Can the PM keep Barack Obama’s attention?

The President is big on climate change policy. Stephen Harper? Not so much.

Can the PM keep Barack Obama’s attention?When Hillary Clinton welcomed Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, in Washington in late February, she probably wanted to keep an eye on a separatist leader who’s been making new noises about taking his nation out of the U.K. But Scotland will never be high on a secretary of state’s list of worries, and in the meantime there is business to transact. So Salmond pitched wind turbines from successful Scottish manufacturers as a ready source of clean energy. Barack Obama’s first budget offers lots of money for clean energy, and lots of suppliers are lining up to get some.

For her own first trip abroad, Clinton considered several destinations and issues before settling on Asia and climate change. She brought her climate change envoy Todd Stern to Beijing, and she didn’t bring along her lieutenants for arms control or high finance.

When Obama came to Ottawa he was full of praise for his neighbour’s climate change policies. The neighbour wasn’t Canada. “Mexico actually has taken some of the boldest steps around the issues of alternative energy and carbon reductions of any country out there,” the President told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge. In a briefing before Obama left for Ottawa, White House officials couldn’t stop talking about Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s climate change plans.

Stephen Harper has decided to make Canada-U.S. relations a priority, and common action on energy and the environment are a big part of that plan. But as our little tour of Scotland, Mexico and China showed, we are not alone. Harper likes to boast he has no trouble making priorities. Even if that’s still true—a big “if”—it’s easier to make priorities than to become one.

After Clinton’s China trip, Kenneth Lieberthal, a climate change expert at Washington’s Brookings Institution, told the New York Times what it all meant. “She’s saying, ‘We have changed the U.S. approach to this in a huge way. We want you to know that, and we want you to know the door is wide open for serious communication.’ ”

And that’s the problem. Asking for serious communication is setting a high hurdle for Harper’s goverment. Asking that communication be backed by consistent action, especially on climate change policy, has often been asking too much.

The centrepiece of the Harper government’s action on greenhouse gas emissions is the “Turning the Corner” plan announced in April 2007 by John Baird, when he was working out of the environment minister’s office. So far, that’s no action at all. Turning the Corner is a baroque set of regulations that was supposed to transform into a mechanism for capping and trading emissions permits. But first the government needed, in the original plan’s felicitous 2007 phrasing, “to translate the final regulatory framework . . . into regulatory language for the actual regulations.” That was supposed to happen by fall 2008. It didn’t. Lately Jim Prentice, Baird’s successor, doesn’t talk about Turning the Corner much. The bureaucrat who used to be in charge of the file, Cecile Cleroux, has been transferred to the investigation into last year’s listeriosis outbreak. Word inside the government is that the brakes have been slammed hard on Turning the Corner. The Harper government prefers to work toward “a continental solution” with Obama.

But Obama has his choice of suitors on many continents. He might be willing to privilege his relationship with Canada above others, but the Harper crew would need to bring some serious game. It’s been doing the opposite.

The International Renewable Energy Agency, with 75 member countries, had its founding conference in Bonn in January. The U.S. sent an observer; Canada didn’t even bother doing that. A report from the Pembina Institute says Obama’s budget outspends Harper’s by six to one, per capita, on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Harper’s budget failed to expand its popular Eco-Energy for Renewable Power program, which pays companies one cent for every kilowatt-hour of clean energy they put into the grid, even though companies are lining up for a chance to make that kind of concrete contribution to Canada’s green energy supply.

In the absence of the certainty Harper could have provided, Canadian firms are pulling up stakes and moving offshore. Germany’s “Solar Valley” outside Frankfurt is becoming home to more and more Canadian firms hiring German employees.

It is a bit early to say the air is out of the Obama-Harper relationship. Smart observers still have a lot of hope. I chatted with Derek Burney, who used to be Brian Mulroney’s chief of staff, and then his ambassador to Washington, and who ran Harper’s transition to government in 2006. With Carleton University prof Fen Hampson, Burney wrote a study full of advice for Harper on managing relations with Obama. He found Obama’s visit “pretty impressive” and thought the Harper-Obama joint news conference was “one of the most articulate by two leaders that I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Where it goes from here is the big question,” Burney continued. “To what extent the PM keeps it going is the big question.” We chatted some more, and then Burney repeated: “I don’t want to be too blunt, but the only way this is going to work is if the PM remains committed.”

He sounds worried. Canada and the U.S. actually used to have a Bilateral Working Group on Climate Change. It met for the fourth time in June 2005 in Washington, and its members looked forward to the next year’s meeting in Ottawa. That meeting never happened. What changed? Stephen Harper became prime minister. Don’t tell Barack Obama.

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