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The United Nations Kyoto conference on climate change ends today in Montreal. There’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that, with challenge comes opportunity. The bad news is that, on climate change, the Liberal government is failing to meet the challenge and is missing the opportunity.

But we don’t have to, if we vote positive.

If there is any good that comes with climate change, it’s the fact that we can make a fundamental shift in our economy that will benefit workers as well as the environment. Call it the green economy. And climate change is its urgent warning bell.

That bell is ringing louder in Canada’s north, where Inuit communities are facing a dramatic range of environmental changes, including increasing unpredictability of weather and changes in ice’s thickness and distribution. These are directly disrupting wildlife, community life and traditional land-based activities.

Opponents have said that lowering our greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto accord would damage our economy, but the real costs will be borne if we do nothing. Just think of New Orleans’s hurricane Katrina and the devastation of stronger, more frequent storms that climate change is causing. We can’t afford not to act.

In fact, action on Kyoto can be good for the Canadian economy if we are proactive. It can create jobs and increase productivity through investment in public transit, improved efficiency and waste reduction. This will be especially good for municipal public sector jobs, good for our communities and good for workers, making our communities healthier and more liveable. And what’s good for community health is good for our children’s health.

Significantly, the Montreal conference involved unions in discussions in, among other things, mapping out a “just transition” fund to help move displaced workers into green sectors of the economy. Workers are getting involved in planning, such as creating sustainable development agreements in their workplaces and having a seat at the UN climate change negotiations. Unions also need to be involved in negotiating the terms of the Liberal government’s “New Deal for Cities and Communities.”

But we need more than talk from the federal government. We need action. Under the Liberals, Canada’s emissions have increased by 24 per cent from 1990 to 2003. And Environment Canada has reported that growth in oil and gas exports, almost all to the United States, contributed significantly to emission growth during those same years. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), we can’t reduce our U.S. oil and gas exports. This is an energy insecurity policy, and climate recklessness.

The government itself has also found that emissions from transportation and power generation have grown significantly. In contrast, the increase from “residential sources” only accounted for 0.7 per cent of Canada’s increase in emissions from 1990, while our population increased by 14 per cent.

Clearly, asking individual Canadians to take the Liberal government’s “one tonne challenge” while industry spews out greenhouse gases just isn’t going to cut it.

Prime Minister Paul Martin truly has nerve, telling the Montreal conference earlier this week that if we fail to meet the challenge of climate change, it will be “a failure of character for all who today are confronted with the clear cost of our indulgence and who refuse to submit to sacrifice and new ways”. Bold words.

Martin is not walking his talk. Earlier this week he attacked the U.S. for its greenhouse gas emissions but under his watch Canada’s emissions have increased at a faster rate than those of the U.S. And his government continues to hold onto the old ways by providing massive public subsidies to oil and gas development such as the oil sands in Liberal-wary Alberta. Even Environment Minister Stéphane Dion has admitted that “Canada is far behind”.

The Conservatives would make things worse. Leader Stephen Harper has said he would tear up the Kyoto agreement and let corporations meet voluntary cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. His pro-oil political base makes him an enemy of the green economy. He may be softening his tune on this for his second federal election as Conservative leader but he’s fooling nobody.

The NDP have a credible and realistic plan for tackling climate change, including a new Clean Air Act and an ambitious home retrofit program that would create jobs, save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This past spring, the NDP pressured the Liberals to commit $900 million to energy efficiency retrofit programs and public transit.

If we vote positive, we could achieve even more.