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Climate Change - How do we move forward in Ontario, local to global

In most parts of Ontario in the first week of July, the hot humid heat wave that hung over the region for days was unbearable. Many had the option of turning on our air conditioners or escaping to summer cottages for the long weekend. But for the most vulnerable among us, this was not an option. In Montreal, 53 people died from the heat. Our colleague Tracy Heffernan from ACTO told the radio show the Current earlier this month that the combination of frail elderly, children, or people living with chronic disease plus poverty plus inadequate housing plus a heatwave are a potentially lethal combination.

All of the climate models predict that such events will increase in frequency although their exact timing and locations may be less predictable. It’s not that we didn’t have heat waves historically; it’s the potentially lethal impact and frequency resulting from climate change that is enormously worrying. It’s especially worrying in humid climates where the combination of heat and humidity can be very risky to people who can’t find cooling.

All this is to say that acting on climate change is not an option; it’s an obligation, to future generations, and to our own. I was pleased last week [July 20] to hear Ontario’s new environment minister say the same thing in an interview with Matt Galloway on Toronto’s Metro Morning information show. While he was clear that the Ontario government is proceeding to end the cap and trade program, he also said that Ontarians expect action on climate change, and his government will be coming up with a plan. CELA would have preferred that the new government consult on the decision to revoke trading the permits and allowances that have already been bought by industry and we think that this was obligatory under the requirements of the Environmental Bill of Rights Registry. We will have more on this in a future blog. However, an urgent question arises which is: what will Ontario do next on climate change?

Responding to climate change is multi-faceted. It’s going to take all of us, in various ways changing what we do. This is true of us as individuals and as consumers, and it’s true of businesses, large and small. It’s also something that every jurisdiction has to be part of. The phrase “think global, act local” in speaking of the imperative for action on protecting our environment is at its most apropos on the topics of global carbon emissions and their impacts.

CELA has long argued that governments need to choose a variety of tools in the crucial battle against climate change and our collective global emissions. In our view the problem is so huge that a variety of approaches are needed – as long as they don’t contradict or undermine each other. We think carbon pricing in some form is a necessary part of the toolbox. However, a provocatively titled article in this summer’s July / August, 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs by Jeffrey Ball explores the thesis, “Why Carbon Pricing Isn’t Working: Good Idea in Theory, Failing in Practice.” 

Needless to say, when I saw that title, I had to pick up the journal to see if he could explain himself. It turns out that the author, who teaches at Stanford, doesn’t disagree with carbon pricing. He outlines why it should work. However, he’s disappointed that it isn’t working, or at least not sufficiently, to bring down carbon emissions fast enough. Basically he says that the reason is that very few if any governments are willing to implement carbon prices at high enough levels to actually cause enough behaviour change to make the needed difference. He worries that the result is that in jurisdictions with carbon pricing, citizens and politicians think they’ve taken the necessary action, while carbon emissions and pollution continue to increase. In the article, he says “The result is that a policy prescription widely billed as a panacea is acting as a narcotic. It’s giving politicians and the public the warm feeling that they’re fighting climate change even as the problem continues to grow.”

So then what? If we agree that the job at hand is to actually reduce carbon emissions in the global atmosphere, and fast, as well as protect people from the damage already done, what else do we do now?

CELA will continue focussing on low income communities and ensuring that the they are front and centre for policy makers in dealing both with inequitable impacts of both climate change, as well as making sure they can participate in the jobs and technology adoption of the new approaches to energy use of the future. At the same time, there is no time to “put down our tools” when it comes to the fight against climate change, and we look forward to working with Ontario’s new government to develop a climate fighting plan – fast. At CELA, we are the environmental law folks. We like law as part of the solution to environmental problems. We really like approaches that are enforceable, and are actually enforced. This means setting up legal systems that set out expectations for behaviour (such as pollution); that include monitoring and measurement; and hold people accountable to the laws we’ve collectively passed. Other approaches including pressure from consumers and investors are also important, not only from investors’ ethical choices, but also due to concern about future liabilities on the part of corporate shareholders. However, in my view, solutions that address greenhouse gas emissions directly, requiring their reduction here in Ontario, by way of regulatory approaches to reduce air pollution are essential to the climate change fight. Tough, Ontario-made air pollution regulations will also pay-off in better air quality for Ontario residents, and are one way to build on the green technology we have been developing in Ontario, while also fighting climate change.

In the vein of taking multiple approaches, local to global, I’ve posted three more related blogs with a look at some opportunities: federally, provincially, and locally.