I am concerned that a creeping paralysis is infecting environmental policy – Gord Miller


Environment CommissionerLeader’s Ledger – Most people would agree the Ontario government has a pretty good track record in dealing with the environment. But as we enter 2012, I am concerned that a creeping paralysis is infecting environmental policy in this province, as it is in other jurisdictions.

A couple of examples come to mind. Solid waste management has probably had more analysis, consultation, and policy development than any other environmental issue in Ontario. The government ended up adopting a target of diverting 60% of our waste from landfill by 2008. But we missed that target, and by a wide margin. Our current diversion rate limps along at a paltry 23%.

This might be excused, if we lacked ways of dealing with the problem. But we don’t. Since 2004, the Ministry of the Environment has released almost 20 separate proposals for improving solid waste management in Ontario. But there’s been little action. This is why, in my annual report this fall, Engaging Solutions, I told the government it should make waste management one of its top environmental priorities.

This avoidance behaviour is also contributing to the current controversy over protecting woodland caribou, which is a threatened species in Ontario. Critics have been able to create anxiety by wrongly asserting the Caribou Conservation Plan will have “a permanent negative impact” on logging and cause “entire towns and communities to be wiped off the map”. This is extremely misleading, but the silence from the Ministry of Natural Resources has been deafening. And it’s matched by a lack of action. The Ministry has so far refused to publicly release its estimates of the caribou’s population and range, or deliver on its promised monitoring program and implementation plan.

Why have governments everywhere lost momentum in dealing with environmental problems? Why can’t we get on with things?

Perhaps it’s a failure in how we develop policy. In its essence, policy development is a simple three-step process. First you define the problem, then you propose a solution, and finally you act. But too often we get stuck at the first or second step. Any time it looks like progress is being made towards protecting the environment, opponents rise up and say the proposed solutions won’t work or are too costly.

Environmental problems are often very complicated issues. And, some of these opponents may be legitimately skeptical. But there are other antagonists who are public relations professionals and are deliberately confusing the issues to serve the agenda of one vested interest or another.

Their strategy is to drag the discussion back to primary stages, and re-argue, in effect, whether cigarettes cause cancer. Their goal is to stop society from engaging in solutions. And, regrettably and increasingly, we let them. I don’t know why. Perhaps it stems from a lack of governmental champions. Perhaps there is some failing in our media system. Or perhaps the public is just too overwhelmed by the complexity of today’s society and can’t deal with these concerns in a thoughtful way.

And perhaps it is all of the above.

But we must get over this paralysis, because the environmental challenges of our times are not going away. And the lack of action is making them worse.

Gord Miller
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

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