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Doug Ford’s pathetic silence is a sign of our climate crisis.

Doug Ford’s pathetic silence is a sign of our climate crisis.

Martin Regg Cohn

If there is a climate emergency on planet Earth, it appears to have gone unnoticed in Doug Ford’s Ontario.

In Glasgow this month, the world’s politicians tried hard to be heard at the COP26 summit, eking out an agreement to keep lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

This week, Parliament reopened in Ottawa with a declaration that “our Earth is in danger.” Fresh from COP26, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault — a lifelong climate activist newly appointed to the role — raised expectations that his federal Liberals are finally serious after campaigning on ambitious carbon reduction targets.

But at Queen’s Park, there are no such earth-shaking declarations. Neither earth-saving hopes.

On global warming, the premier is sullen and his minister silent: David Piccini took over the provincial environment portfolio last summer, but in Glasgow he went unheard — not a quote, not a tweet, not a peep.

All that said — or unsaid — the rookie minister’s decision to lie low might be an improvement over the Ford government’s past stands. Piccini’s predecessors stood in the way of preservation, pushing back against environment groups and fighting hard against the federal government.

Ottawa is stepping up its game, while Ontario is going back in the past. It wasn’t always so.

Former Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis created the country’s first Environment MinistryProtected the Niagara escarpmentThe Spadina Expressway was cancelled. Ex-premier Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government eliminated coal-fired power plants and established the greenbelt.

The Ford government’s legacy?

It went to court to mount a double-barrelled fight against the federal government — first by opposing a national carbon levy with a $30-million war chest, then by imposing “anti-tax” stickers at all gas pumps. In both cases, the judges ruled against it.

Ford also dropped the words “climate change” from the ministry’s title when he came to power. Instead of addressing the present and future risk of global warming, Ford renamed the ministry the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

This week, Ford’s Tories had their wrists slapped by the provincial auditorFor failing to protect against toxic spillages and relying on ministerial directives to bypass environmental assessments. Still, the government got off lightly — in reality, much of the auditor’s annual report recapped past media revelations.

Ford surpassed outside scrutiny two years ago eliminating the independent environmental commissioner’sThis office was in place since 1994. He handed off final environmental responsibility to the province’s chief bean counter (who has long been accused of bias against renewable energy and cap and trade by exasperated environmental groups).

Ford is a master of environmental issues and will do whatever he wants. That’s in sharp contrast to his federal counterparts, who faced firm but fair criticism from their full-fledged and fully independent environmental watchdog in Thursday’s annual report.

At Queen’s Park, criticism is muzzled and talking points are amplified. Upon his return from this month’s global warming summit, Piccini found his provincial voice — offering a hollow boast that Ontario is perfectly positioned to meet its carbon reduction targets.

“Let’s talk about the truth,” Piccini lectured the opposition in the legislature. “Ontario is the only province in this nation on track to meet our (greenhouse gas) reduction targets by 2030.”

What he didn’t say is how the province got there — thanks to the heavy lifting of phasing out heavily-polluting coal plants by the previous McGuinty government.

“That’s because we shut down coal,” one Liberal heckler reminded Piccini.

The Liberal lament is becoming more eloquent these days, as the party that was once ahead in the provincial curve has lost its grip on the environment. Beyond rebates for electric vehicles, party leader Steven Del Duca hasn’t had anything interesting to say on global warming since taking over last year.

Andrea Horwath (NDP Leader), was outflanked by Liberals for many years. She is now trying to make up ground. She released the party’s environmental platform, the Green New Democratic Deal, last March.

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The NDP would “restore the full and independent powers of the environmental commissioner, and empower them with clear oversight powers … to keep us on track in our goal to achieve our emission reduction targets.” All new vehicles sold in Ontario would have to be electric by 2035, as part of the NDP target for net-zero carbon emissions in 2050.

But it’s fair to say that on environmental matters, most of the legislature’s 124 members are overshadowed by Green Leader Mike Schreiner. The party’s lone MPP seems destined for re-election in his Guelph riding, but is also campaigning hard to help his new deputy leader, Dianne Saxe, win Toronto’s University-Rosedale riding.

If she won a seat, the new Green MPP would not only be a formidable presence but a form of poetic justice: Saxe was the province’s last independent environmental commissioner until Ford’s Tories silenced her voice in 2019.

Martin Regg CohnToronto-based columnist who focuses on Ontario politics and international affairs. Follow him on twitter: @reggcohn

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