Last week U.S. President Barack Obama was in Berlin reflecting on the symbolism of the demise of the Berlin Wall and invoking John Kennedy’s earlier visit to the same place to look forward to coming challenges. While Obama emphasized the importance of further reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons he was very clear that dealing with climate change and cutting greenhouse gas emissions was what needed priority attention.
If we fail, he suggested in very clear terms, “ . . . the grim alternative affects all nations — more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise. This is the future we must avert. This is the global threat of our time.” This is, he argued, very clearly the No. 1 security issue that has to be confronted. Finally, after a quarter of a century of discussion, an American president has bluntly asserted that environmental security should get top billing.
His timing certainly was apt. In May this year the level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere reached the symbolic marker of 400 parts per million. In the weeks preceding Obama’s speech in Berlin, much of Europe, and Germany in particular, had been once again subjected to severe flooding.
While the president was delivering his speech, the Indian military were struggling to rescue flood victims in the north of their country due to the arrival of a particularly severe monsoon season. A private helicopter had to be rented to rescue at least one stranded government minister.
A couple of days later Calgary, headquarters to many of the companies developing the much criticized Alberta tarsands, was flooded too as a result of extreme rain events. The Trans-Canada Highway was washed away nearby. The grounds for the forthcoming Calgary Stampede were under water as well.
Unusually heavy rainfall on three continents simultaneous with the president’s explicit elevation of climate change to the pre-eminent threat of our time emphasizes the point that climate has become an urgent priority. In his subsequent speech in Washington on Tuesday outlining his climate plan, he explicitly argued that it was the responsibility of citizens to “convince those in power to reduce carbon pollution.”
A week before Obama’s Berlin speech, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been in London addressing the Mother of Parliaments. In stark contrast to Obama’s remarks, Harper’s speech hearkened back to earlier times, to a world in which conservative “values” were to be underpinned by a growing economy and security based on prosperity on the one hand and a willingness to use force on the other.
Where Harper addressed politicians in the former home of empire, and did so in ways that smacked of imperial nostalgia, Obama chose a city that has tried valiantly to overcome its troubled history. His speech in Berlin was made close to the hugely impressive memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Where Harper conjured up images of past glory, Obama looked to the future, to the need to tackle fresh challenges and to confront the consequences of our own actions. He also warned of the pernicious consequences of trying to use war as a tool of statecraft.
Nowhere does Harper’s view of the world countenance serious attempts to restrict weaponry, nor does it apparently understand that prosperity based on the use of fossil fuels is precisely what is increasingly endangering people caught in extreme weather events. The instabilities that result, mainly from the failure of politicians and policy-makers to make adequate preparation to deal with increasingly predictable disasters, are not amenable to traditional military policies either, however useful armed forces may be in providing sandbags and helicopters in an emergency.
Contrasting these speeches suggests the political choices that soon have to be confronted: co-operative efforts to engage the global community in tackling climate change or the the insistence that “our” values must triumph, given that they are the only way to ensure “our” security. The insistence on prosperity based on fossil fuels that exacerbate environmental disruptions presents Canadians with a pressing choice as to what kind of “security” they wish to pursue.
Obama is very clear as to what he thinks ought to be done. In his Berlin speech he said: “And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late. That is our job. That is our task. We have to get to work.” As the president put it on Tuesday, “We all have to share the responsibility to keep the planet habitable.”
In Ottawa its up to the opposition, and Thomas Mulcair in particular, to make it clear that very many Canadians agree with the president’s priorities rather than with Stephen Harper’s. The political question that matters now, much more than scandals in the Senate, is whether we will act to avert the future that President Obama wants to avoid, or instead continue to abandon our global responsibilities in an effort to somehow secure “ourselves” against the consequences of climate change.
Simon Dalby is CIGI Chair in the Political Economy of Climate Change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.