeting its 2020 emissions target would be at best an open question if they had made any real effort at all to begin to meet it. As it is, there is no doubt but that they have no real intention of trying at all.
There are two ways in particular to establish our sovereignty in the north. One is to buy equipment for the military and perhaps the coast guard. Clearly, this is the government’s preference. They use Arctic sovereignty as one of the justifications for spending $16 billion on jets when we have a $56 billion deficit. Mr. Harper has announced numerous times a special ice breaker, to be built no sooner than within the decade, several specialized patrol ships which are not yet under construction and a new port worth several billion dollars which has yet to be started. These might be of some use in establishing sovereignty.
But, the stronger argument for sovereignty in cases before international courts is based upon use by the people who live there rather than military activity. Climate change is limiting the ability of people in the North to do so. Canada’s sovereign claim to its Arctic regions will be evaluated by the UN in 2013. They will be looking to assess the “use it or lose it” philosophy espoused by Mr. Harper himself. A government intent on establishing Canada’s Northern sovereignty needs to support our Northern peoples where and how they live. Saving our North cannot be just a military exercise or a question of ice breakers, as appealing as that is to Conservative sensibilities. It requires comprehensive, climate change mitigation and adaptation measures and social and economic supports so that our Northern peoples can use the North broadly in their daily lives.
We need to reframe this debate. If we really want to defend the North (to use the Conservative militaristic terminology), we don’t need jets as much as we need to fight climate change and the social and economic issues that plague the North.