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The Arctic, the tropics and Ottawa

Special to Globe and Mail Update

They're worlds apart, but the circumpolar North and more than 40 countries in the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian oceans — known as Small Island Developing States — are on the front lines of climate change. Both regions have been significantly and increasingly affected by climate change, and both have been badly let down by unsuccessful efforts to implement the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Elders and hunters of Athabaskan first nations in Yukon have reported invasions of new species of birds and fish, shorter seasons for ice roads, infestations of spruce bark beetles, concerns about water drawn from rivers fed by diminishing glaciers, the drying-up of the Old Crow Flats. Northern culture is threatened by climate change, a reality acknowledged by Western premiers meeting in Iqaluit this week.

It's a similar story in the tropics. Rising sea levels threaten the physical existence of some atolls and low-lying areas, and many Pacific islands have reported salt encroachment in their very limited freshwater resources. During a recent meeting in Belize City, representatives of Small Island Developing States and the Arctic heard Belize's Deputy Prime Minister say that climate change is making Caribbean hurricanes more powerful — the head offices of his government have been relocated inland.

An alliance between these regions is emerging. It's called Many Strong Voices — by working together, they hope to persuade the developed world and key developing countries (such as China, India, and Brazil) to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. They also aim to persuade the developed world to help vulnerable countries adapt to the unavoidable effects of climate change.

Canada's government should listen to, embrace and support this alliance, a bottom-up approach that complements top-down international declarations. After all, climate change is amplified in high latitudes — global effects are felt first in the North.

Knowledge of this fact prompted the United Nations Environment Program to urge governments to heed the Arctic climate-change message, in 2003. Later that year in Milan, Italy, at the conference of parties to the climate-change convention, Canada failed to raise Arctic perspectives on climate change — but Samoa did, illustrating the value of these regions working together.

The Many Strong Voices group could also, for instance, sponsor amendments to the 1992 climate convention to recognize the globally important nature of the Arctic barometer (the treaty currently fails to mention the circumpolar world). It could propose a monitoring network in the North linked to one in the tropics. It might propose a new protocol deepening states' commitment to fund adaptation programs based on the principle of "the "polluter pays." In short, this alliance may prompt new thinking and inject new energy into a flagging global process.

Canada's foreign policy stresses aid and development in tropical countries. The Canadian International Development Agency and the International Development Research Centre have good reputations and Canadians are accustomed to seeing their experiences on governance, economic development and environmental protection transferred abroad. But on adaptation to climate change, the tropical world may have something to teach us. Remarkably, Canada has neither a national assessment of the impacts of climate change or a national policy on adaptation, and we have also done little to evaluate the financial costs of adapting to climate change. Some small island states have been working on these issues for years.

Will Ottawa engage the Many Strong Voices alliance? Northern issues seem peripheral to Canada's foreign policy, notwithstanding increasing concerns about Arctic sovereignty. Last year, Ottawa disbanded the offices of the Arctic and Environment ambassadors. This year, Foreign Affairs budgets supporting aboriginal and circumpolar issues have been severely cut. The minister has yet to deliver a speech on the North and its connections to other regions of the world; he even skipped last year's biannual meeting of counterparts from the eight Arctic states.

Ironically, as Ottawa's interest in the North is diminishing, northerners' interest in foreign policy is rising. In late May, the three territorial governments released a policy paper on climate change, sovereignty and circumpolar relations — foreign-policy issues within Ottawa's jurisdiction. Three organizations of northern aboriginal peoples — the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Gwich'in Council International and the Inuit Circumpolar Council — have participated for years in foreign-policy issues affecting the rights and interests of first nations and Inuit groups. Northerners have much to gain from the Many Small Voices alliance.

At heart, climate change is a foreign-policy issue, Britain's Tony Blair is reported to have said — whether Canada offers to see it this way and work with the emerging alliance between the Arctic and Small Island Developing States will reveal much about Canada's foreign-policy commitment to the parts of the world that suffer most from climate change.

James Allen is a resident of Haines Junction, Yukon, and an executive member of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, which represents the Athabaskan peoples of Alaska, Yukon and the Northwest Territories internationally.

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