The Ontario government’s climate-change plan is so “woefully inadequate” that not only will it lead to widespread suffering and death, it is also unconstitutional. That was the argument presented in Superior Court on Monday by lawyers representing seven young people suing the province for watering down its climate-change laws.
“People in this province are going to die because of climate change,” argued Nader Hasan. “That’s not speculation.
“It’s beyond dispute the only way to avoid the worst effects of climate change is for governments to take significant measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”
Instead, Ontario is making things worse, Hasan said, with a “woefully inadequate climate plan and emissions target … putting us on a path to climate disaster.
The landmark case makes the claim that the Charter rights of Ontario’s youth and future generations are being breached by a climate law passed by the Progressive Conservatives in 2018 that weakened emission targets set out by the previous Liberal government.
The less stringent cuts to carbon emissions will lead to catastrophic climate change, which infringes upon plaintiffs’ right to life, liberty and security, the suit claims.
The unequal ways that Indigenous people and youth will bear the brunt of climate change also breach their right to equal treatment under the law, according to the lawsuit.
In its defence, the Ontario government doesn’t deny that climate change is an existential threat. Instead, it says it has no constitutional duty “to prevent future harm.”
Drawing on expert evidence from 16 leading scientists as well as reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the text of the Paris Agreement, Hasan listed 10 ways a warming climate will harm Ontario’s youth and next generations.
- The temperature in Canada will rise twice as fast as the global average;
- Heat waves will cause thousands of extra deaths in Toronto, Ottawa, Sudbury and Windsor;
- New infectious diseases borne by ticks and mosquitos have already arrived in Ontario and deaths will increase rapidly;
- The area burned each year by forest fires will increase by as much as 65 per cent;
- There will be a significant increased risk of flooding;
- Fish stocks will drop due to mercury poisoning and algae blooms;
- Mental health disorders including stress, anxiety, PTSD and suicide will become more prevalent;
- It will be harder for Indigenous people to sustain themselves and maintain traditional ways of life;
- There is a risk of “societal breakdowns” including large displacements due to famine and conflict; and
- These effects are irreversible and cannot be undone “on human timescales.”
The seven young people who brought the case gathered to observe the proceedings at the College Park offices of their lawyers with EcoJustice, an environmental charity.
Standing outside in the rain, they formed a circle to perform a smudging ceremony, with sage and sweetgrass smouldering in an abalone shell as passersby looked on and sirens wailed.
Inside the offices they sat in silence, comforted by Chuck the support dog, the lawyers’ tiny terrier/schnauzer rescue from Gatineau.
“This is just so exciting, that after all this time, we’re finally here making our case to a judge,” said Shaelyn Wabegijig, a 25-year-old master’s student from Mnjikaning (Rama) First Nation.
The case laid out before Justice Marie-Andrée Vermette rests on the concept of a global carbon budget, which was enshrined in the Paris Agreement.
Virtually every country in the world agreed that average temperature rise must to be limited to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial times in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change. (Temperatures have already risen one degree, two-thirds of that margin.)
Scientists have determined that no more than 420,000 megatonnes of carbon can be emitted worldwide to stay under that threshold, Hasan said.
“It’s a finite budget that’s being used up,” he said. “Once we exceed that budget, there’s no going back.”
While there is no accepted method to divide up that carbon budget by country and province, Hasan said the most generous allocation would give Ontario no more than 760 megatonnes of total emissions. The current legislation puts Ontario on track for 1,700 megatonnes, a number that “blows through our budget,” he said.
If every country adopted similar emissions targets, it would lead to two to three degrees of warming worldwide — a scenario described as “catastrophe” by the United Nations.
“Does Ontario really want to argue that it’s allowed to act under the Charter in a way that undermines the preservation of human society?” Hasan asked.
The province is scheduled to present its defence Wednesday.