On Fire

What good is the Constitution if it can’t protect us from climate change?

Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario's Supreme Court challenge of the federal carbon tax is standing in the way of national climate action
By Sutton Eaves, co-executive director of Generation Squeeze, and Larissa Parker, senior associate at Youth Climate Lab and third year law student at McGill University. Both organizations are part of the Intergenerational Climate Coalition, which is intervening in the upcoming Supreme Court of Canada hearing.

Constitutional law isn’t top of mind for many Canadians. But curtailing climate change in order to put the brakes on another public health crisis is.  

That’s why this week’s Supreme Court of Canada review of the federal carbon tax is an important one to watch. At the heart of the top court’s hearing is the question: is our country ready and able to work together to fight the climate crisis? 

Wildfire smoke streaming over the border is just the latest example of why stronger, faster, co-ordinated action by all levels of government is needed. If the haze outside our windows right now is unnerving, it’s not hard to understand why young people — who will face worsening impacts, along with their children and future generations — are especially impatient.

Standing in the way are Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. They’re challenging minimum national standards that require all provinces to curb carbon pollution, including by putting a price on it. These provinces argue they’re already taking action and that the federal government is overstepping the division of power between the two levels of government. In their view, a national carbon tax is unnecessary and unconstitutional.

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The thing is, national standards ensure each province is doing its fair share because a carbon tax works best when it’s universally adopted. In recent years, Saskatchewan refused to sign on to the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, Ontario cancelled its cap-and-trade regulation and Alberta revoked then replaced its carbon price. Courts in Ontario and Saskatchewan have already ruled in favour of the federal government’s constitutional authority to step in when provinces refuse to act, recognizing climate change as an urgent issue that affects everyone. 

Constitutional debates don’t usually generate a lot of engagement though. So opponents of a carbon tax invoke the myth that it hurts already cash-strapped Canadians. Continuing to use cheap, carbon-based energy will cost younger generations more than any tax they pay to fill up their tanks, and the currency will be their health and their dollars. A report prepared for the federal government in 2011 shows climate change could cost Canada and those who live here $43 billion per year by 2050 if the right kinds of actions aren’t taken. Meanwhile, an analysis by Canada’s own budget watchdog shows that most of the money middle- and low-earning people pay on a federal carbon tax is given back to them as rebates. 

Pricing pollution isn’t the real source of the financial pressures facing younger and many other people anyways. Skyrocketing costs for housing, child care and post-secondary education suck up way more of our budgets, especially because incomes for younger people have flatlined over the past four decades. In cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax, nearly half of people under 30 spend at least a third of their income on rent, which is beyond Canada’s own threshold for affordability.

Momentum is building for a COVID-19 recovery that leaves people healthier than they were before the pandemic. Experts and elected officials agree that investing in clean, efficient energy use is our chance to create jobs, cut waste, fight inequality, make cities more livable and design an economy that puts people first. Taxing carbon pollution effectively is a key part of this strategy (and the one Canada has committed to doing as part of the Paris Agreement). 

The Supreme Court’s decision will determine whether Canada can take the kind of unified climate action that most people support and younger ones need. It will also show whether the principles our country was founded on are helping us or holding us back as we work to navigate modern problems like the climate crisis. Because if our Constitution doesn’t empower Canada to take shared action on one of the greatest threats we’ve ever faced, where does that leave us and the generations to come?

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