TORONTO — Warmer winters, lower lake levels and the environmental celebrity cult of Al Gore have all helped make the environment more important to voters than ever before, activists say as Ontario’s three principal parties brush off their green credentials for the coming election campaign.
Some political observers argue that all-party agreement over the importance of fighting climate change has neutralized the issue and made it unlikely to drive voters to the polls in droves for any one party.
Environmentalists, however, say their time has finally come.
“Attitudes have changed dramatically. This is not a flash in the pan,” said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence.
“The level of concern about the environment … we’ve never seen anything like it before. The kind of profile that environment’s going to get over the next couple of months is unprecedented. And it’s about time.”
Environmentalists say their polls show green concerns have displaced health care as the issue most likely to influence voters.
As a result, all three mainstream parties are emphasizing their environmental ideas and acknowledging the threat of climate change as the “defining challenge of our generation.”
To drive home the point, Smith’s group released the results of a study Friday that tested the three main party leaders for toxins, including one controversial chemical that’s currently under federal review. Premier Dalton McGuinty, Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory and NDP Leader Howard Hampton all showed signs of extensive contamination.
“Harmful pollutants surround us every day in the air we breathe, food we eat and products we use. And, as our study shows, the pollutants contaminate us, too,” Smith said in a release.
“Not even the premier is immune.”
But while environmentalists see the stars aligning in their favour, some say the widespread recognition of the climate-change threat has essentially removed the environment as a key ballot-box question.
John Wright, vice-president at polling firm Ipsos-Reid, said as important as people say the environment is, it’s not polarizing enough to drive voters to the polls in favour of one particular party.
The environment doesn’t divide people as much as issues like bringing private religious schools into the public system, he said.
“If there is a ballot question on the environment, I don’t see it,” Wright said. “It’s everybody’s flavour.”
Even Green party Leader Frank De Jong said his hopes the environment would dominate the election are fading as public funding for religious schools captures the headlines.
“Things don’t become issues unless there is some controversy about them and right now, all the political parties say climate change is motherhood and we all want to save the planet,” De Jong said.
“It’s just a question of how seriously we want to address climate change. It’s a question of whether anyone is going to be interested in the details.”
The Liberals had a pre-election blitz of climate change announcements following the early adjournment of the legislature in the spring; phasing out old-fashioned lightbulbs, plastic bags, offering rebates on energy-efficient appliances and bringing in a regulation to close Ontario’s dirty coal plants by 2014.
The Conservatives are promising to put scrubbers on the coal plants, foster more clean energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offer incentives to homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient.
The NDP wants Ontario to meet tough Kyoto targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions in five years, give people low-interest loans to make their homes more energy efficient while closing the coal-fired plant in Nanticoke and putting more money into public transit.
And if parties aren’t talking enough about the environment during the campaign, activists say they have never been more co-ordinated and organized to keep green issues front and centre.
Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, said a coalition of Canada’s major environmental groups are poised to use their members in local races, as well as ads and the Greenpeace flagship “Arctic Sunrise” to maintain pressure on the political parties.
Few green activists are satisfied with what they’ve heard from the mainstream parties so far, he said.
“We’re pushing all the parties to do better,” Cox said. “The time for talk has really long passed.”