Doug Ford in a fire helmet at the Ontario Fire Chief's conference last month
Doug Ford at the Ontario Fire Chief's conference last month. Credit: Doug Ford / Instagram Credit: Doug Ford / Instagram

Politicians who seek to use the environment as a scapegoat have a new line of attack. 

They say those who want action on climate change are, in the words of Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, “politicizing the weather.”

That was Ontario premier Doug Ford’s riposte to Ontario NDP and official opposition leader Marit Stiles’ questions on the underlying causes of the forest fires and lethal smoke currently afflicting a good part of North America.

Here’s how the exchanges in the Ontario legislature went, on Tuesday, June 6 and Wednesday June 7 – days when millions of Ontarians were heeding advice to close their windows and avoid venturing outside into a toxic miasma.

Stiles started by pointing out that “in Ottawa today, people woke up to an eerily dark sky as the forest fire smoke blotted out the sun. The air quality there is the worst level on Environment Canada’s Air Quality Health Index. It’s so bad that people are asked to stay indoors. There are high-risk warnings issued for Belleville, for Cornwall, for Gatineau, for Kingston and for Toronto and all across the northeast.”

She then asked the Ford government to acknowledge, together with virtually every reputable scientific expert, “the connection between this worsening weather and the climate crisis.”

LISTEN: Climate change is a health issue

In his response, Ford’s natural resources minister Graydon Smith, who represents a heavily wooded district in cottage country north of Toronto, ignored Stiles’ question and focused narrowly on the immediate wildfire crisis:

“… the preparation that we put into wildland fire season is immense, and the investments that we have made to ensure that we can properly attack these fires is considerable … it’s not just the folks that are on the front lines, it’s our emergency operations centre in Sault Ste. Marie monitoring the fire situation throughout the province, coordinating response, setting provincial priorities and ensuring that we have an appropriate amount of resources. It’s those that are watching the forecasts and making sure that we are continuously and carefully reporting conditions and sharing this information, again, with our partners throughout Canada. We share in mutual aid agreements with partners that are our provinces and with countries internationally to make sure that we keep each other safe …”

A litany of anti-environmental actions

The minister uttered not a word about the broader picture, about what might be causing the increasing frequency and intensity of forest fires. So Marit Stiles tried again.

She started out by recognizing “the first responders and all the people that are being evacuated”. Then she added: “what the minister is missing is that these fires and these air-quality warnings will worsen as the climate crisis deepens.”

The NDP leader pointed to the Ford government’s environmental record, which includes weakening its own climate targets. By their actions, the NDP leader argued, the Ontario Conservatives are making the climate crisis worse.

“One of this government’s first actions was to rip electric vehicle (EV) charging stations right out of the ground. They’re carving up the greenbelt, a massive carbon sink. They blew hundreds of millions of dollars cancelling over 700 renewable energy projects. This government is taking Ontario in the wrong direction on the climate crisis,” Stiles added.

This time the energy minister Todd Smith answered. Smith’s riding lies west of Kingston, in an area suffering severe air quality impacts from the wildfires.

Todd Smith did not even bother to address any of the points Stiles raised. Instead, he touted the notional energy efficiency of Ontario’s electric power system. 

“I think it’s important for the opposition to know exactly how clean and green and reliable our electricity system is in the Ontario jurisdiction. That’s one that’s going to allow us to remove megatons of emissions from our system in the future. By ensuring that we have a clean, reliable system in Ontario, one that only emits about three per cent of our total emissions in the province, and by keeping the price reliable and affordable, we are going to see emissions reduced in other parts of our sectors, more emitting parts of our sectors, like our transportation sector,” said Smith.

The energy minister also boasted about Ontario industries converting to electric manufacturing processes and pointed to the newly emerging electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing sector in Ontario, something the Trudeau federal government has been boosting with billions of dollars in subsidies. 

The energy minister linked all of this activity to the province’s supposedly clean electricity: “It’s why we’ve seen multi-billion-dollar investments in our EV manufacturing facilities. It’s why we’re seeing manufacturers now moving to electrifying their processes in Ontario, which is going to remove emissions from our system. It’s why we’re seeing our steelmakers moving to green steelmaking with electric arc furnaces.”

Ford tries the ad hominem approach

Both ministers named Smith were using the classic political tactic of deflection and distraction. The basic premise of that strategy is: When the opposition brings up embarrassing issues, change the subject and point elsewhere. 

Communications professionals give courses in this sort of stuff.

When the premier himself finally spoke, he tried another tactic, the ad hominem attack.

Marit Stiles’ question to Doug Ford was quite simple. After, again, acknowledging the dire situation of the millions directly affected by the fires, the opposition leader asked:

“We are in for probably the most severe fire season our province has ever experienced, and people are quite rightly worried for their immediate future and whether this is the new reality. Does the Premier acknowledge that the climate emergency is making this fire season significantly worse?”

Ford’s answer: “I’m actually in shock that the Leader of the Opposition is politicizing wildfires. It’s staggering, really. But nothing surprises me with the opposition.”

He then pivoted, as had his ministers, to a recitation of the immediate emergency measures the province is taking to quell wildfires in Ontario. 

And so, the NDP leader tried again.

“You know what, Speaker? It’s science,” Stilted said. “This is no ordinary fire season. People are worried that this is our new normal and they are scared. In greater Toronto last night, the air quality index was among the worst worldwide, and in the Ottawa region the index was above a level 10, which is about as high as it gets. While people closest to the fires are being evacuated, schoolchildren in our largest cities are being kept inside and people with medical conditions are being told not to go out. This is not normal. With the very real impacts of climate change being felt by millions of Ontarians today, will the Premier reverse course on his plans to pave over the province’s largest carbon sink, the greenbelt?”

The premier then went into full climate-change denial mode:

“Let me tell you the report that I’ve heard. The report that I have heard: Approximately 50% of the fires are started by lightning strikes; the other 50% are people starting campfires and not putting out the campfires properly. So I’m asking every Ontarian: Please do not light any campfires.”

Scores of experienced fire-fighting professionals and climate experts have been pointing out for days that while the cause of some fires might be campfires or cigarettes, the fires’ ferocity and intensity is massively increased by the impacts of climate change on the forests.

The same is true of hurricanes in Florida, notwithstanding the protestations of governor Ron De Santis. 

Hurricanes today might not be more frequent than in the past, but climate change, experts agree, is making them far more damaging and severe than ever before, and they are only going to get worse in the future. 

The small glimmer of hope in Ford’s case is that, unlike his Florida counterpart, he does not out-and-out deny the reality of human-caused global warming. 

So far, however, the Ontario premier has shown little interest in doing anything to curtail it.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...