Can the PM keep Barack Obama’s attention?

The President is big on climate change policy. Stephen Harper? Not so much.


Can the PM keep Barack Obama’s attention?When Hillary Clinton welcomed Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, in Washington in late February, she probably wanted to keep an eye on a separatist leader who’s been making new noises about taking his nation out of the U.K. But Scotland will never be high on a secretary of state’s list of worries, and in the meantime there is business to transact. So Salmond pitched wind turbines from successful Scottish manufacturers as a ready source of clean energy. Barack Obama’s first budget offers lots of money for clean energy, and lots of suppliers are lining up to get some.

For her own first trip abroad, Clinton considered several destinations and issues before settling on Asia and climate change. She brought her climate change envoy Todd Stern to Beijing, and she didn’t bring along her lieutenants for arms control or high finance.

When Obama came to Ottawa he was full of praise for his neighbour’s climate change policies. The neighbour wasn’t Canada. “Mexico actually has taken some of the boldest steps around the issues of alternative energy and carbon reductions of any country out there,” the President told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. In a briefing before Obama left for Ottawa, White House officials couldn’t stop talking about Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s climate change plans.

Stephen Harper has decided to make Canada-U.S. relations a priority, and common action on energy and the environment are a big part of that plan. But as our little tour of Scotland, Mexico and China showed, we are not alone. Harper likes to boast he has no trouble making priorities. Even if that’s still true—a big “if”—it’s easier to make priorities than to become one.

After Clinton’s China trip, Kenneth Lieberthal, a climate change expert at Washington’s Brookings Institution, told the New York Times what it all meant. “She’s saying, ‘We have changed the U.S. approach to this in a huge way. We want you to know that, and we want you to know the door is wide open for serious communication.’ ”

And that’s the problem. Asking for serious communication is setting a high hurdle for Harper’s goverment. Asking that communication be backed by consistent action, especially on climate change policy, has often been asking too much.

The centrepiece of the Harper government’s action on greenhouse gas emissions is the “Turning the Corner” plan announced in April 2007 by John Baird, when he was working out of the environment minister’s office. So far, that’s no action at all. Turning the Corner is a baroque set of regulations that was supposed to transform into a mechanism for capping and trading emissions permits. But first the government needed, in the original plan’s felicitous 2007 phrasing, “to translate the final regulatory framework . . . into regulatory language for the actual regulations.” That was supposed to happen by fall 2008. It didn’t. Lately Jim Prentice, Baird’s successor, doesn’t talk about Turning the Corner much. The bureaucrat who used to be in charge of the file, Cecile Cleroux, has been transferred to the investigation into last year’s listeriosis outbreak. Word inside the government is that the brakes have been slammed hard on Turning the Corner. The Harper government prefers to work toward “a continental solution” with Obama.

But Obama has his choice of suitors on many continents. He might be willing to privilege his relationship with Canada above others, but the Harper crew would need to bring some serious game. It’s been doing the opposite.

The International Renewable Energy Agency, with 75 member countries, had its founding conference in Bonn in January. The U.S. sent an observer; Canada didn’t even bother doing that. A report from the Pembina Institute says Obama’s budget outspends Harper’s by six to one, per capita, on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Harper’s budget failed to expand its popular Eco-Energy for Renewable Power program, which pays companies one cent for every kilowatt-hour of clean energy they put into the grid, even though companies are lining up for a chance to make that kind of concrete contribution to Canada’s green energy supply.

In the absence of the certainty Harper could have provided, Canadian firms are pulling up stakes and moving offshore. Germany’s “Solar Valley” outside Frankfurt is becoming home to more and more Canadian firms hiring German employees.

It is a bit early to say the air is out of the Obama-Harper relationship. Smart observers still have a lot of hope. I chatted with Derek Burney, who used to be Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff, and then his ambassador to Washington, and who ran Harper’s transition to government in 2006. With Carleton University prof Fen Hampson, Burney wrote a study full of advice for Harper on managing relations with Obama. He found Obama’s visit “pretty impressive” and thought the Harper-Obama joint news conference was “one of the most articulate by two leaders that I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Where it goes from here is the big question,” Burney continued. “To what extent the PM keeps it going is the big question.” We chatted some more, and then Burney repeated: “I don’t want to be too blunt, but the only way this is going to work is if the PM remains committed.”

He sounds worried. Canada and the U.S. actually used to have a Bilateral Working Group on Climate Change. It met for the fourth time in June 2005 in Washington, and its members looked forward to the next year’s meeting in Ottawa. That meeting never happened. What changed? Stephen Harper became prime minister. Don’t tell Barack Obama.


