09 February 2015

We are not always helpless before feckless politicians

I asked Ralph Pentland -- author of Down the Drain and expert on Canadian water policy -- for an update on a year-old post on "the suffocation of Canadian science."

He send this great reply:
There is not yet a change in government policy, but there is a perceptible trend in public attitudes, which if it continues may ultimately be reflected in government policy. For example:
  • A recent poll (by the public relations firm Edelman) suggests that only 47 percent of Canadians trust businesses, down from 62 percent a year ago. The reason - businesses "failed to contribute to the greater good".
  • Public hearings regarding fracking in Quebec resulted in such a negative reaction that the Province was forced to impose a fracking moratorium.
  • A provincial election was fought on the issue of fracking in New Brunswick. The result - a moratorium on fracking.
  • Ontario tried to reverse a restriction on water extractions by Nestle during low water. Environmentalists brought the case before a tribunal using public trust arguments and won.
  • The province of Ontario issued a license for a waste disposal site over a pristine aquifer in the township of Tiny. Public opposition was so strong, the licence had to be withdrawn.
  • Although unsuccessful in slowing down oil sands development per se, certain elements of the public are effectively stalling and in some cases perhaps even eliminating pipeline options for getting the product to market.
  • In the landmark Tsilhquot'in decision last summer, the Supreme Court affirmed aboriginal title to huge swaths of frontier territory; and confirmed that governments may not infringe on that title unless they can prove "a compelling and substantive" public need.

In other words, the public is fighting back on several fronts. As a result, more and more often these days we are hearing that government and industry are losing "social licence", even for good resource development. A stalemate is developing that is harmful to the environment but also to the economy and the natural security of future generations.

This conundrum cannot likely be resolved without a healthier form of environmental democracy. We will need better, and more transparent science. We will need more meaningful ways for citizens to participate in decisions. And we will have to, in one way or another give citizens access to justice (the ability of citizens to seek a remedy for a violation of a basic environmental right).

On the latter point, Chris Wood and I devoted an entire chapter ("Magna Carta Natura") in Down the Drain. When governments ignore their responsibilities to protect our water resources, the duty to do so does not disappear. And citizens are beginning to demand access to that form of justice. They won't get it for awhile, but it seems to me to be inevitable in the long run.

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