Speaker's Corner: Facing climate change

A recent burst of unseasonably warm weather led many to joke that the effects of climate change are favourable to Canadians. But the scientific realities facing our planet are downright scary. Our burning of fossil fuels has altered the basic chemistry of our planet. Global commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fall disastrously short of meaningful action. 

A recent Léger survey found that “40 per cent of Canadians believe the science behind climate change is still unclear or unsettled.” James Hansen, one of the most prominent climate scientists in the world, decries the “huge gap between the public’s understanding of the situation and the scientific understanding.” He argues that helping the public to “connect the dots” is critical because “political leaders are not independent of public opinion.”

Fortunately, several governments across North America are taking steps to help us connect the dots by mandating climate change and air pollution disclosures or “warning labels” for gas pumps like those found on tobacco packaging. I am a lawyer and the founder of Our Horizon, a non-profit organization that is calling on governments to implement the labels. The concept helps to close the experiential gap between our use of fossil fuels and their impacts to create greater social impetus to address the challenge.

In Ontario, municipal councils in Oakville, Waterloo, Kitchener, Guelph and Pickering have all passed resolutions calling on the provincial or federal government to implement the idea. But municipalities need not wait for other orders of government to act. Vancouver-based law firm Lidstone & Company reviewed our legal research for British Columbia municipalities and concluded: “In our opinion, a requirement to place labels on gas nozzles could be validly imposed pursuant to a municipality’s power to regulate business.” Local governments in Ontario can similarly legislate the warning labels under the Municipal Act, 2001 and use existing case law to support their efforts.

Municipal governments in Ontario have been granted broad authority to govern their affairs. In Toronto Livery Association v. Toronto (City), 2009, the Court of Appeal noted that this authority is “far-reaching” and that “[i]t applies to the City’s general power to make by-laws . . .  and its specific power . . .  to establish business licensing systems.” Courts have also shown a deferential approach to decisions of municipal government.

In 2001, the City of Toronto relied on these powers to require restaurant owners to place notices on their entrances that communicate the results of health inspections. Toronto’s bylaw was challenged by the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association and upheld by the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal. The courts concluded that the notices did not infringe on the licence holders’ freedom of expression rights, which, even if it did, was held to be justifiable given that the notices were “clearly attributed to the City of Toronto and not to the individual restaurant owner.” The bylaw was also found to be rooted in “significant public health and consumer protection imperatives” and merely required the licence holder to disclose risks to the consumer. The climate change and air pollution labels are rooted in similar concerns and merely require retailers to disclose risks to the end users of their product.

In Spraytech v. Hudson, 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledged that “protection of our environment . . .  requires action by governments at all levels” and that “local governments [should be] empowered to exceed, but not to lower, national norms.” 

The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is an effort that needs to be undertaken by all levels of government. This view is consistent with provincial and federal messaging on climate change and long-standing practice in cities and towns across Canada.

There is a tremendous inertia to the incumbent energy system. A fossil fuel-based economy is all we have ever known and the simple act of gassing up has been normalized for several generations. The labels take this habitual, automatic behaviour and de-normalize it. Challenging the status quo in this way will stimulate broader demand for alternatives and accelerate their delivery to market. This, in turn, will hasten our transition off fossil fuels.

The province of Ontario and local governments are now positioned to create examples for the world to follow. And Canadians have led the way with similar disclosures: We were the first country in the world to implement pictorial warnings on tobacco packages. Studies have shown that such labels help to change attitudes and behaviour and, with the tobacco warnings all over the world, these climate change disclosures have been primed to go global. 

American author and activist James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 

This is exactly what the disclosure labels ensure we do. The first step in addressing any challenge is to honestly face it. Let us have the courage to face our challenge so that we can begin to address it in a more meaningful way.

Robert Shirkey is a lawyer and founder of Our Horizon. A full legal report is available at www.ourhorizon.org.

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