In a landmark case, seven Ontario youth are suing the provincial government over weakened climate legislation they say is putting their future wellbeing at risk. The PC government is using claims from a climate change denier who has worked closely with one of Donald Trump’s White House skeptics to fight back.
In hearings that began Monday and continued Wednesday, lawyers for the provincial government relied on William Van Wijngaarden, a professor of physics at York University, who has published non-peer reviewed claims about the benefits of carbon dioxide emissions. Van Wijngaarden stated in a sworn affidavit that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Nobel Prize winning climate models “systematically overestimate global warming”.
The PC government’s lawyers used Van Wijngaarden’s models to argue it would take thousands of years before provincial emissions reductions would result in large-scale changes to the climate.
Van Wijngaarden has collaborated with American academic William Happer, who was hired by Donald Trump’s White House to refute climate science that is almost universally accepted by leading atmospheric research institutions around the world.
The decision to use Van Wijngaarden as a key witness, has raised red flags among Canada’s scientific community, signalling the government of the largest province, and the country’s second worst polluter (behind Alberta) has aligned with fringe climate deniers.
The case brings together seven young people from across Ontario—Sophia Mathur, Zoë Keary-Matzner, Shaelyn Wabegijig, Shelby Gagnon, Alex Neufeldt, Madison Dyck and Beze Grey—who are fed up with the government’s lack of action on climate change. They are suing Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government for scaling back emissions reductions, when evidence shows we need stricter climate targets now more than ever.
“I joined the case right away, because I knew that I had to do everything I could to right these wrongs,” said Keary-Matzner, 15, one of the seven youth involved in the case.
Former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne helped pass the Climate Change Mitigation and Low-carbon Economy Act in 2016 which committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent below 1990 levels in 2020, 37 percent in 2030 and 80 percent in 2050.
In 2018, Premier Doug Ford replaced the Act with the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act. While the new Act still focuses on a reduction of emissions, the targets are not nearly as aggressive and do not meet standards set by most jurisdictions around the world committed to global reduction goals.
Under the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act emissions are compared to 2005 levels. Emissions levels in 2005 in Ontario were already 13 percent higher than in 1990. The PCs set the target of 30 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2030, a far lower goal than the original target set by the Liberals.
The lawsuit claims the change in targets will allow an additional 200 megatonnes of carbon emissions by 2030.
According to a new report by the World Meteorological Association entitled United in Science, the goal of emissions reductions commitments by 2030 need to be seven times higher to meet the Paris Agreement’s mandate of containing global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels. The scientific consensus of the IPCC is that beyond the 1.5 degree threshold, the world will begin to experience more extreme climate impacts, like severe flooding, increased heat waves and droughts leading to a large number of climate refugees fleeing destroyed areas and famine.
Using broadly accepted science and evidence from the IPCC, the world’s leading climate consortium, with thousands of global scientific contributors, the plaintiffs question whether the Ford PC legislation is even based in science.
This type of legal fight is becoming increasingly common across the world as governments fail to react to the devastating impacts of climate change—most recently in Pakistan where mass-flooding has destroyed entire regions. An analysis completed by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in London found that since 2015, more than 1,000 climate related cases have been filed in courts across the globe.
“We expect that climate change litigation will continue to grow, reflecting the increasing urgency with which the climate crisis is viewed by the general public. We also expect the range of claims and defendants to continue to diversify, reflecting an increased understanding of the role that multiple actors will need to play in the transition to a net-zero global economy,” the report states. “Also anticipated is a continued rise in litigation against governments and major emitters that fail to adopt serious long-term strategies underpinned by concrete plans and short-term emissions reduction targets (including for acts and omissions up and down their value chains). Entities that act inconsistently with commitments and targets, or that mislead the public and interested parties about their products and actions, are also likely to continue to face increased volumes of litigation.”
The group of seven along with lawyers from EcoJustice, a non-profit Canadian environmental law organization, claim the PC government’s lack of action on climate change, and the weakening of legislation designed to safeguard a healthy future for Ontarians, violates rights protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly Sections 7 and 15.
Section 7 guarantees life, liberty and security for all Canadians. On Monday, lawyers for the group argued that climate change is a threat to Canadians’ fundamental rights and that weaker climate laws impose a greater threat to life, liberty and security.
The second argument is based in Section 15 which ensures every Canadian, regardless of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, colour, sex, age or physical or mental disability, is to be treated with dignity and respect. The plaintiffs argue that youth are more likely to suffer the consequences of climate change. In addition, it is known that Indigenous peoples are at greater risk of suffering from climate consequences. Three of the seven youth plaintiffs are Indigenous.
The Province fought back with a few eyebrow-raising arguments.
While the lawyers for the Province did not deny the severity of climate change, they argued that they had no constitutional obligation to protect the population from it.
Keary-Matzner told The Pointer her reaction to the government’s defence consisted of “a lot of laughter”.
“It's just really shameful,” she said. “A government is supposed to take care of the citizens, and the fact that we even have to bring this case forward, the fact that they would not only not take action on the climate crisis, actively, like go backward and prevent action on this, and then fight us in court. When we told them that this is against the charter. It's just, it's really shameful.”
In addition, the government claimed they should not be held responsible because the Supreme Court gave jurisdiction over climate change to the federal government.
In 2020, 15 youth filed a lawsuit against the federal government to develop a climate recovery plan based on science. The Justice of the Peace presiding over the case ruled the claims did not have a reasonable course of action or prospect of success, and therefore the case did not proceed to trial.
The seven youth from various communities across Ontario aren’t letting go that easily. After filing the motion in 2019, the Ontario government attempted to dismiss the case. But the Ontario Superior Court of Justice allowed it to continue.
The landmark hearing follows successes in other countries. Top courts in Columbia, the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany have all ruled that their governments need to strengthen environmental laws after hearing cases brought forward by youth.
The plaintiffs and EcoJustice are hoping for the same outcome in Ontario.
The Province’s lawyer Zachary Green told the judge that Ontario’s climate plan is more of a “glossy brochure”, a “communications product” that has no power to reduce emissions and therefore should not be overturned by the courts.
EcoJustice estimates it will be at least six months before a decision.
“This lawsuit could set a really important legal precedent that could affect how governments tackle the climate emergency across Canada,” said Keary-Matzner. She hopes to educate more people to help put public pressure on the government.
“We have to do every single thing we can to fight back and take action, because we know that there's so much that we can lose when it comes to climate change. But there's also so much that we could gain.”
If the decision goes in favour of EcoJustice and the youth plaintiffs, it has the potential to force the hand of a provincial government that has shown itself to be actively against protecting the environment or promoting sustainability.
Along with weakening Ontario’s climate emission targets, the PC government under Premier Ford has actively promoted projects that have the potential to drastically increase emissions, like Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass. Shortly after winning office in 2018, the PCs scrapped Ontario’s subsidies for electric cars, and Ford has since enacted numerous pieces of legislation to promote unsustainable sprawl-style development.
A defeat in the case would not be the first time the courts have ruled against Ford and his PCs for their stance on environmental issues. In 2021, a judge ruled the PC government violated the Environmental Bill of Rights when it failed to consult with Ontarians on its sweeping changes to the use of Minister’s Zoning Orders—a tool that fast-tracks development proposals and has been used to override local planning oversight intended to conform with environmental legislation.
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Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer