Montreal - Are environmentalists more effective when they're pushing a policy along from the inside or pushing the envelope from the outside? That's the intriguing question now making the rounds as activists stream into Montreal for the UN Climate Change Conference.
It arose this week when the Sierra Club issued a caution to activists in their Planetary Citizen's Guide To The Global Climate Negotiations.
"All activists participating in any way in the Montreal meetings need to weigh carefully the risks of giving ammunition to those who want to derail global progress. Attacks on Kyoto will inevitably help the Bush propaganda machine," the report stated.
The Montreal meet is the first opportunity that countries, even those like the U.S. that did not sign Kyoto, will have to discuss reduction commitments after Kyoto's first phase expires in 2012.
Many enviros are rightly concerned about derailing the first phase of Kyoto, with its relatively modest targets, and jeopardizing a chance to start a dialogue on how to achieve a 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This is a target most experts agree we must meet to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming.
"I did not want activists to push the line, saying that Kyoto doesn't work. That could provide fodder for countries to throw their hands up and abandon the process," says Elizabeth May, executive director of the Sierra Club.
At the Climate Justice Centre, an international grassroots action centre set up by Greenpeace, Energy Action, the Durban Group and other ENGOs for the Montreal conference, many are at odds with Sierra's tactics. "The Bush propaganda machine would never use a quote from an ENGO anyway. They're doing just fine spreading lies about climate change on their own. [Sierra Club] is being politically naive. Activists need to have a radical voice to be effective," says Heidi Bachram of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute.
Perhaps more surprising is Sierra's strategy to back off criticizing the Canadian government during the UN conference for its inaction in reaching Kyoto emissions reductions targets. Of the 38 Kyoto signatories, Canada has one of the poorest records, with emissions 24 per cent above 1990 levels. This is a far cry from the target of 6 per cent below the 1990 marker that Canada needs to reach by the end of the first Kyoto commitment period in 2012.
"How can we preach reduction to other countries that we desperately need to bring into the fold, especially the U.S., China and India, when we are failing so miserably? It puts Canada in a very embarrassing position," says Morag Carter of the David Suzuki Foundation.
It is precisely this embarrassment that the Canadian government wanted to avoid when it was deciding whether to host the climate conference. "I think there were people within cabinet and the Prime Minister's office who were worried about what the ENGOs might say about Canada's record. Hosting an event like this casts a sharp spotlight on Canada's record," May says.
During a climate conference strategy session in late September at the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQUAM), May and those in the Pembina Institute encouraged others to let the feds off the hook. May told the activist crowd "not to undermine the Canadian government during the conference." She advised session attendees that Canada's record wasn't relevant during the conference.
Some attendees at the September session felt pressure was being put on dissenters to adopt this silent tactic. "There were interests at that UQAM meeting trying to soften the message coming from the activist community, telling people to ease off criticism of the government during the UN conference," says Graham Erion, a strategy session attendee and participant in the Climate Justice Centre.
May disagrees with this interpretation. "That's ridiculous. I would never try to co-opt another environmentalist. I just expressed my opinion that during this brief window I don't care about Canada's reductions targets. The world community, including Canada, is going to need courage to move on without Bush. We can't get sidetracked by focusing on domestic issues.'
It's a point of view shared by Matthew Bramley of the Pembina Institute. "The time to condemn the Canadian government was in the months leading up to the Montreal conference," he says. "This issue is not relevant at a multilateral negotiation."
But the Suzuki Foundation's Carter thinks May's and Bramley's tactics are shortsighted. "I respectively disagree. This is a moment where we should all point out our government's failure in curbing greenhouse gases. It is not being true to our role as environmentalists to be silent at this time," she says.
The Sierra Club is not only advocating a quiet strategy on Canada, but has reversed a policy stance in relation to the Kyoto Protocol. In 1997, the group came out against the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the Kyoto measure that allows carbon trading between developed countries and the global South, but has since decided to support the provision.
Heidi Bachram contends that the carbon trading scheme under the CDM is part of the problem. "Carbon trading doesn't challenge our fossil fuel dependency; it feeds it. Companies can continue producing the same amount of greenhouse gases if they invest money in another country. This scheme should not be part of future emissions reduction treaties.'
Responds May, "I would have preferred a carbon tax, but that is not the agreement we have. The reality is that Kyoto is the only legally binding agreement to reduce GHGs. When you're drowning and someone throws you a lifeboat, you can't wait for another one to come along."