By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Well, it took Stephen Harper a while, but he finally put Rona Ambrose out of her misery, shuffling her out of the limelight of the environment ministry and replacing her with the smiling face of John Baird.

Some have argued that the move is long overdue, as Ms. Ambrose was often faulted for her poor performance on the environment file. Of course, poor performance in this context doesn't mean insufficiently protecting the environment. It means she was unable to assuage concerns held by the public, the opposition, and the media, that Stephen Harper's government is completely uninterested, even hostile, towards the environment.

Ms. Ambrose indeed may not have been the best spokesperson, often coming across as somewhat cold and prickly on a file that is considered more warm and fuzzy. Mr. Baird, on the other hand, is outgoing and well liked. He's also influential and politically savvy. Within a couple of hours of the announcement of his appointment, he telephoned me to say that he was committed to working with environment groups because climate change was a serious problem that, if anything, was being underestimated by scientists.

He also assured me that he was "not a member of the flat-Earth society." I don't know if he was comparing himself to his predecessor, the rest of the Conservative cabinet, the prime minister or just making an offhand joke, but the comment is an important one.

That's because whether or not Ms. Ambrose cared a whit about the environment was irrelevant, as will be the case with Mr. Baird. The reality is that government policy under the Harper administration is dictated by one person — Stephen Harper. John Baird could be a card-carrying member of Greenpeace and he still wouldn't be able to change a thing without Mr. Harper's blessings.

So, is Mr. Harper changing his stripes? It certainly didn't hurt that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney recently made public statements, urging Mr. Harper to go green. As Mr. Mulroney pointed out, it helped him to do so back in 1988 when he embraced the rising tide of environmentalism. In fact, Mr. Mulroney was recently hailed as Canada's greenest prime minister.

Of course, Mr. Mulroney may not have had a green bone in his body. He was ultimately responding to public concern. Mr. Harper is now in that same position, though he seems reluctant to admit it. Public concern over environmental problems, especially global warming, has reached an all-time high. It would be politically foolish to ignore those concerns.

Yet Mr. Harper has done a remarkable job of ignoring them thus far in his stint as prime minister. For a long time it seemed like he hadn't realized that he actually won the last election, appearing content to simply blast the Liberals' environment record as though he was still in opposition. However, behind the scenes, there was no doubt about who was in charge, as Mr. Harper abandoned Canada's Kyoto commitment and systematically dismantled all the environmental projects and policies the previous government had developed.

In their place, Mr. Harper left promissory notes for a comprehensive "made in Canada" solution to Canada's growing environmental woes. Eventually, that laughable language was purged and replaced with the equally disingenuous "Clean Air Act." When Ms. Ambrose was savaged by the international community at a U.N.-sponsored climate meeting about the obvious weaknesses and insufficiencies of the Act, and her government's abandonment of Kyoto, she simply reverted to bashing the Liberals.

It's been a rocky ride for Mr. Harper's government on the environment file. Given his history on the issue, the most likely scenario is that Mr. Harper will do the bare minimum he must to quell rising public concerns over the environment. What that bare minimum is will be determined by the Canadian public, who will decide if he's green enough or really just another member of the flat-Earth society.

January 12, 2007