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Indigenous Peoples Call Canadian Kyoto Withdrawal Business as Usual

On the heels of the COP 17 climate talks in Durban, South Africa, the only thing surprising about Canada’s announcement on December 13 that it would no longer be a party to the Kyoto Protocol (KP) was the swiftness of its decision. Rumors had abounded about Canada’s imminent withdrawal during the two-week long summit—two days into the talks, on November 29, Canada’s chief climate negotiator Peter Kent said that Canada would not support a second commitment period under Kyoto, nor would it deny that it would withdraw entirely—but the ink was barely dry on the Durban Accord when Kent made the announcement.

For First Nations people in Canada the hard line taken by the administration of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is just one more in a long list of bad-faith actions related to environmental and indigenous policies. Fresh off the plane from Durban, Daniel T’seleie (Dene), a member of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, an NGO that consults with government climate negotiators, said in an interview that First Nations people have been disenfranchised from the administration and the COP process and didn’t expect much to begin with.

“They have been doing all they can to block meaningful progress. If anything, it seems like they have been trying to sabotage it,” he said. “Kent was very clear before he went to Durban that he was going to promote ‘ethical oil’ [a euphemism for oil sands crude title="Keystone XL | Indian Country Today Media Network" href="/tag/keystone-xl"]. But in the aboriginal and larger Canadian community there are mixed opinions about what Canada should do—some have felt that if all Canada is going to do is sabotage the Kyoto process, then they should just get out.”

Canada’s bailout takes place against the backdrop of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, both globally and domestically. While Canada produces only two percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, it has increased its emissions overall by 20 percent (higher, by some estimates) between 1990 and 2010. This makes it the country with the second highest increase among developed nations behind only Australia, which has increased its emissions by 46 percent. The goal of the first commitment period of the KP (2008–12) sought the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at an average of 5% below 1990 levels for 37 of the worlds’ most developed nations, with developing nations—even large ones such as India, China, Brazil and Russia—exempt. The European Union is the only member block of KP signatories that has met the target, while the U.S. has increased its output by five percent, Japan has showed no change, and India and China have registered whopping increases of 180 percent and 247 percent, respectively.

Altogether, GHG emissions have risen 45 percent since 1990. According to a report issued on November 24 by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), greenhouse gases are expected to double over the next 40 years.

“This would result in a three- to six-degree increase of the average global temperature by the end of the century unless governments take decisive action,” the OECD stated in a press release. Kyoto’s goal was to stabilize the temperature increase to two degrees above preindustrial limits, minimizing the devastating effects of climate change. A three-degree or higher increase is associated with catastrophic change in some regions of the planet, particularly in the global south, where the majority of the worlds’ most vulnerable populations live.

Kent has argued that while Canada is committed to addressing climate change in a way that is “fair, effective, and comprehensive” for all nations, Kyoto is now an “impediment” because it doesn’t include mandatory emissions reductions for the world’s biggest emitters—especially China—a point the U.S. continually drove home during the Durban talks. Under Kyoto, developing countries are exempt from emissions reductions because of the notion that it is the developed nations who bear historical responsibility for the high level of atmospheric greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. Critics inside Canada like Meagan Leslie, New Democratic Party Member of Parliament (MP) Environment Critic, accused Kent of fear mongering by “paint[ing] our climate change obligations as a boogey man that’s going to get us [when he said] that we’re not going to be able to heat our homes and [that] every single household is going to have to fork out money to international countries. It was unbelievable. We’re withdrawing so we don’t have to report anymore, so we don’t have to say to the international community anymore, ‘Look at how we’re failing.’ ”

In another critique, Canadian Green Party Leader Elizabeth May conjectured that Canada’s pullout of Kyoto may be in violation of domestic law because the Harper administration did not consult with the House of Commons.

