Seven young people sued Ontario over its policy on the environment. They made their case this week.
A lawsuit wants to force the Ford administration to come up with a more ambitious plan.
This week, seven young people who sued the Ontario government over its climate plan, saying it doesn't protect them or future generations, were heard in Ontario Superior Court in Toronto. It was the first time a climate lawsuit that wanted to change government policy got a full hearing in court.
The plaintiffs, who were helped by the environmental law group Ecojustice, filed the lawsuit in 2019 after Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government replaced the climate plan of the Liberal government. It got rid of the province's cap-and-trade program and gave it a new, less strict goal for reducing emissions.
The people who filed the lawsuit want the court to tell the province to make a new plan. The government would decide on the details, but the plaintiffs want it to be based on science and work with the goals of the Paris Agreement, which is to keep global warming well below 2 C.
"At the current rate, the rest of the carbon budget will be gone in five to ten years, or maybe even sooner," said Nader Hasan, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs.
"Ontario's use of that carbon budget is way out of proportion."
But they have a hard time in court. The province has said that its plan is not a law, but rather a policy that can't be challenged. Julius Grey, an expert on constitutional law, says that courts usually don't question government policies.
This event "faces the argument that policy matters can't be decided by the courts, which the government has usually been right about. In other words, it's not up to the courts to decide if our budget is right, if we have enough water, or if our schools are safe "he said.
Grey has been in a climate lawsuit before. In 2012, he worked on a case that challenged the federal government's decision to leave the Kyoto Agreement to limit global warming. At the time, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in charge of the government.
Before a full hearing, the federal court threw out that lawsuit. In 2020, Ottawa was also cleared of another case about climate change. That judge decided that the court couldn't tell Canada how to deal with climate change as a whole.
The government of Ontario also tried to get this case thrown out, but the motion was turned down. By getting to a full hearing, the applicants under the age of 18 have gone further than other cases. Any decision will show how far courts can look at how governments are dealing with the worsening climate crisis.
"Maybe we're getting to the point where the environment is such a big problem that we can sue over it and the court can make us follow certain rules," said Grey.
The seven people who are suing are between 15 and 27 years old and come from different backgrounds and parts of Ontario. Sophia Mathur, who is 15, is the main plaintiff. She lives in Sudbury. She has been a climate activist for years, and she says it has been exciting to see how the hearings have gone.
Mathur said, "I hope that people in Ontario will watch this case and see that the Ontario government isn't doing enough."
Mathur says she has seen how climate change and extreme weather affect people. In 2019, her family had to leave their home and stay in a hotel for six months because a cycle of freezing and thawing caused the roof to cave in.
"It's kind of a wake-up call when you see the effects of climate change in real life," Mathur said.
"But scientists say that if we keep going the way we are, it will get worse."
She and the other plaintiffs say that they are also speaking up for other people in Ontario who are affected by climate change.
They say that Ontario's plan goes against their rights under Sections 7 and 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which are the rights to life, liberty, and security and the right to be treated equally under the law without discrimination.
They say that climate change will hurt young people and Indigenous communities the most. Young people will have to live through a worsening climate, and Indigenous communities are already dealing with climate disasters and changes to their traditional ways of life.
Plaintiff Beze Gray is from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation near Sarnia. This is part of a heavily polluted area in southwest Ontario called "Chemical Valley" because it has a lot of oil refineries and other large industrial facilities.
"It's shocking to see how close [the industry] is to my town. Some of the refineries, for example, are just across the street "said Gray, 27.
Gray says that climate change has made it harder for Indigenous communities to keep their culture, which is based on a connection to the land and nature, and it threatens to change even more of their ways of doing things and what they know.
Gray hopes that joining the lawsuit will show how the climate crisis affects Indigenous people in a way that other people don't.
"I worry that people in the future won't understand how culture and language change."
Ontario brings in climate change denier
The plaintiffs' application includes comments from a long list of experts to back up their claim that Ontario's climate plan and goal, which is to cut emissions by 30% below their levels in 2005 by 2030, is not in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The previous Liberal government had a more ambitious goal of cutting emissions by 37% below their levels in 1990 by 2030. Experts for the plaintiffs say that the changes made by the Tories will lead to about 200 million tonnes more carbon emissions.
The Ontario government has said that fighting climate change is a global responsibility and that the province's contribution to global emissions and its ability to stop global warming are small.
It also says that the federal government is in charge of the country's emissions and should talk with other countries about how to deal with climate change.
One of the government's lawyers, Padraic Ryan, said in court, "That is the right place to solve this problem. Not with mandatory supervision orders from this court."
Since the case is still in court, Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General didn't want to say anything about it.
William van Wijngaarden is a physics professor at York University and doesn't believe that climate change is happening. He is one of the experts the government brought in. In his case argument, he said that climate models have always overestimated how fast the Earth is warming. He also questioned the idea that climate disasters like floods, tornadoes, and forest fires are linked to greenhouse gas emissions. This goes against what climate scientists, the Canadian government, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all say.
Van Wijngaarden is also a member of the CO2 Coalition, which has said that more carbon dioxide emissions are good for the planet. This is a view that is not shared by almost any respected climate research group in the world.
Van Wijngaarden agreed with the government's claim that the province has a small effect on the climate around the world.
Hasan thinks that the fact that he was there shows that Ontario couldn't argue against the scientific arguments they made. He says that the province is "essentially" taking a "climate denialist position" by hiring a full-fledged climate change denier.
The province says that it is concerned about climate change.
In a statement, the press secretary for Ontario's minister of environment, conservation, and parks said that the government "will continue to fight climate change with new initiatives that are flexible to the opportunities, needs, and circumstances of Ontarians while protecting job creators and industry."
Phillip Robinson said that the province is "working with business and making big investments in clean green energy, public transportation, and electric cars."