Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott(L) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper laugh as they address the media during a joint press conference in Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canda on June 9, 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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The world's worst climate change villains? Step forward, prime ministers of Australia and Canada

These two world leaders are laughing while the world burns up - and they don't look like stopping any time soon.

Canada once had a shot at being the world's leader on climate change. Back in 2002, America's northern neighbours had ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the world's first treaty that required nations to cut their emissions or face penalties. In 2005, the country hosted an international climate change conference in Montreal, where then-prime minister Paul Martin singled out America for its indifference. "To the reticent nations, including the United States, I say this: There is such a thing as a global conscience," Martin said.

Australia, too, was briefly a success story. The government ratified Kyoto in 2007 and delivered on promises to pass a tax on carbon by 2011. The prime minister that year, Julia Gillard, noted her administration's priorities to set "Australia on the path to a high-skill, low-carbon future or [leave] our economy to decay into a rusting, industrial museum".

Today, the two countries are outliers again - for all the wrong reasons.

According to a 2014 Climate Change Performance Index from European groups Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch, Canada and Australia occupy the bottom two spots among all 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Among the 20 countries with the largest economies (G20), only Saudi Arabia ranked lower than them. Canada and Australia's records on climate change have gotten so bad, they've become the go-to examples for Republicans, like Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who don't think climate change exists.

How did these two nations go from leading the fight against climate change to denying that it even exists?

On the way to his first trip in the US, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott stopped for a full day of talks with Canada prime minister Stephen Harper in June. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Abbott was in Canada's capital with the intention of building a "conservative alliance among 'like-minded' countries" to try to dismantle global efforts on climate change. At a press conference that day, Harper applauded Abbott's efforts to gut Australia's carbon tax. "You’ve used this international platform to encourage our counterparts in the major economies and beyond to boost economic growth, to lower taxes when possible and to eliminate harmful ones, most notably the job-killing carbon tax," Harper said. He added that "we shouldn't clobber the economy" by pursuing an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax. 

This is how Canada and Australia's top leaders frame global warming. The two stress that they will always choose short-term economic gain first, disregarding scientific findings and even the interests of their political allies in the process.The countries' abrupt shift on climate track conservatives' rise to a majority in Canada in 2011 and in Australia last year. 

In just a few years, conservatives have delivered blow after blow to the nations' environmental progress. Canada withdrew from Kyoto in 2011 to avoid paying expensive penalties for failing to meet its promise to cut carbon 6 percent over 1990 levels (Canada's emissions had risen by nearly 30 per cent). Harper offered a less ambitious target instead, one that mirrored the US's commitment cut 17 per cent of carbon pollution by 2020. But Canada will miss that target by a long shot, according to environmental groups who point to the aggressive development of the Alberta tar sands oil and expired clean energy subsidies. The commissioner of the Department of Environment and Sustainable Development noted in a recent report that Canada "does not have answers" to most of its environmental concerns. Australia, meanwhile, had the world's highest emissions per capita in 2012 - topping even America's. The government's mediocre ambition of cutting emissions 5 per cent by 2020 won't happen either: it projects emissions to grow 2 per cent a year, according to Inside Climate News.

The hostility toward environmental interests goes even deeper than energy policy. Harper has battled his own scientists, independent journalists, and environmental groups at odds with his views. 

Climate scientists have reported that they are unable to speak to press about their own findings, feeling effectively "muzzled" by agencies that want to script talking points for them. In June, a government spokesperson explained that federal meteorologists must speak only "to their area of expertise," which does not include climate change, according to a government spokesperson. Journalists sometimes face bullying, too. Environmental author Andrew Nikiforuk told ThinkProgress that "a government of thugs" slandered him and shut him out of events. But environmentalists may fare the worst. Seven environmental nonprofits in Canada have accused the Canada Revenue Agency of unfairly targeting them for audits. According to internal documents obtained by the Guardian, Canada's police and Security Intelligence Service identified nonviolent environmental protests - like people who oppose hydrofracking and the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline - as "forms of attack" fitting the "number of cases where we think people might be inclined to acts of terrorism".

Australia, for its part, has downplayed scientific findings. Abbott, along with his environment minister Greg Hunt, have rejected any link between extreme weather and global warming. Abbott, who once called the science of climate change "absolute crap", said last year that UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres was "talking out of her hat" when saying that rising temperatures were driving more intense and frequent brushfires. "Climate change is real as I have often said and we should take strong action against it but these fires are certainly not a function of climate change," he argued. Hunt defended his boss, citing Wikipedia as his proof. "I looked up what Wikipedia says for example, just to see what the rest of the world thought, and it opens up with the fact that bushfires in Australia are frequently occurring events during the hotter months of the year. Large areas of land are ravaged every year by bushfires. That’s the Australian experience." He could have referred to his Department of Environment's website instead, had it not earlier removed explicit references connecting climate change, heatwaves, and fires.

As the host of the G20 this November, Australia is in an awkward position. Australians have staged protests, while the US and European leaders have pressured Abbott to put climate change on the agenda. He has refused. There's no room for climate, he says, because the summit is about "economic security" and "the importance of private sector-led growth."

What's even more baffling about the rise of climate denial in both countries is that it's apparently not the popular view in either country. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of Australians and Canadians say climate change is a major threat - as opposed to 40 per cent of Americans who say the same. 

Of course, the US has reversed itself recently, too. President Barack Obama is making climate change a second-term priority, and has taken steps to cap carbon pollution from power plants. Such initiatives have put the US on track to meet its pledge in Copenhagen in 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 per cent by 2020. At the same time, China, which faces internal pressure over air pollution, is looking a lot more serious about slowing down pollution; it will begin a national cap-and-trade program in 2016. Even India is redoubling efforts on clean energy, to meet the power needs of its growing population. Half the world plans to put a price on carbon

It's true that neither Canada nor Australia has much responsibility for the amount of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. The United States, China, and India made up a combined 49 per cent of the world's carbon emissions in 2013. Canada and Australia, by comparison, emit 3.5 per cent of total carbon emissions combined. But the critical requirement for an international climate change agreement - which negotiatiors will try to hammer out in Paris next year - is that every country big and small make a commitment to greenhouse gas targets. Fortunately, the negligence of two smaller, industrialized countries won't be the fatal blow to negotiations in Paris. Still, by ducking their own responsibility, Australia and Canada are ignoring their "global conscience" - to borrow a former prime minister's words. 

A decade ago, America's close allies due north and across the Pacific rightly shamed us on our poor response to climate change. Now, they've lost the moral high ground. At the September United Nations Climate Summit, the largest gathering of world leaders yet on the issue, both Abbott and Harper were no-shows. The ministers sent in their place also arrived empty-handed; Australia's foreign minister suggested that only larger countries should be responsible for more ambitious climate action. Canada environment minister Leona Aglukkaq repeated an already-public commitment that Canada would copy Obama's fuel economy regulations requiring 35.5 miles per gallon. Afterward, in an interview with the Globe and Mail, Aglukkaq spoke of the unfairness of a global treaty. "It’s not up to one country to solve the global greenhouse-gas emissions. I mean, seriously now, it’s just not fair. We all have to do our part, big or small countries.”

That's true. If only her small country would do its part, too.

This piece originally appeared in the New Republic.

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.