Climate policy analysts and campaigners were looking to next steps last night as they absorbed the results of a provincial election that delivered a second legislative majority for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, after the climate emergency barely scratched the surface of the campaign agenda.
As The Energy Mix went to virtual press early this morning, the Conservatives were elected or leading in 83 of the province’s 124 constituencies, while the New Democrats were set to return to Queen’s Park as Official Opposition with 31. Liberal leader Steven Del Duca had been soundly defeated in his home riding of Vaughan-Woodbridge, and his party had added only one seat to the seven it held in the last legislature, still short of the 12 it would need to regain official party status. Green leader Mike Schreiner remained his party’s sole elected MPP. By night’s end, Del Duca and the NDP’s Andrea Horwath had both resigned as party leaders.
“What started as an idea turned into a movement,” Ford crowed in his victory speech, “a political movement that changed the landscape of this province and this country forever.”
The electoral rout was widely anticipated after the two main opposition parties spent most of the four-week campaign period targeting each other, essentially giving Ford’s climate-denying, scandal-plagued regime a free pass while they competed bravely for second place. Electors rewarded them with a voter turnout of just 43%, far below the province’s previous low bar of 48% in 2011.
With 40.8% of those ballots as of Friday afternoon, that meant Ford won another four years in office with the support of 17.5% of eligible voters.
Many within the climate community had been aiming for a far different result, with local organizers pushing back hard against Ford’s plans to build carbon-intensive new super-highways and endanger farmland through urban sprawl, and going all-out to draw attention to his four years of hostility to climate action and renewable energy. More than 240 organizations formed an Ontario Climate Emergency Coalition in a bid to make climate and decarbonization a top campaign issue, while Seniors for Climate Action Now (SCAN) researched and published a compendium of the 33 climate crimes of the Ford government’s first term.
The morning after, Ontarians still face the reality of a government with no plan to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions this decade, no apparent intention of doing better, and a large enough carbon footprint that the province’s failure will virtually guarantee that Canada falls short of its own 2030 target.
But even as they absorbed the magnitude of the loss and paused for a few days of rest [and if you aren’t, you really should be—Ed.], none of the leading voices in the Ontario climate community were giving up. In a series of email exchanges over the last two days, they all made it clear that they were doubling down on the work ahead.
“It’s really important to emphasize that four more years of Ford government does not mean the majority of citizens actually support Ford’s agenda. Far more people voted against him than for him,” SCAN co-founder Terry Moore told The Mix. “We can and will defeat Ford’s agenda during his second term of office and at the polls the next time around. But that effort must begin now.”
A ‘Post-COVID Political PTSD’
In the months leading up to the election, the Ford government appeared vulnerable on a host of issues—certainly including its record on climate and energy. But none of those epic failures landed very powerfully during the campaign, with climate failing to break through even after a massive storm laid waste to parts of Ottawa and areas of eastern and central Ontario.
“The campaign was notable for an apparent public disinterest in substantive policy issues or the Ford government’s record,” said York University sustainable energy professor Mark Winfield. “The public has seemed strangely uninterested in it all—perhaps a post-COVID political PTSD reinforced by inflation concerns?”
“There is the issue of so many voters who are struggling—they may not have the time and bandwidth to participate in the electoral process, and they may be discouraged and exhausted by the pandemic and all its fallout,” agreed Sheila Regehr, co-chair of the Basic Income Canada Network.
But “environmental issues do not go away just because a government chooses to ignore them,” Winfield said. “In Ontario’s case, the province is now on track to see major increases in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from the electricity sector. The impacts of a changing climate are likely to become more and more apparent in the form of extreme weather events, flooding, forest fires, extended ranges of disease vectors, and cyanobacteria blooms. Long-standing issues related to air and water pollution, and losses of biological diversity, natural heritage, and prime agricultural lands to resource extraction and urban development continue to worsen, and in many cases seem likely accelerate as a result of the decisions made by the first Ford government.”
All of those issues “will stay on the policy agenda whether the government wants them to or not as they will become too obvious to ignore.”
Others contacted by The Energy Mix cited Russia’s war in Ukraine, a focus on health care, the complexity of some climate and energy messaging, restrictions on political campaigning by community-based groups, and a short campaign period as factors that kept climate out of the top tier of campaign issues.
“With the high volume of contradictory messaging during an election and trends in ideological polarization along with disinformation, it may be particularly difficult to break the communications bubble to ensure that the people who are not already onboard with the messaging on these issues are being adequately reached,” said Mili Roy, co-chair of the Ontario branch of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. She also pointed to “ambiguity in policy statements compounded by restrictions on non-political party election advertising spending”.
Tim Ellis, who led the Not One Seat voter mobilization initiative in the Greater Toronto Area, agreed that climate campaigners were “operating in a highly constrained information ecosystem, dominated by corporate legacy media, advertising-driven social media platforms, and effective, well-funded right wing propaganda outlets. We must be leveraging our strengths to take that challenge head on.”
Even so, SCAN co-founder David Robertson said voters were receptive when he approached with information on the government’s climate record.
“While the climate crisis was not top of mind for voters, I believe it was an issue just below the surface,” he said. “The recent election in Australia and the turfing of a climate denier has shown that we don’t know when or how climate will break through as an election issue. But we have to get better at building the preconditions for that breakthrough to occur.”
