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Why the Canadian Elections Matter for Global Health

By Rachel Hammonds
on October 16, 2015

So, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have finally been endorsed by world leaders and attention has shifted to what is arguably the more important event, the December Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP 21 ) at which countries will commit to a universal climate agreement. As a fan of Richard Horton (who isn’t?), I endorse the position that global health needs to look beyond improving health and equity between and among all people, and embrace the idea that planetary health, and respecting planetary boundaries, is fundamental to addressing the needs of societies and thus fundamental to advancing global health for all. Thus, for global health the boldness of COP 21 commitments is vital.

So, what do the 19 October Canadian federal elections have to do with global health and planetary health? Probably many readers are more familiar with the progressive ideas of Naomi Klein than the retrograde ideas and actions of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. Based on his track record over the past nine years, I  argue that Harper’s re-election would be dangerous for planetary and global health for two key reasons: his obvious contempt for multilateralism and the potential impact of a rogue Canada on global support for transnational solutions to shared problems.

To be fair, Harper is feted in some circles as a global health “good guy” as he launched the Muskoka Initiative on maternal, newborn and child health and has recently reaffirmed Canada’s commitment.  I too applaud this leadership.

However, if we look beyond the window dressing of Muskoka, I believe we see a very worrying Canada – a country that rejects multilateralism to advance its own limited short-term agenda, a country that rejects the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities relating to climate change.

There are finite resources on this planet and much conflict is driven by competition for  these resources. The negotiation and ratification of international treaties that address issues of global concern can help to avert conflict and advance global goods. However, such agreements require that states relinquish a degree of sovereignty to further global aims. In the area of climate change, the Kyoto protocol put in place an agreement for addressing common but differentiated responsibility with respect to greenhouse gases. Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol.  But complying with it required tough political decisions that would reshape the Canadian economy, moving it away from a reliance on the extraction and exploitation of natural resources.

Canada has not taken such decisions. Instead, under Harper, Canada has become a selfish, short-sighted global actor as evidenced by the December 2011 decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. Some may argue that Harper has adopted a realist vision rooted in playing to Canada’s current economic strengths. However, the opposition to tar sands-related projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline by Canada’s traditional ally the United States underlines the short-termism and lack of sophistication in the Harper team’s analysis.

The Kyoto withdrawal decision meant that the Canadian extractive economy could continue to develop the tar sands of Alberta, long opposed for their huge environmental footprint, without worrying about capping greenhouse gas emissions as required by the Kyoto Protocol promise. Alberta’s tar sands represent the third largest reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and their ongoing development is supported by the Harper government, and others, who call them oil sands. Thankfully for the planet, the drop in oil prices has had a negative impact on tar sands development – and, unfortunately, on the entire Canadian economy.

Okay, I hear you say, Canada may be a G7 member, but it is a small global player with no nuclear weapons and very little global influence. Agreed, but by withdrawing from an international agreement that attempts to address one of the biggest threats to our planet, they send a worrying signal to other countries about global solidarity.  I believe this signal can have spillover effects; encouraging selfish behavior by others and undermining progress towards the global mindset required to address issues of global concern that impact on social justice – from taxation, to the environment, to health. Such behavior undermines the urgent transformation in our values and our practices based on recognition of our interdependence and the interconnectedness of the risks we face, called for in the Lancet Manifesto.

If Harper is re-elected, it is unlikely that Canada will look beyond its national borders and interests and work with other nations to support ambitious climate goals in Paris that address global risks. On the positive side, Canada has submitted an intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) for COP 21. Unsurprisingly, this INDC is rated as “inadequate” by the independent scientific team at Climate Action Tracker. This is bad news for the SDGs and the planet itself.

On 19 October, the world needs Canadians to reject the Harper government’s vision as “inadequate”, and elect someone who engages with the international community in a progressive manner. As a global health scholar, I hope for a new leader who will use Canada’s voice and influence to advance global health in Paris and beyond. Unfortunately Naomi Klein is not on the ballot.

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