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Environmental challenges and Canadian foreign policy

January 13, 2009

A piece on environmental challenges — including climate change, freshwater in Canada, oil production etc — and Canadian foreign policy/Canada’s role in the world, which I wrote in preparation for our national dialogue coming up in Ottawa at the end of this month. The national dialogue will bring together 40 Canadians from across the country to help us refine our story of Canada’s role in the world in the 21st century. I welcome feedback, as I am a bit uncomfortable with this sort of writing that tends to feel dry and static. I think I met my main objective of keeping it accessible while not losing too much of the complexity.

Environmental Challenges

Canada’s relationship to the environment is defined by a few key facts: we’re a northern country, with 200,000 km2 of glaciers and icefields, and long cold winters to get through; we’re resource-rich, with the world’s longest coastline, likely the world’s second largest oil reserves and almost 10% of its renewable water resources, and; we’re major consumers and polluters, as the fourth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, and the second largest consumer of freshwater. In many ways, environmental challenges put a greater burden on Canadians than on the citizens of other countries. They demand responsible action – but they also create new opportunities.

When we think of a changing and challenging environment, two related facts immediately come to mind: the uncertainty surrounding oil production and pricing, and climate change. These have major consequences for Canada – the economic opportunity created by the tar sands is tantalizing, but raises concerns about long-term environmental impacts. Climate change is reducing the ice cover in the Arctic, creating the possibility of an ice-free Northwest passage; again, the potential environmental impacts, including rising sea levels, worry many Canadians. Aside from these two facts, there are others to consider as well: accelerating growth of the world population makes water and waste major concerns. Competition over Canada’s water resources and questions of ownership will definitely be future challenges, as will reducing the amount of waste produced globally. Forest and fish resources are crucial to the economy in parts of our country, and demonstrate the interrelatedness of environmental systems (think of climate change, shortened winters, and the pine beetle). Air pollution remains a major concern, particularly in cities where poor air quality leads to more cases of respiratory illnesses and other health problems. All these challenges are related, and could be equally important in coming years.

As we’ve already seen, environmental changes can have dramatic, unforeseen consequences that spread out to affect all parts of the global system. Given this, making an informed choice about Canada’s role in the world requires that we take these changes, and the responsibilities and opportunities they create, into careful consideration. As you create the new story for Canada in the world, what questions might you raise that address our environmental challenges? Below are six questions we have prepared to get you started:

1. How might environmental challenges limit our ability to achieve the vision described in the Canada’s World story, including those elements of the vision that are not directly related to the environment? Are there aspects of the story that need to be modified when taking environmental challenges into consideration?

2. What is the first immediate action Canada should take to demonstrate a responsible attitude towards the environment?

3. What is the first immediate action Canada should take to make the most of the opportunities created by the changing environment?

4. How can we best influence other countries to take responsible action, particularly regarding greenhouse gas emissions?

5. What steps does Canada need to take (if any) to assert sovereign control over its natural resources, including the Arctic?

6. How should we involve Canada’s indigenous populations in decisions about our global environmental role?


re: question 5, an article by Jack Granatstein on

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