Here’s an inconvenient truism: Timing is everything in our political environment. And time is running out on global warming.
Don’t take my word for it. But don’t take Doug Ford’s word games at face value.
At the very time our premier was travelling the country whipping up opposition to carbon pricing, a United Nations scientific alert flashed across the world warning of carbon’s unavoidable costs.
The timing wasn’t merely inconvenient, but incongruous. That our premier could be so tone deaf is hardly surprising, because it flows from our own collective ability to tune out distant alarm bells.
Canadians routinely tell pollsters that environmental protection is a top priority — in the abstract. But when provincial politicians promise to save them pennies at the gas pump — and accuse Ottawa of picking their pockets — voters are easily tempted to shift priorities.
Climate change has become climate disruption at the precise time that political disruption is upon us. Unless we limit global warming by a further half-a-degree Celsius beyond current targets, we face incalculable human dislocation to homes, livelihoods and lives.
Responding to the future peril by establishing a high price on carbon requires the kind of economic mettle and political will that has “no documented historic precedent,” the UN report notes dryly. Don’t we know it.
The fight against climate change was the first casualty of Ontario’s “change” election on June 7, when Ford proudly announced the demise of the cap-and-trade system that put a price on carbon to “cap” and discourage greenhouse gas emissions. Now, Ford’s government has budgeted more than $30 million for a court battle against a future federal carbon tax (from which we would have been exempted with cap and trade).
It is a truism of our political times that it is easier to tear something down than to build it up. It’s also more profitable to campaign as a tax-fighter than a climate-saver.
The UN report notes that discouraging carbon, encouraging renewable energy, and investing in conservation will be the major pillars of fighting climate change. But provincial and federal Tories have relentlessly caricatured green energy and carbon pricing by exaggerating the short term costs and ignoring the long term benefits.
It is a political paradox that Tories who like to complain about deferring high debt payments to our children think nothing of kicking the carbon can down the road for future generations. And that Tories who worry about a few thousand asylum claimants (dubbed “illegal border-crossers”) slipping into Canada over the summer apparently haven’t given much thought to the human tidal wave that looms when tens of millions of climate refugees clamour for sanctuary, rendering existing frontiers futile.
The UN study — released last Sunday while Ford’s anti-carbon road show was in full swing with stops in Regina, Calgary, and Etobicoke — was preceded by an equally alarming report by Ontario’s own non-partisan environmental commissioner, Dianne Saxe, last month. It is a depressing account of how the province made steady progress with cap and trade before Ford pulled the plug after winning power.
“Despite flaws, these were good policies that worked,” she notes. Now, they have been “swept away, with nothing in their place” because the Ford government’s suggested replacement “lacks most of the features of a good climate law.”
Ontario cannot single-handedly save the world from a future climate Armageddon. But it can surely do its part to lead the way, or at least prepare the way.
The province’s initial carbon pricing strategy was hardly onerous — at a mere 4.3 cents a litre at the gas pump, the cost was easily dwarfed by monthly fluctuations in world oil prices. And it was hardly leading the way, considering that it took Queen’s Park nearly a decade to belatedly join hands with Quebec and California in a cap and trade system.
Yet it gave us an opportunity to prepare the way, to get ready with baby steps for the long march ahead — allowing companies and individuals to change their behaviour in advance, to innovate, to adjust, to take stock, rather than waiting for the world to overtake us. By starting slow, with low carbon prices, we could have habituated Ontarians to the inevitable adjustments that await us, allowing us to overtake our economic competitors in the U.S. when they awaken to the coastal devastation that awaits them with climate change.
Now, a decade of preparation by the province for global warming has been disrupted politically — at the very moment that the UN has issued a global warning that climate disruption looms over us. It would be easy to blame Ford’s government for leading us over a climate cliff, but voters were buying what he was selling.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn