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When you ask Andrea Horwath about climate change, her answer will likely include one of two things: a reference to her hometown of Hamilton, Ontario or a scathing remark about Doug Ford.
Ask her — an automaker’s daughter — about electric vehicle strategies and she’ll first tell you how Ford “ripped charging stations out of the ground” before broadly detailing how the government needs to “show leadership” and help people buy electric cars.
Ask her about an environment issue she’s following closely and she’ll give you a vague list of issues in Hamilton, where she started her political career as a councillor: the need to fund so-called green steel; long-standing air quality worries in the manufacturing-heavy city; the Light Rail Transit line across the city that the Ford government cut and then reinstated funding for; the cleanup of toxic waste in Randle Reef; the protection of all the waterfalls and trails she spent time exploring when she was growing up.
Ask her what climate fact keeps her up at night and she’ll respond without missing a beat: “I mean, Doug Ford keeps me up at night.”
“When it comes to climate, we’ve wasted four years,” she told The Narwhal at the end of March. “We’ve actually not just wasted four years, we’ve gone backwards, which is terrifying.”
This June, the Ontario NDP leader is heading into her sixth provincial election, during her 13th year as the leader of the party. She’s armed for the first time with a comprehensive climate plan that the party is touting as “the boldest” in the province, which resurrects many of the environmental policies removed by the Ford government: cap-and-trade, tree-planting, support for electric vehicles, an independent environment commissioner’s office. But she can’t implement any of it unless she wins, and she can’t win if the party isn’t fully behind her — which sometimes seemed in question as The Narwhal interviewed party insiders over the past few weeks.
Horwath and the NDP face two challenges between now and the June election. The first is proving to voters they aren’t just climate champions in comparison to a government with a disastrous record — but that they are prepared to usher in the rapid, effective climate solutions Ontario needs. The second is persuading the population that Horwath, despite the internal strife over her leadership abilities, can be a premier who will marshall a government to make those solutions happen.
In March 2021, the Ontario NDP released the 27-page Green New Democratic Deal — named after the Green New Deal being championed by Democrats in the United States, itself modelled after the original New Deal developed by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940s to revolutionize American infrastructure and create jobs. Horwath’s New Deal details a broad agenda to address the climate crisis and create skilled trades jobs in the process, committing $40 billion in spending for these causes alone in a possible NDP government’s first term.
The last time the Ontario NDP put out a detailed climate plan was in 2007, when Howard Hampton was leader, designed to meet targets in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That said, the issue has always been part of the party’s platform, albeit not front-and-centre.
“The NDP had a lot of good climate policies but were quiet about them,” said a former NDP staffer and co-author of the party’s 2021 climate plan, who requested anonymity as he has changed jobs. “But they weren’t really leading with it.”
The last four years changed that. As they stood in official Opposition for the first time since 1990, the Ford government made policy cuts to everything from endangered species laws to energy conservation programs. Everyone from NDP caucus members to staffers to grassroots organizers pushed for a comprehensive climate plan.
NDP members say the intersections of the climate crisis with labour and social justice issues places it right in the party’s wheelhouse. As members worked on the climate plan, they were quick to agree that it couldn’t just be an emissions-reduction plan, but needed to address the inequitable climate impacts felt by low-income communities and working-class people.
“We have a pretty good ear to the ground when it comes to workers’ needs,” said Peter Tabuns, an environmentalist and longtime NDP MPP in Toronto-Danforth. “We just had to figure out how to approach this so we can raise issues of how we deal with carbon to the same level of how we deal with money.”
Three damning reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a burgeoning global, youth-driven climate movement in the years since Kyoto means that, “political parties have realized that if they go into an election without some form of climate plan, they’re unlikely to win,” the former NDP staffer said.
So the Ontario NDP released its plan well before its counterparts, along with its long-term care and housing plan.
“This climate plan is the most robust one we’ve had,” Tabuns said. “It’s a reaction against the backwards direction forced onto Ontario by Doug Ford. It’s a response to the increasing climate movement globally. It’s a result of the apparent reality we’re living in.”
“It’s not just that Doug Ford set a low bar,” he added. “We wanted to show what a strong, practical plan looks like.”
Sitting in her Queen’s Park office — which is just above Ford’s — Horwath explained the plan was ready in 2020 just before the pandemic hit. The party decided to hold it back to focus on the health crisis at hand and took the extra time to do more consultations “in those lulls between [COVID-19] waves because we wanted to make sure we had it right.” Over the next several months, the party consulted everyone from automakers to unions and communities across the province.
The report was informed by all of these public conversations and some private ones too. Horwath went to the 2019 Climate March in New York to learn more about other jurisdictions. There, she took notes from members of the B.C. NDP government about their policies, while also getting “inspired by all the young people,” she said, without offering specific examples. Multiple NDP staffers told The Narwhal that Horwath provided “direction, guidance and feedback” for the climate plan throughout its development.
But there is also concern over how she and the party will translate all this and connect with voters. A number of people interviewed for this story first agreed to let The Narwhal use their names, then changed their minds about commenting publicly. One, a racialized former staffer, expressed skepticism about Horwath and the party’s ability to connect with Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities at all, let alone address the effects of the climate crisis in their neighbourhoods.
Another said the relationship between Horwath’s NDP and workers seemed non-existent, and that they heard more “buzzword-type policies” than real solutions for their growing climate concerns, especially for the precariously employed, like those in non-unionized workplaces or hustling in the gig economy. A third worried the NDP had just become a “reaction-machine” over the last four years, leaning on knee-jerk criticisms of Ford while struggling to create concrete, detailed policy solutions.
