It was appropriately apocalyptic that Toronto’s climate-focused mayoral debate was canceled on Monday, the first time I’ve seen the Weather Network describe the day’s forecast as “smoky.” Whatever the “scheduling conflict” was that killed the event, it saved me from straining to hear politicians talk about the need to “balance environment with economy” over my own screeching that climate change is already expensive. Ask restaurant owners whose patios sat empty because nobody could breathe outside.
As the week went on, the skies remained hazy and the Toronto District School Board canceled outdoor recess. There’s no debate: climate change is happening here and now. Toronto needs a mayor willing to make courageous decisions and to communicate them clearly, someone who will fight for the people of this city as the risk of floods, smoke, heat and unreliable energy keeps rising.
As of the latest polls, Olivia Chow has a significant lead, with Mark Saunders, Ana Bailão, and Josh Matlow all hovering about 20 points below her. But the race isn’t over yet, and many of the candidates no longer getting headlines have good ideas to help Toronto rise above its ever-growing list of problems.
The most impressive environmental platform—I’ll tell you whose it is in a bit—focuses on immediate and near-future mitigation, not cutting our carbon footprint. Everyone needs to reduce greenhouse gasses, because it’s the right thing to do and because threats to food security and energy supply make this a good time to learn to live with less. But the reality is that meaningful reductions require systemic change on the national and international level. Citizens and mayors need to push for that, but we can’t make it happen by buying bamboo toothbrushes (I still do that, though). Local government’s main climate concern is coping with the immediate effects of the crisis, and it’s with that in mind I evaluated promises and platforms.
Let’s cross off, immediately, the deniers posing as delayers, namely Saunders. He doesn’t have a climate plan because he doesn’t have any plan. His website is a request, not an offer, asking for your support without saying what it will get you. The former police chief’s entire pitch is that he’ll keep us safe—a bold claim from someone who denied the existence of a serial killer targeting queer men.
Environmentally speaking, Saunders is not a serious person. Droning on that bikes cause gridlock is tired and untrue, and highlights another way he neglected Torontonians: failing to protect us from the hazards of cars when his force stopped enforcing traffic laws as pedestrian deaths spiked. When asked by Streets of Toronto whether the city’s climate plan was bold enough, he said yes, adding that “we can continue finding a balance between climate initiatives and other priorities.”
Balancing environment with economy? Excuse my screaming. You might not be able to hear me over the sports and theatre communities, as they watch other cities cancel outdoor performances and games because of poor air quality and wonder how long they have before that happens here.
Bailão is less hubristic, but her climate cred isn’t much better. Her traffic alleviation suggestions are decent. Fines for drivers that block intersections? Finally, thank you. But they’re far from daring. Her nod to food security is similar: I’m glad that she named the problem, but not especially excited that one of her fixes is more rooftop gardens. Protecting the farmland we need will require wide-ranging cooperation throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and the candidate specifically promising to build relationships to safeguard the Greenbelt is Josh Matlow.
Overall, the midtown councillor has a much better plan and record than his competitors currently fighting for second place. As reported by the Globe and Mail, he’s called for a maximum temperature for rental units, and done outreach to help tower residents protect themselves during heat waves.
Matlow knows we need money to deal with our climate needs, and has a proposal to get it: raising $200 million for climate initiatives by instituting a levy on commercial parking lots, which he would use to make the TTC functional, as well as to retrofit buildings to be more energy efficient and increase electric vehicle infrastructure. The levy could also, he says, encourage climate-friendly behaviour by businesses, which might forego paved space in favour of surfaces that absorb rain, and perhaps get people out of their cars. All in all, it’s a fair plan, if not quite as focused on near-term resilience as it could be.
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As the frontrunner, Chow is making perfectly acceptable environmental promises. Many are similar to Matlow’s, though with fewer details on implementation, like bringing TTC service back to pre-pandemic levels, instituting a maximum temperature for rental units, and helping fund building retrofits. She also knows we need money, and is willing to raise property taxes to get it.
Her general lack of specifics has been rightfully called out. Take a pledge to work with Toronto Hydro on renewable energy projects, a lofty idea that would be complicated to implement, requiring buy-in from the province and others. I do like that Chow has a reputation for looking out for children and other vulnerable populations, as the climate emergency is entrenching inequity, which Toronto has a lot of.
But the most impressive climate platform I saw is from former Liberal MPP Mitzie Hunter. At this point in the campaign, her sails are flagging, if they were ever full. That said, her platform is comprehensive, costed, clear-eyed, and confident. Environmentally, it focuses on mitigation, not emissions reduction which, again, makes sense municipally: of course we should try to limit the causes of climate change, but by now, the day-to-day of city life is dealing with its effects.
Hunter matches her opponents’ promises on improving the TTC, installing electric vehicle charging stations, and so on, then goes more than a few steps further. To pull out just one proposal from her 72-page (!) platform, the candidate from Scarborough says she’ll educate Torontonians about flood risk mitigation twice a year, which is informed and impressive. Floods are Toronto’s biggest environmental worry, made worse by the John Tory-led council’s repeated refusal to institute a stormwater charge to update aging infrastructure.
Teaching people how to minimize their vulnerability to flooding isn’t sexy: it’s simply real work that needs to be done. I haven’t noticed another candidate mention it, or many of the other points on Hunter’s path to a greener city.
With two-ish weeks to go, I’m still extremely undecided. As much as I’d love to vote for someone I believe in instead of against someone I fear, I’m not counting it out. I’m also not a one-issue voter—I want a leader who can see the big picture, and work to make it as pretty as possible. But climate change is a crucial issue that makes every other problem worse. It requires time, money, and commitment. And Toronto needs a mayor who can see that clearly, despite the smoke.