We're not really environmental bad guys, are we?

Simon Jackson on Stephen Harper's climate change gambit.

In a few weeks, the industrialized and developing world will convene in Copenhagen to negotiate a new international treaty, an updated Kyoto, that will seek to end the climate crisis.

While the 2005 Kyoto treaty was supposed to create an international consensus to address climate change, the deal largely fell apart with the world's largest emitters — the U.S., China and, to a large measure, Canada — either failing to sign on the dotted line or, if they did, failing to follow through on their commitments.

However, that was then and Copenhagen is now.

In this new, post-Inconvenient Truth world, the environment has seen a meteoric rise in public support to the point where government action on climate change, once a fringe issue, now carries considerable political consequences.

When asked by pollsters, Canadian respondents, for example, continue to place climate change at near equal levels of importance to the economy.

A farmer's field outside Hanoi. Getting developing countries such as Vietnam to sign on to new climate change initiatives will be the challenge of this next, Copenhagen round. (Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters)

For this reason, Copenhagen has an opportunity to succeed where Kyoto failed even as, in the eyes of the world, there is one nation that might actively try to derail the process — our own.

A bad rep

In the lead-up to this global summit, Canada is being portrayed as the least climate-friendly country in the G8.

In fact, Canada's green credentials have become so brown that a bloc of 77 countries walked out on our government's speeches earlier this month at a pre-Copenhagen meeting in Thailand. 

The reasons for our battered green image stems from the perception that we have no climate plan and little interest, it seems, in aligning ourselves with our usual well-intentioned allies to craft a deal at Copenhagen.

This state of affairs is usually blamed on a prime minister who was an ardent climate-change skeptic when he first took office. But as is the case with so many issues, perception isn't always reality.

Stephen Harper may not be David Suzuki, but Canada's lack of a well-understood position on global warming doesn't necessarily mean that the prime minister won't, by the end of the Copenhagen talks, be feted as an environmental champion.

Strategic ploy

There is no question Canada's position to date on climate change has been very weak, especially when compared to many countries in the European Union. After all, where countries like Germany, France and Britain signed Kyoto and cut their emissions, Canada signed Kyoto and then proceeded to allow emissions to rise.

But as the Tories are usually the first to point out, it was the federal Liberals who signed on to Kyoto without a plan to implement the promises.

By the time the Conservatives came to power in 2006, meeting the first, 2008 Kyoto deadlines were impossible.

While it is clear Harper was a climate skeptic coming into office, I think it is equally clear that he's changed his tune.

Sure, that may have been for electoral necessity. But I would argue that climate change is now one of the issues this government takes the most seriously.

The government's language on the issue is undeniably strong and Harper has now appointed his most trusted cabinet ministers in two straight cabinet shuffles to address the file.

Yes, it's true that heading into Copenhagen, Canada's position on a post-Kyoto, post-2012 arrangement appears vague — in fact, it appears non-existent.

But it can also be seen as strategic and not necessarily bad news for those hoping to see Canada tackle climate change.

Bad-guy politics

By hiding its hand at this point, Canada will undoubtedly be seen as simply waiting to see what the U.S. does. But that is an approach that is largely necessary.

U.S. climate legislation has the potential to seriously mess up the Canadian economy and by working to create climate policy in lock-step, any economic risks should be much better managed.

More importantly, having Canada and the U.S. present a united front at Copenhagen will go a long way toward ensuring that both countries don't betray their obligations.

Whatever deal comes out of the Copenhagen talks, all countries in the world must ratify the agreement if it is to be successful.

Canada has been a leader in advocating this point and so has the potential to be a carrot to Germany's stick in terms of finally engaging the new, large emitters such as China and India, who were largely given a pass in the Kyoto round.

In fact, Canada has been one of the few countries encouraging China and even the U.S. to do more to address climate change and our quiet, behind-the-scenes role as the feet-dragging, oil-producing, industrialized "bad guy" may prove key to the creation of a truly global framework.

Politically sustainable

Let's face it, while the long-term economic impact of  global warming could be disastrous, there are also more immediate concerns that have to be taken into account.

Legislating a costly climate deal in the midst of one of the worst international recessions in decades has all the makings of political turmoil. We'd all be wise to ensure that any deal reached is politically sustainable.

In fact, having a centre-right prime minister deliver on an issue normally thought of as of the left leaves a unique opportunity to create a climate plan that won't become a huge political wedge issue in future elections.

A Liberal-enacted green plan (as worthy as Michael Ignatieff's new effort appears to be) would always have something of the hated National Energy Program about it, at least in Western Canada.

A Harper-delivered deal would more likely be something that could be built upon, particularly if China and other developing countries are persuaded to sign on.

For most Canadians —  who view the environment not as a political issue but as a human necessity, and resent seeing it used as a political football — the deal will be seen for what it is, a stepping stone to solving a critical issue.

If the Harper Tories can pull this off, it likely gives them a huge electoral advantage, in the manner of Europe's conservative leaders (David Cameron's Go Green, Vote Blue in Britain comes to mind).

It is a prize that may be worth being portrayed as one of the world's environmental bad guys, at least for the time being.