Like a poorly-written Netflix show, Ontario’s gas pump sticker saga couldn’t decide what kind of a tale it wanted to tell. The behind-the-scenes drama, however, says a lot about how deeply climate denial runs in the Doug Ford government. 

It started as a comedy. We all laughed as the anti-carbon tax stickers literally came unstuck due to cheap glue, a slapstick turn of events for a Premier who owned a label-making company. 

Carbon tax gas pump sticker. Photo by Keith Stewart.

The show then morphed into a satire of the courtroom procedural. In response to a legal challenge of the stickers as misleading and partisan, the Ford government’s expert witness claimed that Ontarians are too stupid to grasp anything more complicated than a bumper sticker slogan. 

His testimony argued that it was reasonable to show the cost of the carbon tax at the pump, but omit the fact that the money is returned to consumers through rebates because “it is costly for individuals to absorb or to learn information. A sticker with ever-more information inexorably will prove to be less informative.”

Cue the narrator voice-over informing viewers that this was not, in fact, a winning argument. 

Dig a little deeper into who the government picked as their expert witness — the American Enterprise Institute’s Benjamin Zycher — and you have the makings of a gritty political drama. 

At first glance, it looks like a terrible casting decision. Zycher is well-known as a defender of President Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax. He is a featured speaker at this year’s Heritage Foundation conference that advertises itself as being for those “who are brave enough to publicly tell the truth about the CLIMATE DELUSION.”  

He is the guy you hire when you want someone to argue that governments shouldn’t even try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because “there is no ‘consensus’ among scientists about climate science” and “opposition to fossil fuels is fundamentally antihuman.”

But as the drama unfolds, this season’s story arc begins to take shape. The Ford government publicly claims that they accept climate science, but has dabbled in denial before — most prominently when Ontario Energy Minister Greg Rickford cited a blog that denies the basic science of climate change as “one of his favourite periodicals” while defending the Ford government’s cancellation of renewable energy contracts.

This added a note of poetic justice to the court’s decision, which used Minister Rickford’s own words (“we’re going to stick it to the Liberals and remind the people of Ontario how much this job-killing regressive carbon tax costs”) to rule that the gas pump stickers were unconstitutional.  

The question remains: why hire Zycher to defend the sticker legislation as non-partisan? He is a hyper-partisan figure, even in American conservative circles, as much of his recent work involves publicly denouncing Republicans who dare to even propose climate policies. 

The answer lies in understanding why he attacks fellow conservatives for going soft on climate. Zycher’s concern is that for conservatives to admit that climate change is a problem that can be solved “is to lose the game, and much more, immediately…. We cannot defeat climate alarmism and the fundamental threat to freedom that it represents unless we defend first principles. In the context of climate policy, watchful waiting and adaptation over time is the only sensible approach consistent with them.”

This is where you realize the political drama is becoming a disaster movie. Watchful waiting is code for doing nothing to try to prevent future warming by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Adaptation, in this context, means ensuring the rich can move to higher ground and put up walls to keep out those who have been displaced by rising sea levels, extreme storms or hunger due to drought-destroyed crops. 

Watchful waiting and adaptation is the Ford government’s true climate policy. It is why they gutted Ontario’s former climate plan, used the pandemic as cover to weaken even more environmental laws, and are challenging the federal government’s carbon tax in court. 

That is why the sticker saga is ultimately a tragedy. Denying the climate crisis won’t make it go away. This story needs new writers, and that is up to you and me. 

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