Warm spells, floods, and media storms: The Tories’ week in climate change

OPINION: We saw a minister state that climate change is caused by humans. We saw the release of a government report on flooding. What we haven’t seen is aggressive action to reduce emissions
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 29, 2019
Premier Doug Ford and Greg Rickford, minister for energy, northern development and mines, at an August 2018 announcement at Queen’s Park. (Chris Young/CP)

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Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines Greg Rickford got into hot water with the opposition parties this week: during question period, he cited an article republished on a website devoted to climate-change denial, calling Climate Change Dispatch “one of his favourite periodicals.” By Thursday, NDP critic Peter Tabuns was demanding to know whether Rickford believed in human-caused climate change. That same day, Rickford told reporters at Queen’s Park that he does, in fact, believe that climate change is caused by humans. He took no questions and left the media scrum immediately after speaking the words aloud, the kind of thing you do when you’re totally sincere in your beliefs.

Energy policy is climate policy, so Rickford’s taste in reading material is both relevant and discouraging. Meanwhile, the same Ontario government he serves in — albeit a different ministry, the attorney general’s — is in front of the nation’s highest court asserting that this province does accept that climate change is real and caused by human activity. It’s actually a core part of the province’s argument that the federal carbon tax is unconstitutional: one of the first sections of its factum to the Supreme Court of Canada is titled “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Arise From Virtually Every Human Activity,” because Ontario contends that giving Ottawa the power to regulate climate change would necessarily mean federal intrusion into every sphere of government, including those currently reserved as provincial powers. Two courts have considered this argument, and two have rejected it.

For now, it’s enough to say that the answer to the question “Does Ontario’s government believe that climate change is caused by human activities?” seems to depend on which minister you ask, which day of the week you ask them, and whom they’re talking to.

If they’re inconsistent when discussing the causes of climate change, this week at least showed that the Tories are definitely interested in the effects. The same day Rickford made his entirely heartfelt confession, the government released a report from Douglas McNeil, its appointed special adviser on flooding. McNeil was tapped by the province to look into the causes of this year’s widespread flooding — and what the government might do to protect lives and property in the future.

McNeil’s findings are unequivocal: the flooding that affected communities in southern and northeastern Ontario was caused by a cold spring followed by a sudden warm spell and heavy rains that exceeded historical norms. McNeil doesn’t quite come out and blame climate change but does say that “the potential exists that flooding may become increasingly more prevalent and the swing from wet to dry more volatile, making the flooding hazard more pronounced under a changing climate and its associated swings in variability.”

McNeil may not be quite willing to pin this year’s floods on climate change, but he does warn that climate change means that the government will need to put serious money toward reinforcing bridges and other forms of infrastructure vulnerable to floods and storms — and may even need to buy out some property owners who once occupied dry land but face increased flood risks going forward.

The bill for all this won’t be small, however, and it wasn’t clear on Thursday whether the unstoppable force of climate change will shift the immovable object that is the PC government’s hostility to any new government spending.

“We have fiscal challenges in Ontario,” said Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry John Yakabuski. “What can be done quickly, will be done quickly … the flood adviser does recognize the fiscal challenges we were left in government and the fiscal challenges we face.”

Yakabuski was enthusiastic about McNeil’s recommendation that the government make permanent something it’s currently trying on a small scale: increasing funds available to municipalities to rebuild damaged infrastructure to a higher, more rugged standard. Doing so would be more expensive than simply replacing the structures, but, in a world where floods and storms are becoming more violent, simply reconstructing roads and bridges that have already failed is a waste of money — even the current government can concede that much.

Also on Thursday — it was a busy day for climate-change news — the government unveiled its new Advisory Panel on Climate Change, which will be chaired by Paul Kovacs of Western University’s Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. Kovacs, and many of the other panelists, has expertise in dealing with the consequences of climate change, but not so much in developing policies that might help arrest it. Mixed in with those experts are representatives of such industries as agriculture and forestry — sectors of the economy with a specific interest in making sure they aren’t singled out for pain by any climate policy. Kovacs is a bona fide expert, but, as is the case with so many things, the government knows what questions it wants answered and which ones it doesn’t.

This would all be reasonably good news if the biggest concern about climate change was the effects we’re seeing in Ontario’s towns and cities today. The problem for the Tories is that, as bad as those effects are already, they are going to get worse. The only serious long-term plan for dealing with them would involve taking active, aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Maybe someday the Tories will present such a plan, but if they do, they’ll actually need to start reading more than just their favourite periodicals in the right-wing echo chamber.

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