12/01/2011 09:09 EST | Updated 01/31/2012 05:12 EST

Remember When Canada Was an Environmental Leader?

Santa won't be delighted to hear that Canada plans to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol just before Christmas (the North Pole may soon be ice-free in the summer) but it's the real people who live on this continent and know the reality of climate change for whom the Canadian flag has been sullied.

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Oh Canada, do you remember when scientists identified a grave environmental threat caused by the release of gases from everyday objects used by billions of people around the world? And do you remember how we were forced to come together to agree an international deal that phased out the release of those gases, resulting in a ground-breaking treaty that actually worked?

Do you remember that, Canada? The gases were CFCs, the threat was a growing hole in the ozone layer, the treaty was the Montreal Protocol and the country that did so much to bring about that breakthrough was you, wasn't it Canada?

Scroll forward two decades and we're here in Africa, the continent facing down climate change now, where droughts and extreme weather events are becoming more common. Where 12 million people face famine in the horn of Africa this year due to droughts. Where on the eve of the climate negotiations this week in Durban, several people died in freak flash floods. But this time Canada isn't leading by example so much as swaggering through the conference hall in the mode of a poor man's George W Bush.

This week the Harper government leaked that it will be pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol just before Christmas. Santa won't be delighted to hear that news (the North Pole may soon be ice-free in the summer, as Arctic temperatures continue to rise at an alarming rate) but it's the real people who live on this continent and know the reality of climate change for whom the Canadian flag has been sullied.

Because the Canadian government doesn't just want to avoid taking action on emissions, it wants every other country to do nothing as well. That's what it was trying to achieve when it swung its wrecking ball through the Durban Conference Centre.

As long as the EU stays firm in its commitment to Kyoto, Canada's move will make little difference. But there's a wider issue here, because Canada's position is fundamentally unserious. After all, its delegation says it has come to Durban to promote what it calls "ethical" tar sands oil. Uh? Anyone who describes the tar sands as "ethical" needs counselling for their troubled relationship with reality (the tar sands are just about the dirtiest energy on Earth -- NASA scientist James Hansen says if we burn the tar sands it's game over for the climate.) Really, if they've come here to tell us that digging up Alberta and melting it to fuel our cars is ethical, they needn't have wasted the flight.

But back to Kyoto. Maintaining the Protocol is important because it's the global rulebook on how to cut carbon across dozens of countries in a way that's fair and verifiable. If you kill Kyoto you take us back to square one and a new deal to beat climate change becomes almost impossibly hard to agree in time. Kyoto is our bridge to an international regime that would mean we're not still meeting like this in 40 years time. The EU needs to defend that bridge here, this week, no matter what Canada announces.

In the halls of the Conference Centre today Canada is being talked about as a belligerent bully and many are reminiscing about the nation that played a productive role on the world stage as a problem-solver and leader. And around the world people are protesting against the Ottawa government's marriage to the tar sands industry, from the thousands arrested outside the White House in the Keystone pipeline protests to the British activists who blockaded a government department this week after documents revealed how lobbyists have captured policy in London (and really, you have to see these documents). While the Canadian government isn't the only government who is being unduly influenced by the major fossil fuel corporations who are holding us back, it is certainly one of the most in-your-face examples of a government acting on behalf of the polluters instead of the people.

Hundreds of thousands have a signed petitions and advertisements against the tar sands, amongst them Archbishop Tutu and many Canadians, who are dismayed to learn what their government is doing in their name. And we in Durban are feeling a pang of sadness at the moral decline of the government that speaks for us.