SCIENCE MATTERS: Connecting the dots from Ontario to Rio

Ontario’s endangered wildlife dodged a bullet (and a bulldozer) recently, when the provincial government reversed its decision to gut the province’s world-class Endangered Species Act with a raft of amendments stuffed into a controversial omnibus budget bill.

Legal experts, former politicians, and environmentalists, including me, had expressed concern about Bill 55’s damaging revisions to several environmental laws in the province, most notably the Endangered Species Act. The changes would have undermined public management of cherished forests, lakes, and rivers, as well as protection of some of the most vulnerable species in Canada. Many of those plants and animals are clinging to survival, including woodland caribou.

More than 50 labour, health, and environmental groups submitted a joint letter to the government in defence of the act. They were joined by thousands of Ontario residents who wrote Premier Dalton McGuinty, urging him to change his mind.

Thankfully, he listened.

At the 11th hour, government voted to remove amendments from Bill 55 that would have eviscerated the act.

While Ontario’s environmental laws remain vulnerable to politics, I’m relieved legislators were able to come together to maintain strong legal protection for the diversity of nature and life that provides us with immeasurable benefits.

With their vote of confidence for the act, politicians in Ontario helped sustain one of the few outcomes of an important global environmental agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity. Its 20th anniversary was celebrated in June at Rio+20, more formally known as the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Develop-ment, a major international gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Two decades ago, the Convention on Biological Diversity, along with two other important international agreements (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Agenda 21, which eventually spawned the UN Convention to Combat Desertification), were signed by more than 170 nations in May 1992.

Commonly referred to as the Earth Summit, the first Rio conference attempted to establish a strong global mandate for collective action to safeguard the Earth’s biodiversity and climate.

Though the agreements lacked any real teeth, they established international processes for monitoring biodiversity decline, creating new parks and protected areas, and catalyzing domestic policy developments, including the adoption of laws for protection and recovery of species threatened with extinction.

Canada was the first industrialized nation to ratify the Convention on Bio-logical Diversity. Soon after, the federal government entered into an agreement with the provinces called the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk. Endangered Species Act in Ontario, while world leaders met again to try to save the biosphere, would have set a horrible precedent for global protection of biodiversity and would have solidified Canada’s growing reputation as an international laggard.

The first Rio Earth Summit was marked by grandiose rhetoric and commitments by politicians who ultimately failed to deliver on their promises. Twenty years later, the world confronts a biosphere even more damaged by millions of acres of destroyed forests, two billion more people, and atmospheric carbon concentrations nearing tipping-point levels.

There’s a lesson from the successful fight to save environmental laws in Ontario: The public must remain vigilant and continue to compel our politicians to act if we are to have any hope of stemming the biodiversity crisis here at home and across the planet.

The government of Ontario listened to public concerns. I remain hopeful the province’s political leaders will keep the ESA intact. Legal protection of wildlife and its vulnerable habitat has never been more critical.


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