Seven young people brought a milestone litigation against the Ontario government, accusing its climate plan of failing to protect them and future generations, was heard in the Ontario Superior Court in Toronto this week; For the first time, a climate lawsuit aimed at changing government policy has had a full hearing in court.
The plaintiffs, represented by environmental law charity Ecojustice, filed the lawsuit in 2019 after Prime Minister Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government replaced the previous Liberal government’s climate plan. It ended the province’s trade and cap program and introduced a new, weaker target on emissions.
The plaintiffs want the court to order the province to come up with a new plan. The specifics will be left to the government, but the plaintiffs want it to be science-based and compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement, to limit global warming to below 2C.
“At current levels, the entire world will blow through its remaining carbon budget in five to 10 years, maybe even less,” said Nader Hasan, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
“Ontario is using a disproportionate share of the carbon budget overall.”
But they face an uphill legal battle. The province has argued that its plan is not a law but a policy that cannot be challenged. According to constitutional law expert Julius Gray, courts often avoid challenging government policies.
This case “faced the challenge of the government’s argument, which has often been successful, that policy issues could not be determined through the courts. In other words, the court did not determine whether the budget of whether we are suitable or not, if the water supply is sufficient,” he said.
Gray has some experience in climate lawsuits. In 2012, he worked on a case challenging the federal government – then led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper – to withdraw from the Kyoto Agreement to limit global warming.
That case was dismissed by a federal court before a full hearing. In 2020, another climate lawsuit against Ottawa was also dismissed. That judge found that the court had no role in directing Canada’s overall approach to climate change.
The Ontario government also tried to dismiss the case, but the petition was denied. By achieving a full hearing, the youth applicants have gone further than in previous cases. Any decision would send a message about how far the courts can go in reviewing governments’ approach to the escalating climate crisis.
“Maybe we are getting to the point where the environment is a crisis so severe that it can be litigated, and there are objective standards that can be imposed by the courts,” says Gray.
The seven plaintiffs, ranging in age from 15 to 27, come from different backgrounds and regions of Ontario. The lead plaintiff, 15 year old Sophia Mathur, lives in Sudbury. She has been involved in climate activism for many years, and says watching the hearings unfold is exciting.
“I hope that the people of Ontario follow this case and they see that the Ontario government is not doing enough,” Mathur said.
Mathur said she has experienced the effects of climate change and extreme weather. In 2019, her family had to leave their home and live in a hotel for six months after a cycle of thawing and freezing caused the ice on their roof to freeze.
“When you see the effects of climate change in real life… it’s a wake-up call,” says Mathur.
“But scientists are saying it’s going to get worse if we continue at the rate we’re doing.”
She and other plaintiffs say they are also arguing on behalf of other Ontarians who face climate impacts.
They argue that Ontario’s plan violates their rights under Sections 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the right to life, liberty and security, and equality under the law, without discrimination.
They say climate change will disproportionately affect young people who will live in a worsening climate and indigenous communities already experiencing climate catastrophe and witnessing traditional activities. Their system is broken.
Plaintiff Beze Gray is from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia, part of a heavily polluted area in southwestern Ontario – home to refineries and other large industrial facilities – known by some as the “Valley of Water”. Chemical Valley”.
“It’s jarring to be near [the industry] really for my community. Like, some refinery is right across the street,” Gray, 27, said.
Gray says climate change is already impacting the ability of indigenous communities to maintain their culture, which relies on connections to land and nature, and threatens to further disrupt activities and knowledge. their knowledge.
Gray hopes that joining the lawsuit will highlight how the climate crisis is affecting Indigenous people in particular.
“I worry about future generations having that connection with cultural and linguistic change.”
Ontario brings in climate change deniers
The plaintiffs’ application includes submissions from a long list of experts to bolster their claim that Ontario’s climate plan and goal – to reduce emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 – inconsistent with the objectives of the Paris Agreement.
The previous Liberal government had a more ambitious goal of reducing 37% below 1990 levels by 2030. The Tories changes would result in about 200 million tons more carbon emissions, according to experts at the Tories. plaintiff.
The Ontario government has argued that fighting climate change is a global responsibility and that the province’s contribution to global emissions and the province’s ability to limit global warming is small.
In addition, the federal government is responsible for the country’s emissions and for negotiating climate action internationally.
“It’s the right place to deal with this, not a mandatory surveillance order from this court,” Padraic Ryan, one of the government’s attorneys, told the court.
Ontario’s Minister of Justice declined to comment on the case as it remains in court.
One of the experts put forward by the government, William van Wijngaarden, is a professor of physics at York University and a climate change advocate. In his submission to the case, he stated that global climate models have consistently overestimated global warming. He also suspects that greenhouse gas emissions are linked to climate disasters such as floods, tornadoes and wildfires, which goes against the consensus in climate science and government reports. Canada and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Van Wijngaarden is also a member of the CO2 Coalition, a group that has argued that more carbon dioxide emissions are good for the planet, a position different from almost any reputable climate research organization in the world. gender.
Van Wijngaarden supports the government’s argument that the province has only a small role to play in global climate.
Hasan sees his participation as a sign that Ontario cannot challenge the scientific arguments it makes. He said that by bringing in a climate change protester officially, the province “basically” takes a “climate denial stance.”
The province said it attaches great importance to the issue of climate change.
In a statement, the press secretary of the Ontario Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks said the government “will continue to combat climate change with new initiatives that are flexible to the opportunities, needs, and the plight of Ontarians while protecting job creators and industry.”
Mr. Phillip Robinson said the province is “collaborating with industry and investing heavily in clean green energy, public transport and electric vehicles”.