Published: Monday, 01/21/2013 12:00 am EST

TORONTO—As southern Ontarians basked in unseasonably warm January temperatures recently, it was so warm that I could jog outside, in the dead of winter, in a T-shirt. While pleasant, it was hard not to feel uneasy about the warm weather. It was an ominous way to kick off 2013, especially given the slew of strange weather events last year.
In the midst of the January heat wave landed a new report, the U.S. National Climate Assessment. The report compiled the work of hundreds of scientists. The conclusion: the U.S. is already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate in the form of long-term temperature increases, more frequent heavy downpours, more severe droughts and more heat waves. The changing climate already has high costs, and is affecting infrastructure, water supply, and food security. The report also notes the rising risk to human health.
Climate change can no longer be denied. It isn’t a far off theoretical problem. Climate change exists here, now, and is costing money. On the heels of Hurricane Sandy and this alarming report, U.S. President Barack Obama is now officially entering his second term with today’s inauguration. 
On election night, Obama said, “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” He later vowed to make climate change one of his top three priorities. Whether he can deliver on this promise will have big implications for Canada.
First, it’s within this context that the U.S. government will need to decide whether to reject TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline for a second time. U.S. approval of Keystone XL would enable a massive expansion of tar sands production, resulting in the pollution equivalent to an extra 6.2 million cars on the road for 50 years. While the oil lobby salivates over increasing tar sands production, it’s the wrong way to go for a government committed to fighting climate change. 
If the U.S. rejects Keystone XL once and for all, this will send a clear signal to Canada that we need to rethink our reckless energy strategy, which banks on eternally rising demand for polluting tar sands oil. As the International Energy Agency has shown, in a world that even makes moderate progress toward tackling climate change, the demand for costly carbon-heavy fuel like tar sands oil will drop off dramatically. In other words, if we tackle climate change there won’t be a need for higher volumes of tar sands oil. Hardly a reliable bet for our economic future.
Second, Canada’s “monkey see, monkey do” approach to climate policy means we’ll likely follow whatever action the U.S. takes. On paper, this has been made explicit by matching Canada’s national target for reducing emissions to that south of the border, though already the U.S. is far outpacing us on implementing rules to meet that goal. 
If the U.S. enacts more ambitious plans to cut carbon pollution, it would put the Canadian government in an awkward position. We’ve said we’ll follow the U.S. lead, but Canada can’t credibly claim to be serious about reducing emissions without reining in the pace of tar sands expansion. This is the exact opposite to what the oil lobby and its government backers are pushing for through the frenzied drive to build more oil pipelines. 
While the prospect of a U.S. President who prioritizes climate change may send chills down the spines of Big Oil supporters, Canada could reap the benefits. It would mean new opportunities to work with our largest trading partner to expand clean energy technologies, and harness the new jobs and environmental benefits they bring. 
Ontario’s growing renewable energy manufacturing sector could sell to nearby U.S. markets. Smart grids and electrical vehicles could become mainstream more quickly with cross-border coordination. Fossil-fuel free electricity could be bought and sold across the border. These are sectors that could create jobs across the country, and help position Canada as a leader in the growing-clean energy market instead of pushing yesterday’s polluting goods. 
A U.S. that takes climate change seriously could kick start Canada to change our tune on climate change, instead of introducing laws designed to gut environmental protections and boost tar sands production. It would mean our reputation would no longer be tarnished on the world stage. But more importantly, it would mean Canadians could feel proud their government is working to help prevent the worst impacts of a warming planet down the road. 
For this sake more than any other, I hope the President succeeds. 
Gillian McEachern has worked on a range of environmental issues for over a decade, and is currently Campaigns Director for Environmental Defence, a national environmental charity. The views expressed in this column are her own.
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