Slowing Down the Damage
Interview participants saw little hope of a breakthrough on provincial climate action, with several of them calling for the Trudeau government to use whatever leverage it has with the province to push for more effective policy. The next best option, many of them said, is to slow down the next wave of damage to the extent possible.
“We are going to have to fight every move by this government, starting with the loss of farmland to urban sprawl—and fight the highways every way that we can,” said ClimateFast co-chair Lyn Adamson. “I think we’ll also see more direct action strategies, such as sit-ins and blockades. We will have to do these things if we’re serious about not letting the province continue in the wrong direction. In the short timeline we have to slash emissions, we can’t accept any more backward movement.”
In addition to federal influence, Adamson and others pointed to municipal elections this fall as an opportunity to build on the climate emergency declarations and other momentum that many cities have already established.
Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence Canada, saw two paths to slow down the Ford government’s agenda.
“People need to keep fighting against bad projects like [Highway] 413, keep standing up to protect the spaces and places they care about, and keep up the pressure to protect the environment and our communities,” he wrote. And “the federal government will need to intervene in as many areas as possible—to conduct an impact assessment of the 413, and introduce a clean electricity standard and a ZEV mandate, to take care of the emissions that Ontario isn’t interested in addressing on its own.”
Ottawa must also “avoid signing weak equivalency agreements that allow provinces to get off the hook,” using a side deal with the feds to delay emission reductions, Brooks added.
Ellis said the urgency of the climate crisis means taking cues from successful mass movements of the past like the U.S. civil rights movement. “We don’t have time to be fighting any more ‘damage control’ battles,” he said. “We need to make gains. The way forward is for climate activists to get serious about building a scalable mass movement that can reach new segments, connect their issues to climate justice, and pose an unavoidable electoral and commercial threat.”
At the same time, Ellis said the climate community should “identify places where we can find alignment with Ford as well—they will exist!” Angela Bischoff, outreach director at the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, pointed to a potential opening.
“In the leaders’ debate, Ford said he won’t be satisfied until Ontario has a 100% carbon-free electricity system,” she wrote. “We agree! And we know it’s doable. The premier knows the people of Ontario are not going to accept a huge increase in the use of gas-fired power plants. He has (somewhat) seen the light on electric vehicles. Hopefully, his party can get over its irrational dislike of renewable energy and recognize that it is the only way to lower electricity costs now. He is also going to have a hard time explaining how a hugely costly new nuclear reactor is a viable alternative given his promise of fiscal responsibility.”
Pushing Back at Every Level
Several interview participants pointed to local organizing that is already going on—particularly against highway expansions and urban sprawl—and cited longer-term deep organizing techniques pioneered in the United States that have since been used to build wider buy-in for climate action in British Columbia.
“The opposition to Highway 413 is very much a product of such deep organizing,” Bischoff wrote. “Similarly, our work to get 33 municipalities onboard with a gas power phaseout has very much driven the response from the province on this issue. We’re going to have to continue to organize at the community level to have an impact, as the previous Ford government demonstrated a deep disdain for environmental issues. It will only act if there is significant municipal and grassroots pressure applied.”
ClimateFast volunteer Anne Keary pointed out that deep organizing in the U.S. state of Georgia took 10 years to deliver electoral results. Ellis agreed that “we should have started 20 years ago,” but “the next best time to start is tomorrow.” But he and others said the climate community has “a strong core to build from; now it’s time to get innovative,” with conversations about strategy, coalition-building, and effective outreach to get outside the climate “bubble” and scale up quickly.
“We need to be more intentional about organizing politically, especially around the public policy areas that are big and fast enough to create the conditions for empowerment and transformation that can save the planet and humanity,” Regehr agreed.
Robertson said the government itself has set some of those conditions in motion. “Ford has set the stage for a number of climate related fights—urban sprawl, bad energy choices, mega-resource extraction,” he wrote. “I believe more people will be drawn into those fights, and while those issues are focused fightbacks, I think a broader opposition could develop.”
Ellis added that “a massive, scalable, sustained climate movement that connects climate justice to the other essential issues facing Ontario would be an electoral juggernaut—and would also be equipped with other tools in between elections to throw its weight around.”
But all of that work “needs to be properly funded and well done,” Adamson said. “We need something like the ‘barefoot doctors’, but bringing renewables—and dialogue—to reach into every community. All communities will be looking for a viable economic future, and we can provide resources to help them take the transitional direction forward, to ‘get it done’,” while adding other essential elements like visual arts, music, and participatory theatre.
The interviews also pointed to the scope for legal action on issues ranging from Indigenous rights in the Northern Ontario Ring of Fire, to Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass.
“Litigation by itself cannot and will not stop the Ford agenda. But organized opposition, using litigation as one arrow in the quiver, can,” Moore wrote. “Litigation campaigns can not only highlight Ford’s lethal climate legacy and plans but, more importantly, help build a movement capable of asserting our right to a livable climate alternative.”
Already, “this government has been sued or is being sued by Tesla, seven Ontario youth, and Koch Industries, to name just a few,” Brooks said. “Environmental groups have litigated on the use of municipal zoning orders, killing cap and trade, the misleading carbon pricing stickers, the challenge of the federal carbon pricing powers, and more—and it seems quite likely that there will be more of that in the future.”