With the dust barely settled from the Copenhagen talks, critics within Canada have been scathing of its approach to the talks. They note Canada’s failure to take any leadership, its humiliation at the hands of the Yes Men (although there, Canada is hardly alone) in recent times, as well as the recipient of a fossil award, for lack of leadership as an industrialized country. When leaders came out of Copenhagen with an underwhelming accord, many in Canada were quick to point the finger at their own government’s failure.

For those who criticise Harper, the problem is one of responsibility and leadership, hardly an uncommon theme among the developed worlds’ environmentalists. They argue that Canada as a developed, liberal democracy has a moral responsibility to take the lead in tackling Climate Change.

Canada’s fossil fuel based exports are a platform for further leadership not for inaction, the Canada they know is a liberal leader and critically the moral and political superior of its sometimes whacky Southern neighbour.

Unsurprisingly, Stephen Harper’s conservatives take a different view. Harper has been abundantly clear that his first priority is Canada’s economy (some might say only priority). Harper, in conjunction with Environment Minister Jim Prentice has argued that the environment must not stand in the way of economic recovery. Since then Canada has before Copenhagen just turned the corner. Furthermore Harper has argued that that the harmonization of US and Canadian business environments means that any undue strain on Canadian businesses would see them shift south.

Harper’s Government has also been keen to shift responsibility for leadership southwards to the US and/or failing that eastward to China and India. In an interview with CTV News following Copenhagen, Environment minister Jim Prentice declared it a success:

“”This was the problem, frankly, with Kyoto. The Americans had no obligation to reduce their emissions under Kyoto; the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians — the so-called major emerging economies had no obligations under Kyoto.”

Harper is of course correct, that ultimately any negotiation must have the emerging economies with it. Furthermore he’s not wrong either to say that the Canada and the US are highly harmonized, to the extent that undue sanctions may have some impact, although this doesn’t seem to concern British Columbia with its Carbon Tax, nor Ontario or Quebec with their progressive legislation.

He’s also not been entirely unwilling on Climate legislation, proposing a Cap and Trade, and even going as far as to not rule out a Carbon Tax. However the problem is what Harper promises and what he does do. It’s one thing to discuss potentially far reaching legislation, it’s quite another when it’s unlikely the US will agree to anything anytime soon. Worse, where opportunity might arise he seems intent on derailing it, when in December he announced Canada would be prioritising the economy over the environment at the next G20.

For Canadian environmentalists the future seems uncertain, it can’t easily be demonstrated that Canada is actually slowing the pack down and even if it was it pales in comparison with the likes of China. Yet critics are right to assume that Canada is in some ways an archetypal developed liberal democracy and it makes opposition by other countries that much easier, when they can point to a country as wealthy as Canada and argue, what are they doing?

One thing is certain, while Harper remains, Canada will not be any kind of leader on the environment. The US position itself is fraught with problems. Many Democrats expended their political capital on the healthcare debate and are now looking to shore up support for defence in the mid-term elections. Worse, the mid-terms are likely to see a weakening of the Democratic party on congress. On the reverse side, Lindsey Graham(R-SC) is the one forging a Climate Change bill with the Senator John Kerry (D-MA), which if they create the bill guarantees a modicum of bipartisanship that puts off a filibuster requirement. As has recently been the case with Canada, one needs to look to Washington or the Provinces for what is happening in Canada, not Ottawa.

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