The NDP refutes these concerns. A racialized party official not authorized to speak publicly said that Horwath has worked directly with the party’s Black Caucus and Indigenous members to provide relief to their communities, and created a community engagement department that works directly with racialized people. “We have been making structural changes to create space for all people to feel supported and empowered to do the work they need to do for their communities,” the official said.
Still, the concerns persist. “I don’t see her as a master of public policy or issues,” said one of the former NDP staffers who asked to remain anonymous. “You can see that in the way she communicates on issues: so surface level. She’s been the NDP leader for over 10 years and it’s disappointing to see how little knowledge she conveys on provincial issues.”
There is a recognition among NDP members that presenting a climate plan that is bolder than whatever the Progressive Conservative government eventually releases is not hard. They say that the distinguishing aspect of the plan is “the commitment to tackling the climate crisis through a strong equity and reconciliation lens that will mobilize a large number of people that haven’t been mobilized,” as Tabuns put it.
Horwath agreed. “We don’t want to see any communities left behind when it comes to the transition to a green economy. We don’t want to see any workers left behind,” she said.
But, while the Ontario NDP climate plan is framed with a “climate, jobs, justice” perspective — with promises to create one million jobs by transitioning to a clean economy — much of the document is less about futuristic ideas than moving back to the days before the Ford government took an axe to environmental and energy policies.
The bulk of its funding would come from the type of cap-and-trade policy that Ford cut before he even took office. These include reinstating funding towards growing the Greenbelt (the Ford government just announced some small expansions, but is also pledging to build highways through it), protecting more parks, expanding solar and wind power, electrifying transit and planting one billion trees to make up for the Ford government cutting funding for Forests Ontario’s 50 Million Tree program.
The climate crisis is both a massive existential threat and an opportunity to mobilize so that our transition to a net-zero economy creates over a million good jobs in Ontario, with salaries people can raise a family on.
Shifting to a cleaner economy will demand skilled tradespeople of all kinds, from arborists to electricians, pipe fitters to carpenters, solar panel installers to sheet metal workers. We’ll need people to design the infrastructure of the future, develop new clean technologies, and drive the net-zero economy.The Green New Democratic Deal
The plan also sets a target of 100 per cent zero-emissions vehicle sales by 2035. Households would be given $600 to install electric vehicle charging stations and the building code would again require new homes to have built-in chargers, a requirement the Ford government cancelled. The NDP would also revive the independent environment watchdog office — which, they want to remind everyone, was first created under the Bob Rae government in 1993 — that the Ford government merged into the auditor general’s office two years ago. (The last environmental commissioner, Dianne Saxe, is actually running in the election for the Ontario Greens.)
“We can take earlier material, modify it and put it in place very quickly,” Tabuns said of reinstating these policies of the past.
At the foundation of the plan is a proposal to retrofit all of Ontario’s building stock, at a rate of at least five per cent of the province’s buildings per year. The program would be designed to create 100,000 permanent skilled-trade jobs in clean-tech and construction sectors, with guaranteed training programs to facilitate the “net-zero economy.”
Carolyn Kim, Ontario regional director with the Pembina Institute, is encouraged by the NDP’s prioritization of decarbonizing the building sector. Pembina’s analysis has found that investing in retrofits and low-energy building systems can add 76,000 long-term jobs annually in Ontario, and grow the provincial economy by $18.4 billion per year. But Kim notes, the plan is, at the end of the day, only a promise.
“This is just a political platform,” she said. “We would have to see what the details look like to determine how effective it is. What is the actual design of the cap-and-trade system? How will the retrofit program be funded?
None of the people The Narwhal spoke to for this story could offer details beyond emphasisizing that all policies would put workers and BIPOC communities first. Horwath said the details of how to implement this plan will be worked out, but that right now it was important “to signal, especially for young people, that an NDP government is going to take this seriously. I mean, they have to have hope that they’re not going to be stuck with an environment that’s literally unlivable.”
Horwath said the plan is “a responsible approach” and bold because of its “aggressive targets.” The plan calls for net-zero emissions by 2050 — a goal that climate researchers have deemed 20 years too late to prevent global warming catastrophe and is the same proposal the Kathleen Wynne-led Liberal government tabled in 2020. To meet this target, the NDP plan aims to reduce Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, which is more aggressive than the federal government’s climate target of at least 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The party proposes to get there using a carbon budgeting process created in consultation “with climate scientists, workers, industry and other experts.”
Workers are mentioned in almost every policy proposed in the 27-page climate plan (including in one paragraph about the caregiving economy, without making an obvious climate link) — the suggestion being that in a post-pandemic world, a clean, green economy also needs investments in the workers that keep the economy afloat day by day.
This might explain why unions like the United Steelworkers (representing 225,000 members in energy-intensive industries) have come out in support of the NDP climate plan.
The challenge ahead continues to be how Horwath and the NDP will sell this plan to Ontario voters who have seen how easily environmental policies can crumble, and whose experience of the impacts of the climate crisis vary depending on where they are in the province.
Horwath hopes people will see that the NDP is approaching the climate conversation “completely differently” than Doug Ford and his government.
“I think my job as a leader is not just to make space, but to listen to those voices, and to take seriously the urgency of the situation,” Horwath said. “And then to create a plan that engages those folks that make sense, and then build some accountability around achievement.”
Updated on Apr. 20 at 2:28 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to correct that this is not the first time the Ontario NDP have ever been official Opposition, but the first time since 1990.
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