Can the PM keep Barack Obama’s attention?

  1. Of course Harper is keeping his cards close to the chest to do otherwise at this point would be irresponsible and just downright stupid. His points about regulations needing to be harmonized is spot on and so obvious the only argument comes from hyper-partisans. I would add that considering the recent science to which most current models and studies are not behaving or predicting as expected that to do otherwise defies any common sense. Obama and his new staff are already leaking and prepapring to back down from some of their election platform promises of which should be no surprise – the best article by one Obamas advisers on this file was the part in it about intensity based targets being the only way to transition into their cap and trade and this was immediately after the meeting in Ottawa – wouldn’t it be hilarious if indeed Harper and Obama are a lot closer than many people realize. The Washington Post has had some very interesting arguments that sounded a lot like the mistakes made by the Lib’s with the Green Shift of late and well worth paying attention to.

    • Stop reading the post Wayne. Obama uses it for tp in the WH these days. By the way, hard caps are coming!

  2. I don’t know if it is climate change specifically or the Harper regime’s general disinterest in foreign policy. Given Iggy’s posturing of late, I wouldn’t expect much in terms of action from him (perhaps mounds of new $10,000/ tonne CO2 subsidies).

  3. A carbon tax is much safer that intensity-based targets. Any emission credit scheme will have volatile prices. Price certainty is a much better strategy. The Green Shift was a great plan. If we wanted to harmonize regulation, I would suggest choosing a carbon tax that would roughly target the anticipated price of credits under the US scheme.

  4. So we can’t even shift ourselves to send an observer to a renewable energy conference, how dumb is that? Whatever yr position on CC may be it always pays to know what’s happening out there, to be as they say, a player. The impression given is one of: “oh no we can’t attend, we might catch something, or even worse get asked what we think – ouelle horror! I guess Obama can read the tea leaves as well as the next politico. Pity about all that work going to Germany though, still we can sell them the wood to build the windmills – they still make them out of wood, don’t they?
    It’s interesting what Hilary’s about. The door’s open there too eh? Fancy expecting us to do something – the nerve of those guys! How influential is Hilary as far as CC policy goes? Does she have the prez’s ear, or does she need a megaphone?

    • Rumour has it that Hillary only took the Sec of State job when she was assured she would always have a direct line to the President.. She has the Prez’s ear… whether she does on CC or not is an interesting question.

  5. I think Harper is exactly right to sit in his hands on this issue. The very last thing we need at this time is fiddling around with energy markets. Sure, “companies are lining up for a chance to make that kind of concrete contribution to Canada’s green energy supply”. Nothing to do with the huge subsidies they will receive to sell us uneconomic energy. We are a huge exporter of energy – what on earth are we doing figuring out more expensive ways of supplying our own energy needs.

    Our best shot is to keep energy costs as cheap as possible in the hope that our manufacturing base in Ontario can continue to compete.Dumping more costs on Canadian companies and consumers seems exactly the wrong thing to do right now.

    • If you’re going to be green, you have to do so during both good times and bad times, Bill. What point it is in waiting til times get better to do something on GHG and the environment and green energy? When the bad times return, does that mean conservatives and such will propose dumping energy efficiency and green energy moves out the window?

      You either are committed to doing this.. or you’re not.

      • You can safely assume that I am not committed to doing something on GHG. In good times, it is tolerable to use cycles on this (even when I disagree on some parts of it), but right now, it is a luxury we can do without. if we accept all the premises of climate change, the current recession has probably reduced our emission of GHG more than any regulation. If not, an I believe that Harper does not, then best to wait it out for now.

        • The planet cannot afford the luxury of waiting, Bill. I realize you flat-earthers want to believe all is well – that this is all a socialist scheme (as Harper put it), and that a cold winter here and there disproves climate change, but you’re sticking your head into the sand.

        • I think there are plenty of luxuries we can do without before we sacrifice energy efficiency and reduced environmental footprints. Whether you believe AGW or not, there are plenty of other reasons to pursue renewable energy and energy efficiency. The environmental wasteland that Alberta is becoming is one example, but most resource extraction is very taxing on the environment. Getting the economy to more of a closed loop will help us to sustain a standard of living into the future rather than further overtax the environment, leading to an ‘eco-bubble’ that will make worrying about the sub-prime RE bubble seem trivial.

    • We should have invested in new and renewables when the economy was roaring along. It seems there’s never a good time to invest in this area. Besides the oil sands has received a good deal of subsidy itself.

