By: Peter Denton

To mark Earth Day 2016, I flew to Tehran, Iran, for the weekend.

On one level, this is as crazy as it sounds, but there were good reasons to make the trip.

It was the second International Seminar on Environment, Culture and Religion, hosted by the Islamic Republic of Iran and co-sponsored by UNESCO and the United Nations environment program (UNEP). It brought together about two dozen global representatives of different religions to meet with colleagues from Iran, for an inter-faith talk as part of the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

I was there as a speaker, sponsored by UNEP, and I headed the final plenary panel on global partnerships.

The first such seminar was held in the spring of 2001, just before the world changed with 9/11. Since then, global tension and politics had made further progress difficult, at least until the election of a more moderate government in Iran and the nuclear agreement reached last July.

We were warmly welcomed, hospitably treated and met a host of Iranians working on environmental issues who were delighted to share opinions.

Many of them worked for the Environment Department, headquartered in an eco-park in the centre of Tehran where rainfall had dropped to one-seventh of what it was 15 years ago. In fact, environmental issues are so crucial that the Environmental Protection Organization is the portfolio of the vice-president, Masoumeh Ebtekar.

Granted, it was a coup to get so many of us outsiders there — we were well-documented by cameras of all sorts — but it was important to be in Tehran. The president, Hassan Rouhani, opened the proceedings with a powerful speech, and Ebtekar spoke both at the opening and closing. (I met her in the seminar room and gave her gifts of Canadian maple syrup and maple butter, and a copy of one of my books.)

Immediately, there was an unfettered exchange of ideas, across the barriers of culture, religion and politics. It was an intense experience for everyone, with highlights including a state dinner (saffron ice cream for dessert!) and constant interaction among all the participants to share ideas, struggles and find common ground.

Throughout, it was a reminder that people are just people, that we are all worried about what is coming down the road, that what separates us is much less than what unites us. Cultural diversity is as essential to humanity as biodiversity is to the Earth. We should never try to become the “other,” because that attempt will fail, but neither should we fear difference. There are no barriers laid down by politics and history that cannot be overcome by dialogue and respect.

So I travelled halfway around the world to find a hope in Iran that I don’t always find, day to day, here in a city where the leaders quibble about incidentals and potholes, in a province where a new government bundles cabinet portfolios to suit its budget rather than the work, and in a country where the federal government has (so far) been long on rhetoric but lacking in specifics and action.

All the member states of the UN will gather in Nairobi, Kenya, in two weeks, for the second United Nations Environment Assembly of UNEP, to chart a course together toward a sustainable future. I hope Canada will be there to continue the leadership it showed in Paris, with government ministers in attendance who have made real action on the environment their priority.

But I have my doubts — I have seen and heard the personal commitment of the president and vice-president of Iran to environmental issues, but over the past three years have not seen or heard a similar commitment from Canadian leaders. Our politicians will likely stay home from Nairobi yet again to focus on other things.

There are always good reasons for delay, for pondering, but it also seems there is always money for what the folks at the top consider to be important, when they choose to spend it.

While we dither, the Earth burns, literally — the hottest year on record, getting hotter by the day.

Forget the photo ops in Fort McMurray, Alta. What are you going to do to prevent the next such devastating fire?

What I saw in Tehran reminded me we are just not doing enough.

Peter Denton is a major groups and stakeholders regional representative for North America to UNEP and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.

This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on May 10, 2016.