Symbols of Change in Paris

Major Groups and Regional Representatives meeting with Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (UNEA1, Nairobi, June 26, 2014)

Major Groups and Regional Representatives meeting with Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning (UNEA1, Nairobi, June 26, 2014)

Canada does not need to take new climate commitments to Paris – just a new attitude.

The substance can (and must) come later. For now, symbols are more important – and the Maple Leaf too long has been absent.

United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner, in an op-ed in the Toronto Star (November 3), called on our new government to reclaim its leadership role in environmental diplomacy, including within UNEP, which now has responsibility for the United Nations environment file.

As the only representative of an accredited Canadian civil society organization (the United Church of Canada) at UNEP’s last two global meetings, I believe that needs to include the rest of us, too.

As a Canadian observer, I was warmly welcomed to both the UNEP’s 27th Governing Council and the first United Nations Environment Assembly – and then sharply challenged by delegates who asked “What is wrong with Canada these days?”

At UNEP HQ in Nairobi, we simply weren’t present in the numbers and with the policies that were required. On the government side, the small delegation cobbled together in 2013 was forced by security concerns to stay home in 2014, instead relaying advice through the night by cellphone to the few consular staff based there. They did their best, with integrity and without complaining, but it was not the role we should have played.

On the civil society side, our absence was even more obvious.

There was a side-event on the Arctic, where I listened to a Laplander talk about the changing face of the North…but there were no Inuit to speak about their experience.

At another side-event on “feeding the planet,” there were no farmers from North America, so after I challenged what was said, I was welcomed into the Farmers Major Group to offer some perspective from our agricultural sector.

I worked on interventions with indigenous people from around the world so they could be heard – knowing my own experience of aboriginal issues was a pale shadow of what First Nations’ representatives from Canada could have contributed to that discussion.

At every opportunity, I tried to add a Canadian voice to what was going on. What I said was heard and appreciated, largely because of where I came from. The Maple Leaf still matters in global affairs.

The new Canadian government and its cabinet are powerful symbols of change and possibility. Colleagues from around the world have already marveled at the apparent about-face in environmental policy — and the diverse, talented (and gender-balanced!) faces that smiled out at the world from that first photo.

As the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) move toward implementation and bags are packed for climate talks in Paris, the world needs such symbols of radical, healthy and positive change in the political leadership that will make so many crucial decisions in the months ahead.

More than government policies must change, however.

Canadian civil society must be present when these global decisions are made, contributing desperately needed perspectives and expertise. 70% of UNEP’s programmes around the world are delivered on the ground by civil society organizations. In many places, CSOs are the real face of democracy, the voice of the people who are working for the everyday change that is the only way to shape a sustainable future for us all.

If the government of Canada truly values the participation of its citizens in making decisions about the future of the planet, it should begin by including civil society representatives in all of its official delegations to global environmental meetings.

Given the current thorny debates in UNEP and the UN in general about the nature of civil society/stakeholder engagement, it would be a globally symbolic gesture of support for the work we do.

More importantly, simply to trust the wisdom and the diversity of views that these people would bring to such meetings, allowing them to speak for themselves, would also be a powerful symbol of what planetary democracy really means.

Peter Denton is currently one of two Major Groups and Stakeholders Representatives to UNEP for the region of North America and is a Lead Author for the North American Regional Assessment within UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) 6.