  6. Unless Obama – or Harper – or Stelmach – can artificially push the price of a barrel substantially over $60 again – all this is hot CO2 – ‘cos it’s not economical for the oil companies to dig the shale under that kind of price – (recognize the load that any sequestration is going to put on their production costs – assuming of course it works at the scale they are talking…)

  7. We are are being bluffed out of an economic royal flush.

    Spent nuclear fuel is a $120 billion economic opportunity on this continent and a free, carbon-free energy source with the heating capacity to produce 6 billion barrels of Canada’s oil sands annually.

    Alberta’s bitumen could be developed profitably at current prices.

    A recently published study by Australian, French, Canadian and U.S. scientists notes the unprecedented capacity of bitumen to sequester radioactive materials and much of Canada’s oil sands (bitumen) is found beneath a capping shale formation that would further preclude either hydrocarbons or radionuclides from migrating to the surface.

    Importing the global inventory of nuclear waste removes the potential for the plutonium contained within it to be incorporated into a weapon that could be used against us. Placing weapons plutonium and separated commercial plutonium in the sidewalls or floor of a repository also meets the spent fuel standard for eliminating these materials. The U.S. could be nothing but greatful if we addressed their greatest existential threat.

    In about 100 years the most radioactive – heat producing – fission products contained in spent nuclear fuel will have totally decayed. In the meantime it will have depleted the hydrocarbons adjacent a repository but could be recovered then to be recycled a second time.

    The CANDU reactor, currently facing extinction due to amongst other things waste, is capable of burning spent fuel from pressurized water reactors, the majority of the global inventory, as is. Competing technologies require this waste be reprocessed, at significant cost, to make it capable of generating additional power.

    Many environmentalist are crying for geothermal energy. This solution is technically indistinguishable from the sustainable energy they demand.

    • And if the studies’s wrong? Pumping the world’s radioactive waste under N. Alberta? Hmmm!!!

      • And just how is it going to migrate anywhere Alberta’s natural gas and oil has been unable to for millions of years.

        • Not saying it will or wont. But if you think you can sell this politically in a province with water issues already! Besides i happen to live down stream of the oil sands, folks in the territories are already aggitated over water quality issues.

          • I empathize with your issues. I would hope however you and other Albertans, the province of my father and children’s birth, would be open to rationale consideration. In this regard I offer http://www.nuclearhydrocarbons.com.

            I think part of the problem is confusion between radiation and radionuclides. In many places lettuce and other food products are radiated to make it safe to consume by killing bacteria like salmonella. On the other hand they detonated a nuclear bomb in Colorado to release some tight gas. They got the gas but fallout from the bomb made it unusable.

            The radionuclides in spent nuclear fuel are in an insoluble matrix which is unlikely to release any of the dangerous stuff over the course of the 100 years in which the bitumen would be produced. The heat from the waste would continuously expand a heat chamber at the edge of which the hot bitumen would flow down to a producing well. There would always be a halo of bitumen surrounding the waste and this will sequester and radionuclides that might eventually escape from the spent fuel. In the states it is estimated the soonest this would happen would be 5000 years. I would have the waste removed and recycled long before.

            As far as politics, I suspect its is politically untenable to either shutdown the oil sands over environmental considerations let alone see the industry shutdown when the environmental problems can be overcome.

            I repeat, geothermal energy, is also for the most part energy from radioactive decay.

          • I’m afraid someone more informed on these issues than i will have to pick this up. I will say there seem to be a few to many maybes in yr proposal. I too agree that geo-thermal would seem to be the way to go, particularly in the north where diesel dependence is high.
            The bomb in Colarado story seems incredible – when was this? It sounds insane.

  8. I can see why you might need to plug your work yourself. I wonder at the marketing strategies here ….Reader’s Digest never gives it away for free. You’ve got Kate Lunau’s nice piece on heart research …the same subject, advances in heart research is in this month’s Reader’s Digest written by Anne Mullens who is a fabulous health writer. The digest blog saves that nice writing for the subscribers while the blog is full of heart health information this month to support the writer. I think you guys at maclean’s could take some tips from Reader’s digest. Their Obama article this month is an interview with Rick Warren! I enjoyed a bit of the religious Obama this month.

      • Life’s Like That

        • It’s a Drama in Real Life.

      • A report alongside that posted news concerns the bankruptcy of your magazine’s printer. Now if you’re printer has gone bankrupt, how does that business failure relate to your own internal management decisions at the magazine? Reader’s Digest is huge and participates in a Global market and perhaps their experiences of dealing with a global recession now will help the Digest’s 5 Canadian brands weather a delayed Canadian recession better than can the Maclean’s brand within a structure of 70 other publications all serving Canadians. My point — that giving your writing away for free on the web — may not be the best marketing strategy to retain the subscriber base — holds.

