Beyond the Back and Forth
Two hands point at each other against a green back drop
(Illustration: Celina Gallardo)

News publications are covering the fierce debate among Ontario’s political parties as Environment Minister Rod Philips defends the Progressive Conservative decision to cancel cap-and-trade—but are they covering it effectively?

On October 16, the Financial Accountability Office (FAO) released a report stating the province will see a $3-billion loss in revenue over four years as a result of scrapping the market-based system. Philips responded to the financial watchdog’s findings by saying it will be “$3-billion back in the pockets of Ontario taxpayers,” citing selective sections of the report that highlights short-term economic gains.  

Joining the fray, Green Party leader Mike Schreiner issued a counter-statement, accusing the government of putting politics over evidence, while NDP energy and climate change critic Peter Tabuns stated that cancelling cap-and-trade will cause a fiscal deficit, as well as harm the environment.  

With all the back-and-forth, some climate change experts are concerned daily news is failing to provide context that surpasses political party viewpoints, leaving the public no better informed on what cap-and-trade is and the implications of repealing the system.

“Journalists need to go beyond providing quotes from both sides,” says Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada. “By framing it as Conservatives said this, Liberals and environmentalists said that, it gives [the] impression that the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

In a 2016 article published in The Atlantic, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen outlined the particular formula “he said, she said” reporting follows: “There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story… The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.”

Abolishing cap-and-trade remained a central promise during Premier Doug Ford’s campaign and was certainly one of the most contentious elements of the election. During a televised debate last May, Ford said, “The carbon tax is the single worst tax anyone—not just in Ontario—Canada could ever have.” Ford was quoted in CBC, the Toronto Star and the National Post as calling cap-and-trade a “government cash grab.”

But a March editorial in the Star argues Ontario never had a carbon tax, explaining that the system of pricing carbon, which was put in place by the Wynn government, imposes a limit (cap) on industrial emissions and allows companies to buy (trade) credits to exceed that limit. The piece clarifies that “the price is not paid directly by taxpayers and is therefore not a tax.”

Stewart says that Ford calling cap-and-trade a tax made for “good politics.” However, a Canadian Press news article published by both Global and CBC following the FAO report didn’t acknowledge the differences between cap-and-trade and carbon tax. Though both policies are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, organizations such as the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions highlight important distinctions between the two regulations.

Keith Brooks, programs director of Environmental Defence, says cap-and-trade is not a cash grab, noting that the funds generated from this system were funnelled into programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He adds that the federal carbon tax also isn’t a cash grab, with 90 percent of the money going back to Canadians.

Brooks says that there needs to be more in-depth coverage of environmental policies and that the public should know whether or not claims made by elected officials have a basis in fact.

“[Concerning the] $3-billion, it’s not going back to taxpayers,” he says, addressing Philips’s statement. “It’s simply money that consumers of fuel will not be paying.”

The National Observer’s “Cancelling cap and trade will cost Ontario $3 billion, says province’s financial watchdog” could constitute as the in-depth reporting Brooks would like to see more of—the investigative piece digs deep into why there will be a financial loss and gives further detail into Bill 4, the Cap-And-Trade Cancellation Act.

Stewart says he’s frustrated with Canada’s lack of full-time climate change reporters, as it compromises the depth of coverage on these issues.

“If you hear it’s sunny from one person and cloudy from another, it’s not the journalists’ job to just report what was said,” he says. “It’s the journalist’s job to look outside and see what’s the truth.”

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