Ideas and Impressions: Environment is finally a top-tier issue

By Jason Moscovitz

It was the mid-1980s when I remember the environment getting into my head as a huge problem. I actually believed the global pollution problem was bigger than any possible solution. I remember saying that out loud. I remember wishing I hadn’t.

I didn’t casually say it to a few friends at lunch. I said it in a Toronto hotel meeting room among 50 invited scientific experts, policy makers, influencers and journalists. A think tank invited people to give their perspectives on making the environment a more pressing issue in the minds of Canadians.

In 1985, there was certainly awareness that atmospheric pollution was a problem but there was no fear that the world was poisoning itself to the extent it was and is. We all saw visuals back then of thick smog in Beijing and Los Angeles but people in Canada and around the world shrugged it off as their problem.

The world has changed in a thousand ways since Brian Mulroney was prime minister and Ronald Reagan was U.S. president and so much has changed in the environmental fight. Who could have known in 1985 that it would take 35 years to get the environment on the agenda as a top-tier, serious, burning matter?

An argument can be made that a poignant moment in this changed landscape happened during the recent federal election – although it didn’t appear obvious. Many, for good reason, thought Justin Trudeau, with his record, would be voted out of office – but he’s still there.

Trudeau won the 2019 election defending his carbon tax. Trudeau was seen as having signed on to the environment while the Conservative’s Andrew Scheer looked like a climate change denier.

Personally, I take no pride in the fact that as a baby boomer, I polluted so much. My level of consciousness and awareness was not up-to-snuff. I don’t know whose was. The baby boomers’ sin was being so bad to the environment despite knowing enough to know better.

Individuals, industry and governments ultimately encountered the same inability to see the big picture. None saw the necessity of major sacrifice to make a dent in what was becoming a serious global threat to a livable future with enough fresh air and clean water.

Although the scientific evidence of global warming is far from new, there seems to have been a sudden jolt of reality that hit many Canadians at the same time. It was about electing a government six months ago that supported a carbon tax on emissions. It was also about the growth in strength and numbers of Canadians who care passionately about a cleaned-up planet.

Across the country, protest groups seem determined to merge interests to make life difficult for a government that is in the uncomfortable place of supporting the environment while being committed to building pipelines. The recent crippling blockage of rail traffic demonstrates how high the stakes are for a government that can’t please everyone.

With more Canadians beginning to think their next car might be electric, those who run and depend on the oil industry in Canada have reason to fear for their economic futures.

Recent findings of shockingly warmer temperatures in Antarctica and the raging wildfires in Australia are further reasons, along with so many other recent climate calamities, to see why people are talking about buying electric cars and why they oppose building new pipelines.

In a democracy, the one constant truth in politics is that votes matter. If enough Canadians believe the environment has to be a priority, government will make it so because it has to in order to survive.

In Canada, millennials seem poised to do what baby boomers didn’t and that’s doing more than paying lip service to cleaning up our environment. Really doing something means breaking many eggs.

We are soon going to know how far voters will be able to move and change government thinking. One certainty is that Canada’s committed environmentalists and protesters are not going to go away quietly.

The ultimate truth, of course, is that Canada can’t solve the world’s problems, so why make the many sacrifices required? That’s why, 35 years ago, I believed the problem was bigger than any possible solution and that Canada was wasting its time trying.

Today comes the awakening. It is unconscionable to do nothing significant.