Lack of political wlll at heart of climate crisis

Photo: Marites N. Sison
Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published March 1, 2011

Speakers addressing a recent Toronto forum made an impassioned plea for a paradigm change to save a planet in crisis. “The obstacle is the lack of political will,” said Lynn McDonald, a professor emeritus from Ontario’s University of Guelph and former NDP environment critic, at the town-hall style meeting. “Greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and Canada has no serious plans to address this.”

Although Canada’s absolute emissions are modest compared with those of China with its 1.3 billion people, they are still high on a per-capita basis. Part of the challenge, pointed out McDonald, is that our laws are based on assumptions of the renewability of resources, even though some resources, such as fossil fuels, are inherently non-renewable. “We need a profound paradigm shift to take that into account,” she said.

Dr. Peter Russell, a constitutional expert and principal emeritus of Innis College, University of Toronto, warned against betting on the glacier-paced workings of constitutional change to enshrine needed protections. “You’re betting on the wrong horse. It will never get to the starting post, let alone the finish line,” he said. Instead of dreaming about a brave new world in which the environment is legally protected, “this is a time when we have to pull together and undertake practical things now,” Russell warned. “The situation is extremely serious.”

What gives our generation the right to use up so much of the world’s natural resources? We need to keep asking ourselves this, said McDonald, who is also chair of JustEarth, a Coalition for Environmental Justice and a sponsor of the forum. She urged all environmentally conscious citizens to get involved in lobbying and letter-writing campaigns targeting political leaders at every level.

McDonald also pointed out that as the rights and entitlements of the individual evolved after the Enlightenment, they were construed as human rights in the here and now, with no consideration for the environment, future generations or other species. Furthermore, she added, modern courts have extended to corporations the same rights that individuals enjoy. Thus, the right to free expression becomes the right to freely advertise, and corporations have no obligation to the future. “It might be against the law to pick someone’s pocket and cheat him out of what is rightfully his but not against the law to cheat his descendants out of the resources they need to earn their livelihood,” said McDonald.

“The most important thing is to get behind a single idea and push it,” urged Russell. Don’t be divided. “Find the right environmental model and take it everywhere.” Expressing his support for coalition and minority governments, Russell also called for changes to the way the judges who will be ruling in environmental court cases are appointed. “The federal government appoints senior judges in the provinces as well as federal court judges, and there is far too much patronage in the appointing of judges.”Collaborative minority governments and proportional representation are better suited to advancing environmental causes, noted McDonald. “With proportional representation rather than our current first-past-the post system, there would be more Greens and NDPs in Parliament,” she said. In Europe, Red-Green coalitions have been effective in getting action on climate change and have set targets for reductions.

Russell noted that the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) has applied what little there is in our constitution-which gives both the federal and provincial levels of government some jurisdiction over natural resources-to environmental conflicts with industry, and it has been supportive of strengthening federal powers. A case in point is the 1988 SCC decision against Crown Zellerbach, a large B.C. pulp and paper company that was dumping its waste into the ocean and had invoked the jurisdictional support of the province.

Sometimes the federal government’s responsibility for “peace, order and good government” can be applied to environmental cases if the court is persuaded that the provinces are not up to the task, said Russell. “If it takes national regulation to do it well, then Parliament may have jurisdiction.”

In another interesting judgment, the federal government won the day against Hydro Quebec, not by appealing to provincial insufficiency but to the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction in criminal law-in this case criminal pollution.

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  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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