        • I suppose I could always launch and erase six different WordPress blogs in six weeks and see how that works out for me.

          • Isn’t that just what you’ve done? But without as much control as I have to reinvent, you see your own personal ‘blogger brand’ suffer from the transitions, while I become confused about how to participate and ruin? my own name posting as me (and that is how I came on this site, as me, Karen Krisfalusi, before the exploitation of both me and the published writers reverberated more for me). I’m not exactly thrilled if a future employer googles my name thanks to my participations here, and my name is as important as yours in the ‘Real Life Drama’ isn’t it? Since I first came here last Oct. the online look has changed 5 times and the comment policy has transitioned to include ‘report abuse’ which adds another dimension of moderation. The Star’s online editor published an interesting commentary in the weekend edition on comment policies that you might want to read. It’s true that all the newspapers and online news publications in Canada revisited their marketing strategies around the online contributions and what value they have to the organization. It’s my feeling that if you don’t have a distinct difference between the published printed hand-held, subscriber-paid, library-held, output (something you reserve especially for that) that your writing will suffer in the dialogue that you participate in here. You can’t escape, just as I can’t, transformation through interaction (however brief). I read the Maclean’s print version cover to cover this month and I couldn’t tell Andrew Coyne’s style apart from Potter’s on the Opinion pages! The writing style of journalists is suffering in this online dialogue and I really do come here to read what I can’t write myself, something with inimitable style.
            Take care,

  9. Project Rulison, named after the rural community of Rulison, Colorado, was a 43-kiloton nuclear test project in the United States on September 10, 1969, about 8 miles SE of the town of Grand Valley, Colorado. It was part of the Operation Mandrel weapons test series under the name Mandrel Rulison, as well as the Operation Plowshare project which explored peaceful engineering uses of nuclear explosions. The peaceful aim of Project Rulison was to determine if natural gas could be easily liberated from underground regions.

    After the test, the natural gas that was extracted was determined to be too radioactive to be sold commercially. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rulison

    If geothermal is the way to go and geothermal is heat generated from radioactive decay I fail to see why the same process is not the way to produce the resource in your backyard?

    • Thanks for the info, as i said maybe someone who’s more up on this than me will be along presently i’m sure.

    • I say just dig deep enough to bury the waste and eventually it becomes China’s problem – or wtf, maybe they’re mining the oil sands from below already and we don’t even know it!

      • I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that the Americans actually tried peaceful nuclear explosions. I thought only the godless soviets even considered it. Eradicate engineers i say. We might have to put up with wonky bridges and substandard rds for a while, but i’m certain we’ll all come to realize it was for the best – maybe we should ditch the lawyers while we’re at it?

          • Thanks. I really don’t know what to think. One the one hand you have to take risks to progress, on the other not all the seriously insane people are safely locked away.

    • Geothermal is great, but there are only a few sites in Canada where the geothermal gradient is high enough to be used economically for heat and power generation. Also, not all geothermal heat is generated by radioactive decay – the most promising geothermal sites exploit “hot spots” created by friction and plate tectonics.

  10. The Anointed One certainly did effect “Climate Change”, as in “..climate between the two countries.” The icy feeling that resulted probably set Al “The Bore” Gore back about 2,000,000 years to the time when Dinosaurs were farting methane and polluting the atmosphere.

  11. Canada and the U.S. actually used to have a Bilateral Working Group on Climate Change. It met for the fourth time in June 2005 in Washington, and its members looked forward to the next year’s meeting in Ottawa. That meeting never happened. What changed? Stephen Harper became prime minister.
    I assume that this has been confirmed in some way – the 2006 Bilateral Working Group meeting was canceled because of Harper, and not because of the priorities of the Bush administration?

  12. Obama has a penchant for throwing people under a bus. First his nana; then Prime Minister Brown; Watch out Prime Minister Harper. Anyone married to s shrew who insists on serving “Risotto” at a Washington, D.C. Soup Kitchen, can’t be trusted. But, then again, she was probably rephrasing that famoVus line by Marie Antoinette :..Let them eat Risotto.”

    Can you imagine a descendant of slaves serving Risotto to poor Black people. Boy, Race relations sure have improved under the Obamas.

    • baseball, I find your comment ridiculously offensive, and I’m not someone who gets offended easily.

Sign in to comment.