Trevor Hancock: Hold politicians accountable for 'ignore-ance'

In a 1997 book, Elizabeth Ellsworth defined “ignore-ance” as “an active dynamic of negation, an active refusal of information.” In my view, the wilful ignoring of evidence by political leaders that results in harm to the public is unacceptable, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.

Perhaps the greatest example these days is climate-change denial, or at least, a failure to take the issue seriously and make public policy consistent with the enormity of the challenge. The recent spate of studies, including from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, makes it clear that we are not taking this problem anywhere near seriously enough.

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But while it is all too easy to point to the views and actions of Donald Trump, or to the new president of Brazil, we have plenty of local examples closer to home. Justin Trudeau, for example, wants to bring in a carbon-pricing measure to reduce Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions, but at the same time wants to push though the Trans Mountain pipeline that will result in an increase in the climate-damaging extraction of oil from the Alberta oilsands.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, meanwhile, leads the opposition to carbon pricing from several provincial premiers and the federal leader of the Conservatives. And here in B.C., while Premier John Horgan opposes the Trans Mountain pipeline, he embraces liquefied natural gas, which will make it hard for B.C. to reach its emission-reduction targets.

In fact, a study released last week in Nature Communications shows that if the whole world acts with the same nonchalance as Canada, China and Russia, we will have temperature increases of about 5 C by the end of the century. This is well above the 2 C upper limit target adopted by all the world’s nations in the Paris Accord.

Unfortunately, the price to be paid for these leaders’ “ignore-ance” on climate change will not be paid by them, but largely by poor and vulnerable people — some in Canada, but mostly elsewhere around the world — who will lose their lives, or be injured or sickened, by the impacts of climate change.

A somewhat different aspect of political ignore-ance has just been confirmed here in B.C., where the Ministry of Transportation has rolled back increases in speed limits that resulted in increased deaths and injuries. These increases were brought in by the previous minister, Todd Stone, in spite of clear and consistent evidence and expert advice to the contrary from many different stakeholders.

As a recent article in the Vancouver Province by two of my public-health colleagues, Dr. John Carsley and Dr. Kay Teschke, pointed out, those opposed were “the RCMP, the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, RoadSafety B.C. from the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, the B.C. Ministry of Justice, Road Safety Unit, the BCAA, the B.C. Truckers Association, the provincial health officer, all five regional chief medical health officers, emergency room physicians, trauma surgeons, and all B.C. road-safety researchers.”

The headline of their article says it all: “Turns out — duh! — that increasing speed limits didn’t increase highway safety.” In fact, studies show “more than twice as many deaths and serious injuries on roads with increased limits.” Sadly, as my colleagues point out, “this will not bring back those killed nor undo the wounds of those injured as a result of this fiasco.”

But why should the minister reponsible for this appalling decision, made in the face of all the evidence and expert advice, be allowed to get away with it? What happened to accountability here? It seems to me the victims and their families might have a basis for a class-action suit against the former minister, and I hope they initiate one.

On a larger scale, I think we are getting to the point where there might well be a case to be made that in continuing to ignore the evidence on climate change and instead promoting the fossil fuel industry, our political leaders might be guilty of a crime against humanity. In fact, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, suggested exactly this in an opinion piece on CNN’s website just last month. It is time we held politicians accountable for their ignore-ance.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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