Senate leaves climate change out in the cold


Joe Gunn

December 13, 2010

The East Block of the Parliament Buildings has a special charm. Here you'll find high ceilings, stained glass windows, larger offices and much less of that harried buzz evident in the frenzied offices of MPs located in the other buildings on the Hill.

The East Block mostly houses the offices of senators, those elders responsible for "sober second thought" in Canada's well-designed system of federal government.

On the afternoon of Nov. 16 I found myself waiting comfortably in the beautiful East Block, where I was to meet Grant Mitchell, an Alberta Liberal senator and sponsor of a climate change bill. But then the bells started ringing.

The bells, of course, call members into the chamber for a vote. While my meeting was cancelled, the Climate Change Accountability Act went down to defeat 43 to 32.

The Senate had dealt the global environment a massive blow — without even debating the legislation.

In the following days, most of the media commentary focused on the implications for Canadian democracy when unelected Senators defeated a bill that had not once, but twice, been passed by Parliament.


Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, fumed, "The last time a House bill was defeated by the Senate, without being referred to committee, was more than 80 years ago." The NDP, which had sponsored Bill C-311 in the House of Commons, attacked the prime minister for failing to respect the will of Parliament.

Prime Minister Harper's October 2008 statement, "We don't believe an unelected body should in any way be blocking an elected body," was repeatedly thrown back at him. But Harper did not apologize for consistently opposing such "completely irresponsible" legislation, and Conservative senators blamed the Liberals for mistaking Senate procedure.

For his part, Mitchell countered that the legislation had sat in the Senate for over six months and that the Conservatives had no intention to stop delaying it. When they saw an opportunity to defeat it, they acted. According to Mitchell, "All (the legislation) asked for was a plan. You'd think we'd have a plan two weeks before we go to Cancun, wouldn't we?"


After the dismal results of the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen, there is little optimism for a positive outcome from the Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 conference in Cancun, Mexico.

The economic recession, while responsible for the good news that world greenhouse gas emissions decreased in 2008, also meant less money for climate change, and less attention given to the issue.

In Canada, inaction on climate change seems to be justified because of what others are not doing. With the U.S. Congress now sporting a Republican majority, there is little hope for the Democrats' cap and trade plan to be adopted. Since Ottawa has pledged to move in tandem with U.S. policy on global warming, the policy vacuum has migrated north.

But a growing number of faith communities see the links between the need for "climate justice," authentic worship and responsible ministry. The World Council of Churches has called for a "fair, ambitious and binding agreement" on climate change from Cancun.

The moderator of the United Church of Canada has carried out a "Spirit Express" tour by train, stopping in 20 communities to speak at town hall events to discuss faith and environment issues.

Many international development agencies of the churches (like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and World Vision) have joined groups like Citizens for Public Justice to organize public meetings on a faith-filled response to the climate crisis. They recognize that under existing UN climate agreements, developed countries have to do more than cut our own emissions. Crucial though that may be, we are also responsible for helping poorer nations reduce theirs.


In June, Canada announced $400 million for climate financing, as part of the three-year, $30 billion commitment the world made in Copenhagen.

But Canada did not ensure that this financing is "new and additional." (Canada has frozen development assistance funding for the next three years.) Nor is the Canadian money in the form of grants — 72 per cent of it will be provided as loans.

Canada could play a constructive role at the Cancun conference by announcing a more robust future commitment to a better global climate fund, as well as seriously reducing our own contributions to global warming.

Just don't ask the Senate to vote on it.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)