What Doug Ford brings to the national climate policy debate

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Appeared in the National Post, March 28, 2018

Doug Ford’s victory in the Ontario PC leadership race changes the national climate policy picture in a significant way. Not because he opposes carbon taxes—many other federal and provincial politicians do as well. What makes Ford (pictured above) different is his willingness to declare that he sees climate policy as a secondary issue in comparison to basic bread-and-butter economic priorities.

Lots of politicians see it this way, too, but they are too nervous to say so. They find it safer to nod along with the loudest voices on the other side, whose righteous crusade against (as they see it) planet-destroying fossil fuels leads them to believe that any policy, no matter how extreme and costly, is never enough.

Ford’s realism may inspire others to join him. And his view is in line with expert opinion. The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, after surveying the projected costs and benefits of climate change, concluded: “For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers… Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.”

In other words, when it comes to the things that truly affect peoples’ day-to-day lives, climate change might belong on the list, but far down. Polls show that people have largely figured this out for themselves, with climate change consistently ranking far behind most other priorities.

Policy should reflect this. It’s not rational to say that, because climate change might (in theory) create some problems for people a few decades from now, we should impose energy policies that will create much larger problems for them now. Unfortunately, that is what plans such as the Paris treaty oblige us to do.

It’s even less rational once you realise that the same models that say global warming is a problem also say that Paris-type policies will not fix it. If Canada and all the other signatories do what they say they plan to do, the effect on the climate by the end of the century will be minuscule at best, despite the heavy economic costs.

And, as with Kyoto before it, we can safely predict that the other signatories to Paris will not keep their promises. We especially need to take account of the fact that President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of Paris changed the situation for Canada. The U.S. is ramping up its economic competitiveness through energy-sector deregulation and an abandonment of Obama-era climate goals. We ignore this at our peril.

Ontario energy and climate policy should be rooted in current reality, not wishful thinking about what a subsequent U.S. president might someday do. We should pursue environmental policies that yield actual benefits at reasonable costs while supporting economic growth and job creation. That’s how we used to approach the issue, and the result was decades of improvements in air and water quality alongside continued economic growth.

The last few years, by contrast, have been marked by costly and futile gestures (such as the Green Energy Act) that are more about moralistic symbolism than improving peoples’ lives.

Ford’s priorities will lead to an inevitable showdown over Ottawa’s carbon-pricing mandate. In reality, this is a minor issue and deserves to be treated as such. It’s not Ford’s problem that the Trudeau government embraced the Paris treaty without a plan to achieve its targets, much less a national consensus that doing so is worth the cost. The provinces are within their rights to tell the feds that if they want a carbon tax, they will have to impose it themselves and face the political consequences—not make the provinces do it for them.

Ottawa will object, of course, but if it cracks down the federal government will find itself in the position of ignoring British Columbia’s pipeline obstruction while forcing unpopular green taxes on everyone else. Perhaps that reflects this federal government’s priorities, but I’m doubtful it matches the general public’s.

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