Clayton Thomas-Muller with the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) of Canada believes that the pullout of Kyoto is just one more incident of the Canadian government’s sidestepping its responsibility to indigenous peoples. Harper's government “does everything it can to keep its mouth shut on the link between indigenous peoples’ quality of life, the violation of our rights, our constitutional protective rights, and this government’s decisions on energy and climate policy," he said. "The government, in pulling out of Kyoto, is highly problematic from a First Nations perspective also because of the fact that the Kyoto Protocol is only one of two U.N. international frameworks that actually respect the rights of indigenous peoples, the other one being the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

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Indeed, even as Canada claims to be doing all it can to reduce its emissions, it also seems to be doing all it can to ramp up development of the Alberta oil sands reserve. How Canada can increase production of the world’s dirtiest oil and lower its national emissions at the same time remains to be seen, but in the words of one oft-quoted climate scientist, James Hansen, oil sands development is a “game-over proposition for climate change.”

Thomas-Muller also made the connection between tar sands development and Canada’s rising emissions: “While other countries are decreasing [their emissions], we’ve been steadily rising. That rise has followed a trajectory with the expansion of our tar sands industry. The Canadian government is 100 percent in the pocket of the private oil sector operating in Northern Alberta,” he claimed.

With the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol concluding in 2012, the objectives of the COP 17 meeting were to secure a second round of binding commitments to emissions reductions, as well as commitments to the Green Climate Fund, an initiative established by the COP 16 Copenhagen Accord that would provide funds for mitigation and adaptation projects for developing countries affected by climate change. As the dust settles from the Durban climate talks, it is clear to many observers that the Kyoto Protocol has been all but abandoned. Little more was accomplished than agreements to make agreements in 2015 for emissions reductions beginning in 2020, with only the European Union committing to a new round of binding pledges for emission cuts. Outside the convention center where the plenary sessions were held, activists and other conference goers were vocal in their criticisms of what their governments were doing—or more to the point, not doing—and the very real current realities faced by some nations. A plethora of demonstrations and Occupy-style mike checks were held, and on December 9 about 150 youth delegates led by Greenpeace International’s executive director, Kumi Naidoo, interrupted and occupied the plenary.

In an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, Nobel Prize–winning Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), said, “I don’t see much evidence of science driving some of the discussions and decisions. [There is] a complete absence of the scientific evidence we have available.”

Rajendra spoke about the IPCC’s most recent special report on managing extreme weather events connected to climate change.

“If we don’t do anything about climate change heat waves which now occur once every 20 years, by then end of the century will occur every two years,” he said. “Heavy precipitation events are also on the increase, both in terms of frequency and intensity. And sea level rise will pose some very serious problems for low lying coastal areas and small island states.”

For some of those island nations (populated primarily by Indigenous Peoples), the effects of climate change are not a worry of the future, but a very real problem today. On December 7 the minister of foreign affairs, trade, tourism, environment and labor of the island nation of Tuvalu, Apisai Ielemia, spoke to the COP general assembly. In his impassioned address, the minister said that the sea, once the source of life for the people, is now bringing destruction and threatening their very existence, and that being engulfed by a sea-level rise would erase their rights as a sovereign nation. But sea level rise is not their only concern, he noted.

“Just before I left to come to this conference,” Ielemia stated, “my government had declared a state of emergency because we’re suffering the worst drought in recorded history. We got to the point where we had to import fresh water and bring in emergency desalination plants. This was a clear warning that we are already suffering the adverse impacts of climate change.”

The United Nations climate conferences allow for input from Indigenous Peoples but the indigenous have no official platform during the plenary sessions. In Durban, indigenous and land-based groups banded together and formed the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities against REDD Plus and for Life to give a public platform to the issues faced by forest-dwelling peoples subject to REDD and REDD+. At the conclusion of the conference the groups condemned the climate talks as a fiasco for indigenous peoples. Tom Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network’s Executive Director, said in no uncertain terms, “By refusing to take immediate binding action to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gas emissions, industrialized countries like the United States and Canada are essentially incinerating Africa and drowning the small island states of the Pacific. The sea ice of the Inupiat, Yupik and Inuit of the Arctic is melting right before their eyes, creating a forced choice to adapt or perish. This constitutes climate racism, ecocide and genocide of an unprecedented scale.”