OTTAWA–Canada's name may be mud heading into Monday's Copenhagen climate change talks. But a look back through history suggests any environmental praise that landed on Parliament Hill over the past dozen years has probably been undeserved.
One of the few differences between now and Dec. 11, 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted as the climate rule book, is Canada's tone and appearance in the world.
Back then, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberals pleased the ears of progressive leaders and zealous environmental groups. They warned of climate refugees and biblical flooding (the January 1998 ice storm in Ontario and Quebec, like a scene from the Book of Revelations, seemed to back those warnings up) and reportedly worked in tandem with U.S. President Bill Clinton to take on tougher targets than those announced south of the border. Clinton's administration needed Canada to shame an unwilling American public, cowed by lobbyists for energy producers.
Now, the Conservative government, led by some of the harshest Kyoto critics of the day, have dispensed with the niceties, and the attacks – from environmental groups, the provinces, scientists and world leaders – are piling up.
While the world talks of helping the poorest and least able countries cope with problems from emissions in the developed world, self-interest rules the day with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Tories.
"This may be a shock," Harper said last month in the House of Commons, "but the negotiators Canada assigns to international negotiations (like Copenhagen) are there to represent the interests of Canada, not the interests of Mali."
The government says it was put in this unenviable position by its Liberal predecessors, on whose watch emissions rose some 30 per cent above the mark Canada was to hit by 2012 under the Kyoto deal.
It's a familiar refrain in Canadian political history. Paul Martin tried to pin the blame on former Tory environment minister Jean Charest for promising in 1992 to stabilize emissions by the end of that decade, and doing nothing. But the Liberals came to power just a year after the pledge was made. As Quebec premier, Charest's government is now considered among the greenest in North America.
Liberals today say that while they were bringing out policies in 2005 that would have started rolling back the country's emissions, Harper was deriding Kyoto as a socialist scheme and the study of climate change as an emerging science.
But the domestic buck-passing for years of inaction doesn't wash on the world stage, as the Harper Conservatives now know well and Canadians are quickly discovering.
While Canada usually stands out at international summits as slightly dull and inoffensive, the country is known in these climate change talks as something of a villain, derided as obstructive at best and a "corrupt petro-state," as a British pundit put it, at worst.
"Canada has become the Darth Vader of the G8 in particular. The marks they now get regularly from the environmental groups are last place," said one close observer of international climate change talks leading up to Copenhagen.
It's Canada's failure to put forward helpful initiatives that most raises other leaders' ire.
When Commonwealth leaders announced a $10 billion fund last month to help developing countries cope with life on a hotter planet, for example, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown could hardly hide his contempt when asked why Canada didn't appear as enthusiastic about kicking in cash when all other countries had done so.
"I believe that, now that America has made an offer, Canada will also want to make an offer," he said.
Canada may be America's lapdog, as some critics have charged, but it was easier when there was company in the doghouse.
Prior to the election of President Barack Obama, most of the world's anger was aimed at George W. Bush. But Australia, Japan and Russia were packed in, shoulder to shoulder, with Harper's Canada.
Now Obama has promised a green revolution in the U.S., Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is willing to see his government defeated to pass legislation to cut emissions, Japan is on a kamikaze mission against global warming and Russia has promised to put a cap on the rise of emissions by 2020.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice says Canada is a "known and respected" participant in climate change talks, while admitting that "not everyone agrees with us."
What's important now, he says, is getting down to real action, not more political arguments.
But most observers say Canada will be a lonely figure in Copenhagen. It won't help that environmentalists, free of diplomatic niceties, are lined up in vocal opposition.
Their beefs are many, but they abhor the current government's intention to abandon Canada's Kyoto pledge to cut carbon emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.
The Tories have shown no sign they'll allow the world to hold Canada to those commitments, mainly for the steep penalties the government would face to comply, and because the U.S. signed Kyoto but abandoned it shortly after under fierce domestic opposition.
The poorest countries insist they won't sign a deal until the rich countries own up to their share of the environmental damage.
"As soon as you get rid of the Kyoto Protocol ... there are a bunch of things that are to Canada's advantage, but to the world's detriment," said Dale Marshall, with the Suzuki Foundation.
With so much criticism flying, some officials fear a bunker mentality is setting in around the Conservative cabinet table, forcing Ottawa to make the best of a situation where it is Canada against the world.
But even that gives faint hope to those who urge more strident government action to cut emissions and limit global warming.
"I think we will see more and more criticism coming of Canada," Marshall said. " ... I think there's a possibility of Canada having to move or facing the ire of the international community."