The summer of 2016 was a record breaker. July was the hottest month ever recorded and 2016 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded. The heat wave in the United States was described as a ‘heat dome’. California fires due to tinder-dry conditions threatened communities. And while parts of North America baked, flash floods erased historical records. The late July flood in Ellicott City, Maryland, swept away cars and tragically some of the people in them. Local people were left unprepared and without explanation, falling back on the usual ‘nothing like this has ever happened, not in over a hundred years’. Flooding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was more severe than that caused by Hurricane Katrina. But the flooding and landslide events were global—Philippines, China, Russia, Mali, India, Burkino Faso, Nigeria... the list is long.
Canadian media, as usual, managed to cover climate change events without mentioning climate change. One exception should be noted. CBC Radio’s The 180 managed to make it clear that the fact a luxury cruise ship was traversing the North West Passage was due to global warming removing what had been centuries’ worth of impassible ice.
But for the most part, Canadian mainstream media covered extreme weather events as it has always done—in a fact-free void where the possibility that global warming was in any way implicated is suppressed. In Canada, the big climate news this summer was that the Minister of Environment and Climate Change spent $6,000 on a photographer for COP21.
Scandalous? Hardly. But easy to cover with no requirement to explain science or cover a matter of urgent concern.
The photographer fees play into a false narrative of the climate negotiations. Lorrie Goldstein in the Toronto Sun dragged up the usual images (‘Trudeau’s hypocrisy on climate exposed,’ August 24, 2016) that Canada’s delegation at the climate summit was an orgy of French cuisine and champagne. Goldstein says we were all hypocrites to attend because if anyone really cared about climate action they would have stayed home, rather than emit greenhouse gases travelling to and from the negotiations.
More than anyone, I wish it were possible to hold negotiations between 192 countries to agree to a treaty (by consensus) that sets the stage to eliminate our fossil fuel dependence, without meeting. Having witnessed many of these negotiations, I know that what drives compromise is intensely personal. It is in late night sessions and corridor arm twisting. It cannot be attempted by Skype.
As for being in Paris, the negotiations were actually at the old airport outside of Paris—Le Bourget. The conference facilities were not the site of fine dining. I stayed in the same hotel as Minister McKenna. It will look like quite the lovely treat when you see in the public reports that the hotel was 300 Euros/night. It was actually the Charles De Gaulle airport Best Western. They jacked up their prices, I suppose. There may be lovely Best Westerns somewhere in the world, but this was not one of them. And we did not get much chance of seeing those over-priced rooms to get any sleep.
The bill for the Canadian delegation for the whole conference was higher than the usual conference. Normally, journalists register themselves through the UN system to gain credentials. Unfortunately, for the previous 10 years, Canadian journalists skipped global negotiations, so they missed all the deadlines and a few dozen of them could only gain access by being added to the government delegation. (They did not bill for their expenses, but they did make a difference to the number of members within the official delegation.)
Another significant reason for higher costs has not been acknowledged. COP21 opened two weeks after the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris. Canada’s delegation included every premier as well as the prime minister and several Cabinet Ministers. For the first time, the RCMP became a significant part of a climate delegation.
Meanwhile, the idea that people were enjoying being in Paris—while potentially true for some hangers on—was certainly not the case for the working delegation. And no one worked harder than Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.
Mid-way through the conference, the President of COP21, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius tapped her to be one of 14 ministers from around the world co-facilitating seven key working groups. Catherine McKenna was dropped in at the deep end. With no previous experience in climate talks, she worked straight through several 24-hour shifts, tasked with one of the most controversial and sensitive aspects of the proposed treaty—carbon markets.
I have no idea why the Hon Catherine McKenna thought it necessary to have a photographer chronicling the Paris climate conference. If she had asked my advice on this, I would have advised her to stick to the photos taken by journalists and a few amateur photos by other participants. I really do not mind that she didn’t ask me about $6,000 for a photographer.
I do remain very gratified that she asked me about the issues subject to negotiation—the question of a long-term target and the urgency for real action.
To get the Liberals to act to meet the Paris target, to ensure we urgently replace the weak climate target left behind by the previous prime minister, will take public pressure from an informed electorate. That informed electorate may want to start by educating our media.