On Thursday March 12, Doug Ford was telling people to go on holiday over March break and enjoy themselves. Virtually overnight, he did a complete volte-face and urged people to stay home and start self-isolating. Since then, he has been tenaciously clinging to the same page as the federal government, hectoring Ontarians about strict social distancing, demanding more testing, and lecturing President Trump about his betrayal of our traditional near-familial relationship with the US. Despite Doug Ford’s apparent self-reinvention, it is appropriate to ask about what preceded and what will follow it.
In my article Innovation under Populism, I cited a long list of cases of the Ford Government assuming the science-skeptical stance of the populist movement and shutting down scientific activity in the public service. One instance was the firing and non-replacement of the Chief Scientist of Ontario (in effect abolishing the position). The fired Chief Scientist is a distinguished micro-biologist. Had she been in place when Covid – 19 was morphing into a pandemic, epidemiologists would have contacted her, and she might have been able to get through to the premier. If so, he might have come to an earlier realization of the extent of the public health problem, the provincial government would have been faster to act, and the curve would be flatter than it is today.
Epidemiology is a science that is easy for even science-skeptics to embrace. Though viruses aren’t visible to the naked eye, their impact in terms of hospitals filled with the sick and the dying is very visible. Climate science is different. Though the immediate impacts of climate change – higher temperatures, melting polar ice caps, higher water levels – are clearly visible to the naked eye, the longer term health and economic impacts are not.
So far, the Ford Government has persisted in its opposition to the federal government’s carbon price, fighting it in the court of law and, with its gas pump stickers and rhetoric about the “job-killing carbon tax,” in the court of public opinion.
My question is whether, now that Doug Ford has seen the validity and value of epidemiology, he will also see the validity and value of climate science. Whatever the intellectual challenge involved there are good political reasons for him to change his mind about climate science. Before the pandemic his approval ratings were stuck around 20 percent, but he now has an 83 percent approval rating for his handling of the pandemic. He might draw a lesson from this experience and pivot to the political centre on climate change as well. Six months ago – an eternity in political time but still within living memory – the failure of the federal Conservatives to make inroads in Ontario was very much due to the weakness of their stance on climate change.
Whether Ford learns from experience and, when the pandemic moves from being the only priority to one of several priorities, he pivots on climate change remains to be seen. There is a strong and purely political case for doing so. But the psychological mechanism of escalating commitment to failing causes is also well known. Stay tuned.