Data showing Canadian support for carbon pricing. Data showing Canadian support for carbon pricing.

Mere weeks into office, Premier Doug Ford’s government scrapped Ontario’s carbon pollution trading scheme and slashed support for renewable energy. And as recently as last week, representing the province at the Council of the Federation meeting in New Brunswick, Ford stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe in promising a constitutional showdown with the federal government over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national climate strategy.

Six months ago, Ontario was viewed as a global climate policy leader. Now the province has become a climate policy obstructionist, earning the dubious distinction as just the second jurisdiction in the world to repeal a carbon price.

For cap and trade’s opponents, Ford’s election victory gave him a clear mandate to reverse Ontario’s climate progress.

But is that slash-and-burn mandate really so clear?

In a word, no. Five months ago, former PC leader Patrick Brown and his “People’s Guarantee” platform was cruising to a majority government with a promise to keep Ontario’s carbon price. When Ford became party leader in March, even after losing the leadership race popular vote to Christine Elliott, he promised to rollback environmental laws.

But Ontario’s mostly pro-climate voters didn’t abruptly shift their thinking on the need to fight climate change — only the PC leader did.

 

Ford’s misguided climate policy mandate highlights a problem that has troubled political scientists for years. Simply put, elections are a flawed way for a public to communicate their policy preferences to leaders.

In the 2018 election, a majority of Ontario voters supported political parties (the Liberals, New Democrats and Greens) that wanted to keep a price on carbon in place. But the province’s first-past-the-post electoral system did not give these voters a majority of the seats in Ontario’s legislature.

Yet even in ridings that voted in a Progressive Conservative candidate, a majority support cap and trade.

How do we know this? Through my research at the University of California Santa Barbara, researchers have estimated the public’s climate policy preferences in every riding across the country. And in Ontario, a majority of residents in every single riding support cap and trade. There are no exceptions. This even includes 69 per cent of the public in Ford’s own riding of Etobicoke-North.

Ontarians know the reality of the climate problem. It’s real. It’s happening. It’s human-caused. And while it’s dangerous, we can still do something about it.

 

So how did Ontario shift from climate champion to climate laggard?

The answer is simple: politicians and the media often misread the meaning of electoral mandates. The voting public can’t choose as from a take-out menu for their preferred policies — voting for a party or candidate is more like buying a prix fixe meal. And taking the metaphor a step further, voters often care more about who runs the restaurant than the meal they’re about to eat.

Even in ridings that voted in a Progressive Conservative candidate, a majority support cap and trade.

People voted for a new government in Ontario for a host of reasons. But very few queued up to mark their ballot fueled by a desire to reverse Ontario’s climate policy progress.

Ford’s fixation with tearing apart Ontario’s climate policy is even stranger when considered alongside his promise to unleash economic prosperity, his so-called ‘Open For Business’ pledge. Getting rid of the cap and trade program will be extremely expensive. Many Ontario businesses have already purchased the right to emit pollution under the program, companies who will demand compensation using taxpayer money when the repeal takes full effect. These funds would be better spent mitigating the risks of climate change.

This about as far as one can shift from respecting the taxpayer.

The move will also destroy private sector financial assets. Already, the government has frozen businesses’ ability to trade or sell these permits. Ford may claim to support free-markets, but these actions are those of a government destroying a functioning free market.

Ontario chose a Ford government. But let’s be clear: that choice was not motivated by a desire to usher in a new era of reckless carbon pollution; it was not a call to arms to fight the federal government’s modest efforts to coordinate Canadian climate policy; and it was not a signal that Ontarians want to undermine economic prosperity and destabilize the climate to save a few cents per litre at the gas pumps.

If Ford truly believes in a government “for the people” he may wish to listen to Ontarians and maintain the climate policies a wide majority broadly support.


On July 25, Ontario’s Environment, Conservation and Parks Minister Rod Phillips introduced legislation to undo the provincial cap-and-trade program brought in by former Premier Kathleen Wynne. “Ontario’s carbon tax era is over,” Phillips said in a release. “Cancelling the cap-and-trade carbon tax is the right thing to do [and] a good thing to do.”

Matto Mildenberger (@mmildenberger) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara

 

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