Walking through Vancouver's Stanley Park last January where thousands of trees had been felled by hurricane-like windstorms, Canada's newly appointed Conservative environment minister called the destruction a "wake-up call."
Having once called the Kyoto Accord a "socialist scheme" designed to suck money out of rich countries, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now trying to paint himself green. He appointed a tough new environment minister, spent millions on environmental programs and redrafted a stronger version of his government's climate change strategy. But Harper's makeover isn't washing with Canadian environmentalists, who see a wolf dressed in frog's clothing. "The Conservatives are far from being environmentally friendly," says Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club of Canada. "Canada is still a big time international laggard when it comes to addressing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions."
After failing to get any support for his ironically-titled Clean Air Act, Harper's government announced a new climate change policy last April called "Turning the Corner" that was supposed to strike a balance between environmental and industry concerns. But the new strategy was a gift to corporations and gave them so many loopholes and exemptions from target caps that it will actually lead to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
Through "intensity-based targets," corporations can increase their pollution as they increase their production. It will also give new companies three years to start meeting targets – widely seen as a free pass for the oil and gas companies operating in Alberta's toxic tar sands, which are desperately trying to ramp up production to meet the United States' insatiable need for oil. Under the new plan, companies can also meet 70 percent of their targets simply by paying into a fund, and those that don't meet their targets can just buy their way out with carbon credits.
Most shameful of all is that Harper's new strategy means Canada will be the first country that ratified the Kyoto Accord to formally abandon its commitment to the international agreement. Instead of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by six percent below 1990 levels by 2012, Harper's Canada won't start cutting emissions until 2010, and calls for a 20 percent reduction in emissions from today's levels by 2020. In a best case scenario, Canada won't meet its Kyoto commitment until 2025.
Harper's attempt to portray himself as environmentally conscious is all the more insulting considering his track record. Since he was elected in 2006, Harper has cut 20 different federal programs meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, made secret deals with George Bush and American oil executives to bolster production of the Albertan tar sands (which already consume 600 million cubic feet of natural gas a day), and introduced the incredulous Clean Air Act, which doesn't set hard caps on emissions until 2050.
Like many aspects of his appearance, Harper is trying to mask his persona as a right-wing radical and re-brand himself as a middle-of-the-road moderate in order to appeal to Canadian voters. While he has managed to calm some people's fears by diluting his stance on the Iraq War and gay marriage, Harper's environmental transformation is a façade. But Canada and the rest of the world have little time left to play with his disguises. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that billions of people around the world are going to face food and water shortages caused by flooding within 13 years, Harper's "greening" is nothing more than a whitewash.