You know there’s a disconnect in a province’s politics when health care is one of the lead policy priorities in an election campaign, but one of the big-ticket items on the agenda is a new coal mine.
But that’s exactly what’s happening as Nova Scotians prepare to go to the polls May 30.
It’s entirely understandable that every aspect of the province’s health system—its cost and its structure, access to doctors, emergency room beds, and mental health care—has been under a microscope since the campaign began.
And through a narrow lens, it’s just as predictable that all three parties would get behind a big, visible project like the Donkin Mine that has put 64 Cape Bretoners back to work, with the promise of more as production ramps up.
Except that it’s 2017. Climate change is an urgent priority on the provincial, federal, and international agendas. Coal mining itself is a filthy, unsafe, unhealthy job, and power plant emissions contribute to a raft of health problems, defeating efforts to bring respiratory diseases like asthma under control and put a lid on expensive emergency room visits.
And a close, critical look at the rise of renewable energy and energy storage technologies tells you that coal is a dying industry—so that the province’s effort to help an economically struggling region is tailor-made to fail. Even if Nova Scotia closes a deal with the federal government to continue running its coal plants past 2030, the electricity will cost more than solar and wind. Ratepayers will end up paying the difference.
Yet the mine’s boosters foresee it operating for 45 years—far beyond the 2050 deadline for decarbonizing the global economy to bring climate change under control.
The disconnect would be obvious to legislators if the candidates and their advisors were taking a serious look at provincial policy or party platforms through an environmental lens. But that just doesn’t seem to be happening in any comprehensive way. Not in the governing party. Not in the opposition.
Starting With What Works
It isn’t as though Nova Scotia’s environmental record has been a complete failure.
The province leads the rest of Canada in recycling.
Its energy efficiency programs have saved ratepayers money, helped control energy demand, and drawn praise from other parts of the country.
It’s unveiled a new solar pilot program—strangely enough, beginning the day after the election.
Nova Scotia has made a steady effort to develop tidal power in the Minas Basin, widely renowned as the best tidal site in the world.
And the current government did at least one very good thing by doing nothing when it chose not to tamper with the province’s moratorium on natural gas fracking.
But there are too many important, urgent areas where provincial policies are falling far short.
At an election debate in Halifax last week, it sounded like the effort to control forest clearcutting is pretty much paralysed.
Meanwhile, the province approved glyphosate spraying on 1,315 hectares of forested areas in Colchester and Halifax county, even though the World Health Organization considers the herbicide a likely cancer risk.
There goes that health budget again.
The province is moving backward on endangered species management, with scant attention to the habitat connectivity between protected areas that makes them useful to the species that depend on them.
Nova Scotia has been pushing ahead with the Alton Gas project, over the objections of Mi'kmaq communities and other stakeholders. That particular controversy is playing out as some provinces and the federal government begin paying closer attention to Indigenous rights and reconciliation.
And then there’s that coal mine…
Why An Environmental Lens Matters
The province’s failures in environmental policy have a few things in common.
They all sacrifice long-term health and prosperity for short-term gain.
They tie rural communities in greatest need of an economic boost to extractive industries like forest clearcutting, oil and gas, and coal that are permanently past their prime, but still perfectly capable of endangering the health of the workers and communities that still depend on them.
They imperil watersheds, forests, countryside, wildlife, and wild places—resources valued by rural as well as urban people, and by voters across the political spectrum—largely because provincial policies aren’t built around the massive job and community revenue opportunities in an environmentally sustainable economy.
The political process will begin to address these problems when there are strong, effective environmental advocates in every party caucus, so that the green economy issues that matter to Nova Scotians don’t rise or fall depending on who holds a majority in the legislature.
If the effort to build environmental leadership in electoral politics had begun 10, 15, or 20 years ago, the province might be in a different place by now. As it stands, voters have until May 30 to talk to their local candidates, write letters to the editor, and use every social media platform at their disposal to demand provincial policies that are sustainable—economically, environmentally, and socially.
The disconnect won't be solved overnight. But that's all the more reason to start naming and changing it today.