Policy-makers Must be Made to Consider the Environment

 Lynn McDonald
Kitchener Waterloo Record
14 October 2006

In her report to Parliament, federal Environment Commissioner Johanne Gelinas condemned the former Liberal government for its inaction on climate change, and urged concerted environmental action on the part of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.

Her words were strong, but there is worry about a weak response, even with a government apparently committed to “accountability.”

In the spirit of making governments responsible for what they do and do not do I propose that on taking office ministers take a version of the Hippocratic oath--the oath physicians make when they assume their professional duties.

First of all, do no harm,” the oath reads in part. The taking of the oath was initiated by an ancient Greek medical school, but perhaps is needed even more now for those administering to environmental concerns.

No government in Canada--federal, provincial, territorial or municipal--routinely considers the possible harm to the environment from its actions, either for routine programs or for new initiatives.

The Harper government’s Accountability Act deals only with government spending, as important as that is. It ignores the quality, health and expected lifespan of the biophysical environment in which the spending takes place. It is as if a family was to pay a great deal of attention to its spending on groceries (reasonably enough) but ignore the crumbling foundation, leaky roof and overflowing sewage of the family home. There is simply no mechanism to check for possible harmful environmental consequences in our governmental system. Yes, there is “environmental assessment,” but only for a rather narrow range of activities, and then all too often it is circumvented.

At the federal level Treasury Board vets expenditures and programs in all departments with regard to financial consequences. But there is no scrutiny for what is much more important: the deterioration and depletion of resources, or the loss of environmental capital--essentially the land on which we live, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Treasury Board checks are one model for how things could be done.

Another springs to mind from the late 1970s and early 1980s when much progress was made on women’s issues, when discriminatory laws were revamped and economic opportunities greatly improved.

One crucial mechanism was a vetting by Status of Women Canada--a very small department--of all policy documents going to Cabinet. This meant that, whatever the ostensible purpose of the legislation or program, its implications for women had to be considered. Would this make women’s incomes rise or fall? Would it increase or restrict women’s access to jobs? Would it enhance or diminish their security?

There is simply no mechanism to check for possible harmful environmental consequences in our government system.”

Of course this vetting process led to heated discussions, and the women did not always win. But it made policy-makers justify their decisions. Decision makers at the very least knew what they were doing.

Did those who approved of Alberta oilsands extraction project really know, and have to answer to anybody, for the harm caused by its massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution? Did anyone have to justify the new jobs in Alberta against the cost of increased pollution, resource depletion and climate change? Would the project survive any reasonable cost-benefit assessment, especially if public health and the access to resources of future generations were taken into account?

We need a mechanism to make decisions affecting the environment transparent. In the case of any harm to future generations--who must surely count--this will not be easy. But it is no less important.

The Governor-General could administer an equivalent Hippocratic oath to incoming cabinet members with their oath of office. MPs could take one when they are sworn in, as could the members of provincial legislatures, and the nation’s mayors and municipal councillors, as well corporate executives and directors, teachers and professors, and union officers.

Professional engineers wear a steel ring made from the remains of a bridge which collapsed from faulty engineering--a humbling reminder of the possible harmful consequences of their professional mistakes. Now how do we get greenhouse gases, rising oceans, declining biodiversity, smog and asthma into a suitable visible, tangible emblem for politicians?

Lynn McDonald is a professor emerita at the University of Guelph, a former MP and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.