How Ontario’s political environment is hurting the environment

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How Ontario’s political environment is hurting the environment


First, they came for cap and trade. After that, they came after the carbon tax.

Last week, they killed off the environmental commissioner’s office. Next week, they will bury climate change policy.

Giving the responsibilities of the environmental commissioner to auditor general Bonnie Lysyk is a win for Premier Doug Ford but a loss for Ontarians, Martin Regg Cohn writes.
Giving the responsibilities of the environmental commissioner to auditor general Bonnie Lysyk is a win for Premier Doug Ford but a loss for Ontarians, Martin Regg Cohn writes.  (Frank Gunn / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

Welcome to Ontario’s upside down world of global warming — a province where Progressive Conservatives who once promoted environmentalism are now wishing it away. From one week to the next.

We shall see in the coming days precisely what Premier Doug Ford proposes as a replacement for the carbon pricing policy — pioneered by economic conservatives in Quebec (Jean Charest) and California (Arnold Schwarzenegger) — that he so proudly dismantled upon winning power.

Environmentalists remain deeply skeptical about the outlook for the new PC approach, now shrouded in secrecy and soon to be burdened by opacity. Global warming is nothing if not complex — allowing our premier to transduce it into an anti-Trudeau bumper sticker:

Axe the tax! It befits our political environment, at the expense of the global environment.

The only certainty is that scrutiny of climate change will be that much harder in future, thanks to Ford’s decision to defang and disembowel the province’s environmental watchdog. It can hardly be coincidence that the prelude to next week’s announcement was last week’s decision to eliminate the role of the commissioner, a non-partisan officer of the legislature long supported by all major parties.

For more than a decade, the office provided high quality research and recommendations, at arm’s length, on the environmental challenges facing Ontarians and their government. More recently, under the leadership of renowned environmental lawyer Dianne Saxe, the commissioner’s office proved to be a nimble rapid-response unit that scrutinized and criticized government policy on climate change.

Not to worry, the PCs say — Saxe’s environmental role will henceforth be subsumed by Ontario’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk. Not so simple.

The mandate of Lysyk’s office is to deliver value-for-money audits ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent frugally — not necessarily environmentally. Investments in renewable energy or conservation can pay economic dividends, yet those arguments have eluded the auditor in the past.

Moreover, moral imperatives must guide our commitment to fighting climate change — notably the need to show global leadership rather than coasting as a free-rider or outlier. Yet Lysyk has appeared oblivious to environmental motives in recent years.

In her 2016 annual report, the auditor demanded that the estimated cost of cap and trade be prominently displayed on natural gas bills, month after month. Yet the government had already disclosed the imputed $5 average cost, so what goal would be served by repetitively shining a spotlight on a recurring cost of doing business — paying a price for pollution — other than to call attention to a potential political irritant?

Remarkably for an auditor, Lysyk paid for a public-opinion poll, commissioned by her office, to ask Ontarians if they wanted to be reminded of this charge month after month — almost as if she were a Tory tax-fighter. Bizarrely for an independent officer of the legislature, she insisted that the Liberals order the arm’s length Ontario Energy Board to reverse the decision it had already taken that such disclosure was pointless — an auditor second-guessing a regulator.

In that same report, she also criticized the Liberal government of the day for an advertising campaign showing a “well-known Canadian environmentalist” — David Suzuki — warning students about the impact of global warming. The ad “appeared designed to create apprehension about the effects of climate change so viewers will be more likely to support Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan.” Imagine that.

In her 2015 report, the auditor noted that in times of energy surplus, “Reducing electricity consumption through conservation efforts is of little value.” In a previous report, she blamed the phasing out of coal — for which the Liberals had won an electoral mandate — for raising hydro prices.

And so an auditor who wanted to whip up public opposition to the cost of cap and trade, who argued against ads that call attention to climate change, who criticized conservation, and who fretted about phasing out coal, shall now be Ontario’s environmental steward?

First you change the environmental umpire, then you rewrite the rules of the global warming game.

As a political plan, it’s win-win for Ford. As an environmental strategy, it’s lose-lose for Ontarians.

Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn





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