SCOTT REID: Liberals can't be nobodies on Cancun

The Liberal Party of Canada should give a damn about this week's UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun. More importantly, it should be seen to be giving a damn.

A total of 192 nations, including Canada, are gathered in Cancun this week as part of the 16th United Nations Climate Change Conference. And nobody seems to give a damn. Not the Obama administration. Not China. Not the Harper Conservatives. Not even David Suzuki.

Scott Reid is a former senior adviser and director of communications to former prime minister Paul Martin and is now a principal in the speechwriting and communication firm Feschuk.Reid. He appears regularly in Point of Order on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon.

The Liberal Party of Canada, however, should give a damn. More importantly, it should be seen to be giving a damn — particularly by those who count themselves among the roughly 25 per cent of likely voters who say they will support either the New Democrats or Green Party in the next election.

Steeped in skepticism, Cancun has long been written off as a non-event. With each successive COP failure (that’s UN-ese for "Conference of Parties"), the prospects for a breakthrough dwindle. Observers handicap the potential for progress at somewhere south of a Beatles reunion. The gasping last hope for actual action was choked by a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 2.

Even Canada’s best-known environmentalist, David Suzuki, was quoted as saying he was fed up and had little time for Cancun, assuming the political will to respond to the pressing threat of climate change at this forum was all but nil.

All this plays nicely into the hands of the Harper Conservatives, who can quietly avoid being held to account for their own lacklustre performance. The Conservatives have not only done less than nothing on the climate change file, they've also done less than they even promised.

Indeed, on his second tour of duty as environment minister, John Baird 2010 might want to avoid bumping into John Baird 2007. His younger self boldly charged that under Stephen Harper, Canada was set to "pull a U-turn" and start cutting greenhouse gas emissions, including mandatory cuts in industrial emissions.

Cancun's Bond villain

Environment Minister John Baird speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Monday.
Baird's mantra then was that Canada would harmonize its efforts with those of our American neighbours — meaning that as the U.S. took measures to regulate its big industrial carbon emitters, we would do likewise. 

But it seems now that harmony is in the eye of the polluter. Baird 2010 maintains that Canada will not impose mandatory emission cuts on big business even though the U.S. has taken steps to do exactly that.

As for Cancun, Baird arrives like a Bond villain, determined to do whatever it takes to sabotage even the dim possibility of progress. In these early days, he’s been working with Russia to ensure the Kyoto Protocol is declared dead once and for all. (Doesn’t that sound just like something Blofeld would do?)   

What’s at stake for the Liberals? Well, begin with the fact many of them have children who, in all likelihood, would appreciate the ability to walk outside without the benefit of a hazmat suit. Beyond public policy reasons, however, there exist compelling political arguments for the Liberals to rub the Conservatives’ nose in their environmental failures.

Pointing to a middle class preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues like job security and household debt, the Conservatives imply there is no penalty to be paid for ignoring their own promises on climate change. Similarly, the Liberals might doubt whether championing limits on industrial emissions will win them any favour among those willing to switch their support from the Conservatives.

However, there are two flanks to the Liberal fight for an improved electoral outcome. A pre-condition for Michael Ignatieff’s success at the polls is to drain NDP support by roughly half and hold the Greens to below the five-point mark. This is particularly important in Ontario and B.C., where seat gains must be harvested.

That goal won’t be achieved through silence on Cancun, although a focus on climate change may seem a tad removed from the daily cut-and-thrust of Parliament. Although it may be hard to fight through an uninterested national gallery armed only with critiques such as "Where are the emissions caps?" there is plenty of reason to engage on the issue. Certainly, a narrowcast strategy aimed at reminding NDP and Green voters that the Liberal Party can be counted on to care about climate change could pay future dividends.

At some point in the next election campaign, it will prove necessary for Ignatieff to ask NDP and Green supporters to help oust Harper by voting Liberal. Securing a positive response begins now, not then. And it requires a commitment visible to those voters on issues like Cancun. Maybe nobody gives a damn. But that doesn’t mean the Liberals can afford to be just nobody.