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Canada Poised to Kill Kyoto

Harper's aim given scant scrutiny by media giants.

Donald Gutstein 22 Jan

Donald Gutstein, a former professor in the School of Communication at SFU, is the author of The Big Stall, Harperism, and three other books on links between corporations, politics and media.

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Canadians are poised to axe the Kyoto Accord, but seem unaware that's what they will be doing when they elect a Stephen Harper government today.

Less than two weeks before voting day, with a majority government in sight, Harper said he would abandon the CO2 emission limits of Kyoto.

It was good news for the fossil-fuel industry, but bad news for Canadians, most of whom steadfastly favour the accord.

The story should have received major media attention, but didn't. By the following day, it was dead. Inside the Harper war room, fossil-fuel industry lobbyists were high-fiving each other. If Harper had announced a pull-out from Kyoto in Calgary in December, the media might have played the story very differently and Harper might not be heading for a majority government.

Media savvy strategy

When a government or political party announces a new policy, it chooses a location that resonates with the policy.

To announce the launch of a new day care program, it goes to a day care centre with lots of cute little tykes milling about. For a new environmental initiative, it selects a pristine wilderness location and flies the media in by helicopter. The optics reinforce the message.

But Harper made his announcement in Halifax, a location which does not spring to top of mind when thinking about carbon dioxide emissions. (Auto manufacturing factories? Petrochemical plants? Coal-fired electricity plants?)

And it was folded in with two other major policy reversals: reopening discussion of a missile-defence agreement with the Bush administration and questioning the Liberal government's groundbreaking deal with Canada's aboriginal peoples.

Each policy shift was important enough to warrant a full day's media attention, but by collapsing them together into one day, and by announcing them in Halifax late in the campaign, Harper's advisors ensured none of the policies would be adequately examined by the media. Harper's position was on the record, but with little salience, just as the war room wizards had planned.

Only the Liberal-supporting Toronto Star placed the hydra-headed story on its front page, but led with the missile defence debate issue. Harper's intention to pull out of Kyoto wasn't mentioned until the tenth paragraph.

Other papers, most supporting Harper, carried the story, but not on the front page. The Globe and Mail made its lead story that day the latest seat projections by its in-house pollster but admitted, not far into the story, that the numbers were dubious. The Globe also ran on its front page the non-story of the very distant family relationship between Harper and actor Robb Wells, who plays Ricki in Trailer Park Boys.

In a page-six story titled "Harper not bound by Liberal initiatives" -- as if the Kyoto Accord was some cockamamie idea hatched by Liberal spin doctors -- Globe reporter Brian Laghi didn't get around to Kyoto until paragraph eleven.

The story was that Harper had judged Canada's Kyoto commitment a failure. "It's necessary for Canada to develop our own plan he said, calling for a "made in Canada solution."

Crafted by Burson-Marsteller

"Made in Canada solution" is a phrase coined by the president of Imperial Oil in the fall of 2002, just as the Chretien government was preparing to introduce the Kyoto ratification vote in parliament.

The campaign to kill Kyoto was taken over by National Public Relations, the Canadian arm of global PR giant Burson-Marsteller, which created an industry front group called the Canadian Coalition for Responsible Environmental Solutions to promote the made in Canada solution.

That deception failed in the face of Chretien's determination to ratify the treaty but industry now has a second chance to sell its "made in Canada solution" through a Harper government.

There never was a made-in-Canada solution, just a made-in-the-U.S., industry-sponsored one, which was promoted by the Bush administration: make emission reduction targets voluntary and let industry decide on the most profitable ways to proceed.

Was it coincidence that the very same day Harper was saying no to Kyoto in Halifax, the other nay-saying countries, led by the U.S., were meeting half way around the world in Sydney, Australia, to create an anti-Kyoto treaty? The governments of the United States, Australia, Japan, China, India and South Korea, along with dozens of fossil-fuel companies, were fashioning an agreement that would be driven by technological improvements, not by binding emission targets. Fossil fuel use would continue to soar but would become cleaner, as industry developed better technologies.

The six countries in the anti-Kyoto alliance account for nearly half of all global greenhouse gas emissions. When Canada, under Harper, joins the group, called the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (development having priority over environment), Kyoto will be permanently sidelined.

Silence from Sydney

The Sydney meetings went unreported in the Canadian media. Not a single Canadian news organization put two and two together. Meanwhile, war room operative Ken Boessenkool was seeing his star rise.

Boessenkool and Harper were two of six prominent conservative Albertans who signed the 2001 "Firewall Letter" to Albertan Premier Ralph Klein, urging him to use all of Alberta's constitutional powers to reduce federal government influence -- withdraw from the Canada Health Act, collect its own income tax, set up a provincial pension plan, replace the RCMP with a provincial police force and push senate reform back onto the national agenda.

The firewall would prevent Ottawa from imposing Kyoto on Alberta, they argued.

Boessenkool had been a key Harper adviser since Harper won control of the Canadian Alliance in 2002. Before that, he was an adviser to Stockwell Day when he was Alberta's treasurer. After Harper lost the 2004 election, Boessenkool joined lobbying and PR firm Hill and Knowlton where he picked up some powerful fossil fuel clients such as ConocoPhillips, North America's third largest integrated oil and gas company, with 2005 sales of $135 billion US.

Boessenkool resigned from his lobbying jobs when the election was called but ConocoPhillips, like other oil giants, will benefit enormously if Canada pulls out of Kyoto. The company admits that implementing Kyoto will cost it many millions of dollars but has done nothing to prepare for these charges against earnings. Much cheaper to make Kyoto go away.

Other lobbyists in the Harper war room, such as long-time communication aide Yaroslav Baran and Sandra Buckler, also ceased representing their clients. But their colleagues are still representing big oil's interests. Baran's firm, Tactix Government Consulting, and Buckler's, GPC Public Affairs, represent dozens of the largest CO2 emitters, such as Syncrude Canada, Shell Canada, Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, Canadian Trucking Alliance, Fording Coal, BP, Canadian Oilsands Investments, Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association, as well as ConocoPhillips.

Meanwhile, environmental groups that support Kyoto, such as Greenpeace and Sierra Club, have no one representing them in the war room.

Oil's slippery alliances

For the moment, there is harmony among the libertarians, neoconservatives and oil industry lobbyists running the Harper campaign. But once in office, look for the fur to fly as they vie for the upper hand in setting Harper government policy.

That's what happened in the Bush administration when the neocons and oil industry broke into high-stakes conflict over the direction of oil policy in Iraq. According to investigative reporter Greg Palast, the neocons wanted to privatize the oil fields, gain a seat on the OPEC board and smash Saudi control of oil pricing. The oil companies wanted to maintain their monopoly and high prices.

The oil companies won. Neocons Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton were tossed out (to the World Bank and United Nations, respectively). ConocoPhillips executive Rob McKee was assigned by Bush to the Iraq oil ministry to maintain big oil's power.

No wonder Harper wants to join Bush on his next great adventure - gaining control of Iran's oil. Kyoto cannot be allowed to stand in the way.

Donald Gutstein, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, writes a regular media column for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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