If the world is ever going to succeed in negotiating a comprehensive, binding strategy on climate change, it must happen when American President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper are in power.
Sure, Bush and Harper are fundamentally opposed to such a climate change strategy.
Neither man wants it to succeed, and will do everything in their power to ensure it doesn’t happen.
But they may have no other choice.
Despite their ties to oil and gas interests, the future of both men’s parties — and in Harper’s case, his government — rests on whether they can morph into credible environmental champions.
Bush isn’t worried about being re-elected.
But he leads a party facing the prospect of a second-consecutive electoral rout. His party’s incumbents are worried about being re-elected and are starting to exert their considerable influence.
Presidential contenders, like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, have already ceded the single biggest issue to the Democrats — the Iraq War. And though they will gripe and moan, they will bear the burden of that war.
But having ceded the field on Iraq, they cannot — and will not — cede climate change.
Ever since New Orleans sank beneath the weight of weather-induced chaos and Al Gore rose on the crest of his award-winning documentary, the warming Earth is the second-largest issue in American politics.
So, Bush’s Republican Party is forcing him to snatch the issue back from the Democrats, who own it by default.
Admittedly, climate change is not widely understood in the US.
It remains a boogeyman, of sorts. It scares people in the same way distant terror threats and Cuban Communists do.
But understanding is growing.
And most alarming for Republicans, that concern is growing in Bush’s own backyard — among the Religious Right.
Churches, not NGOs, are calling for action on the one issue that clearly threatens God’s greatest work — Earth, and the life on it.
All of which has pushed Bush to the brink of taking action.
For Harper and his minority Conservatives, the political stakes are even higher.
He wants to win a majority.
But, to do so he will have to champion the one cause he wants shunted back into the closet with those silly Rick Mercer ads.
Harper must somehow convince Canadians that he’s an effective environmental steward.
Trickier, he must prove he is a better one than Liberal leader Stephane Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton.
Both men have spotty records, but there is no doubt about either leader’s sincerity and commitment to addressing climate change.
Somehow Harper has to leapfrog both men on this issue, and the only way he can do that is to strike an international deal that helps undo the damage caused by his decision to push a Clean Air Act that few outside Conservative ranks take seriously.
Bush and Harper don’t want to talk about climate change.
Neither wants real action on the file.
And yet here they are, at the table, talking seriously about committing their countries to “halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” according to the New York Times.
There’s a lot at stake.
If we can’t get them to sign on, the global effort is probably doomed.
Consider who is not at this week’s G-8: Argentina. India. China. Brazil. Egypt. Indonesia. Taiwan. South Africa.
The list goes on and on.
Those developing countries represent the future G-8.
They have the most to lose, economically.
And they are countries that, by and large, aren’t ruled by opinion polls.
Their leaders won’t be manipulated by electoral whims, the way Bush and Harper have been.
They may be more open to the spectre of climate change. They may genuinely want to participate in climate-change strategies.
But when those strategies begin to look like thinly veiled attempts to keep developing nations down and current G-8 members buoyant, then their willingness to participate will be wane.
China and India may understand climate change and they may understand the threat poses to the planet.
But when it comes to putting the brakes on their economies, cutting profits and pushing individual incomes down, will the threat of climate change be enough to push those governments to real action?
So far, the answer is no.
This week, China admitted pollution-reduction efforts have had only moderate success.
Sulphur dioxide emissions have fallen incrementally. But other pollutants, like ammonia and carbon dioxide, “are increasing rapidly,” according to the New York Times.
In India, the challenges may be even greater.
There, a new emboldened middle class sees India as the future leader of the world economy.
They want their nation to be an economic powerhouse.
Abandoning that economic potential to cut coal-fired plant emissions and investing in “green” technologies isn’t likely to happen.
So the only way to succeed is to have firm commitments from a unified G-8.
That way, those countries can use their combined clout (and wealthy consumer markets) to impose similarly firm commitments on the burgeoning economies.
Which brings us back to Bush and Harper, two unlikely climate-change heroes.
If the leaders of the six other G-8 nations can’t get these two guys to reduce emissions given the current North American political climate, how will they ever influence less motivated countries?
Michael Hale is a Whitehorse-based writer.