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SG: Combating climate change is a matter of increasing urgency. Why is the objective of limiting global warming to two degrees so important?

CG: There is a broad international scientific consensus stating that the ongoing climate change is caused by human activity and the way we live. It stems from research conducted by 800 scientists whose data has been reviewed by 2,500 of their peers. Of course, there are certain individuals voicing doubts, just as, 25 or 30 years ago, there were those who questioned the idea that acid rain was harming the environment. However, since the beginning of the industrial revolution the atmospheric level of CO2, which was stable for thousands of years and is the principal greenhouse gas, has risen from 270 to 390 parts per million. It’s an exponential increase. Moreover, it is changing our climate so much that we are on the verge of losing control over it. If we warm the atmosphere more than two degrees Celsius, we could be facing a series of cataclysms that would be impossible to contain.

SG: A milestone in the effort to ward off this kind of climate chaos was the Copenhagen Conference of December 2009. Claude, you were there, heading up the CUPE delegation; what’s your assessment of this conference?

CG: CUPE was present along with its counterparts from the Public Services International and the International Trade Union Confederation. We were among the 400 accredited union delegates from around the world. A number of government delegations were amazed when they saw the degree to which unions were stakeholders in the debate.

However, the conference was not very successful. We really wanted to obtain a binding treaty, one with ambitious targets. We failed to obtain this type of treaty, though there was a political agreement. On February 1st, 2010, the countries were supposed to disclose their targets for greenhouse gas reductions. In this way, Jim Prentice, the Federal Minister of the Environment, informed us that Canada was going to align its targets – so far, unimpressive – with those of the United States. To complicate matters, President Barack Obama is battling the U.S. Congress, as is evident in the difficulties he is having with health care reform in his country. So, will the United States adopt serious policy measures? We do not know.

Furthermore, should Harper get a majority government, who knows what he will do? In early February, Jim Prentice shockingly attacked Jean Charest, premier of Quebec, accusing him of going too far on the environment. This was because Charest had decided to adopt vehicle emission standards similar to those in Europe and American states such as California and New York. Prentice had described these standards as “folly.” This goes to show that for the Harper government anything goes when it comes to doing as little as possible.

What’s at stake is bigger than all of us. We must heed the warnings so that in seven generations there will still be young people enjoying our beautiful planet. The 19th century belonged to steam and coal, while the 20th century belonged to petroleum; the 21st century, however, must belong to new energy sources: solar, wind, tidal, etc. We can halt climate change. Indeed, it’s our responsibility, as citizens and workers, to ensure a future for our communities and nations.

[Ed.: A few days after this interview, on February 20, the American Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared its intention to adopt the same vehicle emissions standards as California and Quebec.]

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