/Climate crisis worse than thought: environmental commissioner
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Dianne Saxe will be speaking at the Minden Community Centre on Thursday July 6. Her talk is about the climate crisis and what can be done. /Submitted photo

Climate crisis worse than thought: environmental commissioner

By Jenn Watt

Published June 27 2017

As Ontarians we have the ability to comment on government proposals ask ministries to investigate environmental harm and use the justice system to protect the environment. It’s part of the environmental bill of rights which codifies the ability to challenge the government and actively participate in protecting the natural world.

However the bill of rights doesn’t protect itself and without a watchdog its tenets can be ignored. That’s where Dianne Saxe environmental commissioner of Ontario comes in.

“The bill needs a guardian” Saxe said in a mid-June telephone interview.

“When I was appointed [in December 2015] I discovered to my real shock that there were more than 1800 occasions in which the government had posted a proposal and more than two years had gone by and they hadn’t posted the decision” she said.

Posting a decision triggers a citizen’s right to appeal she explained. Without a posted decision the right of appeal isn’t available.

“That’s outrageous. It means that whether or not people have taken time out of their busy days or often nights to comment we couldn’t tell if the government was taking their comments into account” she said.

Her office investigated and found that in many cases a decision had indeed been made but never posted. She made it a priority to put pressure on the various ministries to bring them into compliance.

As of March that number sits at 136. Of those 75 were gravel pits. She said she has a written commitment from the deputy minister at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for those permits to be posted. Still it irks her.

“That’s 75 gravel pits where the neighbours were denied any opportunity to challenge the permit. Seventy-five gravel pits” she said.

“They could appeal now but of course it’s not nearly as useful an appeal after the gravel pit’s been operating now in many cases for years.”

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario website (eco.on.ca) has a special feature where you can submit your email address and keyword and it will send you an email whenever the government posts a decision or proposal with that keyword in it.

The environmental commissioner is a non-partisan player appointed by a committee of the provincial legislature with membership of the three main parties. Saxe applied for the position and was unanimously chosen for a five-year term. Her previous experience includes a prestigious career in environmental law stretching four decades. According to the commissioner’s office website she established one of Canada’s top environmental law firms won the Award for Distinguished Service from the Ontario Bar Association and was given the Gold Key Award for professional lifetime achievement by Osgoode Hall Law School Alumni.

On Thursday July 6 Saxe will be in Minden speaking at Environment Haliburton’s annual keynote event and fundraiser – a highly anticipated event that regularly books top environmental thinkers.

Her talk is called Facing the Climate Crisis and will cover the severity of the issue and how the Ontario government has been doing.

While Saxe said she would be saving her evaluation of the government for the speech she was unequivocal regarding the state of climate change. Her office recently released a report Facing Climate Change and she said it opened her eyes to just how bad things have gotten.

“Frankly I have been shocked as commissioner how much worse it is than I thought and how much more quickly it’s moving” she said.

“Once I released my report in November I spent a great deal of the subsequent six months going around the province saying to people … you’re not worrying enough about climate change and I’m going to show you why.”

The report shows that Ontario was successful in meeting its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2014 but the upcoming target – 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 – will be a real challenge.

That change involves the province reducing emissions by 14 megatonnes.

“Ontario still depends on fossil fuels for 80 per cent of its energy” the report says.

It’s a fallacy that industry is the major polluter in this province Saxe said. It’s actually individuals and their decisions about transportation and home heating that make up the bulk of emissions.

“Greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 were roughly 171 megatonnes. Of that only 40 megatonnes come from large … emitters which people think of as ‘the polluters.’ About 31 megatonnes comes from the non-fossil-fuel impacts of agriculture waste and so on and everything else is from you and me. One hundred megatonnes comes from natural gas and petroleum products used in vehicles on the roads” she said.

That means individual responsibility makes a difference. She urged people to reduce their carbon footprint by five per cent making changes in their lives that would have a negligible impact on their happiness but a major impact on the environment.

“You can still have a very good life at 95 per cent of what we’re currently consuming. Ontarians by and large we consume so much energy that we can reduce a lot and still have very good lives” she said.

Saxe said she recognized that in rural areas choices are different. There is no public transit in Haliburton County for example and her recommendations about wastewater treatment centres and water systems doesn’t apply to those on wells and septics. However she said making decisions about the frequency of travel types of vehicles methods of home heating temperature of the home how much meat is consumed and the efficiency of appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners can still make a difference.

As urgent as the climate crisis is there are still deniers out there and world leaders uninterested in curbing emissions. Just weeks before her interview with the paper U.S. President Donald Trump infamously withdrew his country from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Asked what impact Trump’s decision would have Saxe said she wasn’t sure.

“I’ve not been given a crystal ball … but there is no question that he can do a lot of damage. But it’s also true that he’s been able to galvanize a lot of people to step up” she said.

World coal use was down last year she pointed out crediting the economics of green energy as a driver.

“China has been able to drive down the cost of solar and wind so much that new coal is no longer appealing. India cancelled something like 14 gigawatts of planned coal fired production just last month” she said.

But she didn’t underestimate the impact of American absentia from the global effort.

“It’s reasonable to expect that it means that more damage will be done for longer more people will suffer. More people will suffer more. It doesn’t change what needs to be done and it doesn’t change the rapid change in economics” she said.

During her talk in Minden the environmental commissioner will be extrapolating on the climate crisis Ontario’s role and what individuals can do. The talk starts at 7 p.m. at the Minden Community Centre (55 Parkside Street Minden) on Thursday July 6. Cost is $10 at the door.