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An Open Letter to the Environment Minister

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Dear Peter Kent:

I'’ve been told you are a faithful reader of my column, Science Matters. I hope it’'s true. I’'m writing to thank you and the government for the decision to make the Rouge Valley a national park. More and more Canadians live in urban areas, and this will be a truly progressive step that will make a wilderness experience possible for people in Canada’s largest city. Well done.

I have to add, though, that a study by the David Suzuki Foundation before the Kyoto conference on climate in 1997 showed that most of Canada’s national parks will be seriously threatened on a warming planet. National parks, now including Rouge Valley, are our great pride and joy as well as priceless treasures to inform us how nature works, yet they will be severely altered as different species of plants and animals move away to remain within their optimum temperature while new ones come in and take over. Ecologically, this will mean devastating change that will render the parks unrecognizable. So even as we protect Rouge Park and other parks and natural ecosystems from urban sprawl and other unsustainable land use, they cannot be protected from the impact of climate change that is already well underway.

Your portfolio should be recognized as the most important one in government because it concerns the biosphere that keeps us alive and enables us to flourish. People like me who have been active in trying to protect the environment for many years are not your enemy; we are your constituency. You are our man, the go-to guy to whom we offer support and from whom we hope for leadership. And it is in that spirit that I am writing today.

You may recall that after your appointment to office, I wrote asking you to do one thing, to watch and reflect on a video that presents the perspective of environmentalism. I don'’t know if you watched it, but your actions suggest that either you did not or that its importance did not sink in. I conclude that because I am shocked each time I hear you on radio or television –and you keep justifying what you are doing or not doing on the basis of the economic consequences. But that’'s the Finance Minister'’s job. Yours is to protect the environment.

Excuse me for saying this, but the reason your ministry exists is very simple and basic and was shown in the film I asked you to watch. We are animals and our most fundamental biological needs transcend any imposed by human constructs such as nationality, politics, religion or economics. If we don'’t have air for three or four minutes, we either die or suffer brain damage. If air is polluted, we sicken. So surely our highest priority for our very survival has to be protection of air. Whatever we do as individuals or businesses must not jeopardize the quality of this life-giving element that is also the source of the seasons, climate and weather. That alone makes your job the most important in government. I have read that the Prime Minister has had asthma since childhood so surely he must know how important it is to protect air.

Our bodies are made up of at least 70 per cent water that we lose all the time through our skin, eyes, mouth, nose and urine, so we must constantly top up. Deprived of water for a few days, we die; exposed to polluted water, we sicken; so protecting water must, like protecting air, be our highest priority before anything else. All of our food was once alive and most of it is grown in soil. Without food for weeks, we die. With polluted food, we sicken. So protecting the soil and health of food plants and animals is a priority.

Every bit of the energy in our bodies that we need to move, grow and reproduce is sunlight captured by plants through photosynthesis. So protecting the plants that enable us to live is a high priority. Finally, it is the web of life on the planet that cleanses, replenishes or creates these fundamental elements that keep us alive and healthy, so protecting that biodiversity is absolutely essential if we are to flourish.

How can we place economic or political priorities ahead of these undeniable and most basic of needs? Your job is to fight to protect those fundamental needs of all Canadians, to explain and advocate for them at the Cabinet table and to search for ways to make preserving and enhancing nature a vibrant part of the economic priorities of government.

There are many groups that have worked for years and decades trying to develop strategies and programs that will ensure the protection of our most fundamental biological needs while not impeding social and economic development. They are a huge resource. All you have to do is ask for their input.

Peter, for decades leading scientists of the world have been warning us that the collective impacts of human numbers, technology, consumption and economy have become so powerful that they are overwhelming and undermining the very things that keep us alive and healthy. Now scientists'’ calls have become more desperately urgent, a plea to change direction and shift our economic system away from short-sighted exploitation to working in harmony with the natural world that sustains us.

This is a critical moment in our species'’ history and you are playing a critical role in shaping the kind of world in which our children and grandchildren will live. Your decision to make the Rouge Valley a national park is a step in what must be a new direction.

Yours is a sacred trust of all Canadians and I urge you to live up to it so that folks like me can support you to the hilt. Right now it does not feel as if anyone is doing the job of Minister for the Environment in Canada.