Reflections from a Lifetime of Environmental Protection Work

By: Mark Rudolph, President & CEO at justenvironment

Mark Rudolph, President & CEO at justenvironment, highlights the procrastination and partisan politics hindering environmental protection efforts. Accepting the knowledge of scientists rather than relying on the knowledge of societal leaders with insufficient expertise in the field is crucial, and as citizens, we must demand better from all leaders in society.

When I was young, I learned many lessons from the paraphrasing of a French nursery rhyme that went something like this:

Once upon a time there lived a very busy farmer, with a very large farm, who worked very long hours. One day, he noticed a lily pad on his pond. Over time, he observed that the lily pad doubled in size every day. Still, he convinced himself that he was far too busy to tend to the lily pad. He promised that he would stop the lily pad’s progress when it covered half the pond. Sadly, for the farmer, and his farm, the lily pad covered half the pond the day before it covered the whole pond.

This tale epitomizes how our society reacts to environmental issues. Whether it be toxic chemicals in the Love Canal and our Great Lakes, acid rain, landfills – recycling – and the need for circularity, chemical leaks like Bhopal, massive spills like the Exxon Valdez, or climate change, we tend to delay our environmental protection actions. Sometimes, we delay until it is too late…and what could have been managed, becomes a crisis.

Many mantras echo from the 1970s to present day. “It will cost too much.” “We will become uncompetitive.” “We can’t act ahead of our economic competition, or our allies.” “Jobs will be lost.” “Prices will go up.” “It’s not a good time – it could lead to a recession.” Frankly, we’ve heard every reason why we shouldn’t undertake measures to protect the environment – even if legitimate matters to address – and few reasons why we should or how we could act.

“Frankly, we’ve heard every reason why we shouldn’t undertake measures to protect the environment – even if legitimate matters to address – and few reasons why we should or how we could act.”

Mark Rudolph

Emergence of another phenomenon also slowed down environmental protection progress in the last three decades – environmental policy issues became increasingly PARTISAN. Much can be traced back to “The Contract with America”, the Republican legislative agenda in the US promoted by then Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, which fundamentally suggested that they would oppose everything the Democrats said and did regardless of evidence and policy merits.

As a case in point, today, some claim climate change exists only as a hoax. For the naysayers (some political, some corporate, some individual), I point out that the laws of physics don’t care about political ideologies. Human-caused climate change exists as a scientific fact, as virtually every scientific institution on Earth has concluded.

Yet now, when one party implements “X” to address a challenge like climate change, another promises to undo “X” if elected. Parties can always please their political bases, but what does that really do to protect the environment? The environment could care less who holds power in office – Mother Earth simply wants and needs to be protected.

“Parties can always please their political bases, but what does that really do to protect the environment?”

Mark Rudolph

And, the corporate community, whether it agrees with a policy direction, or not, will obey the law if Directors’ and Officers’ liability gets put in place.

What the corporate community needs most from elected officials are ambition, leadership, and consistency. How can we expect companies to make large investments (millions to billions of dollars) that will protect the environment and our climate when the policy agenda goes up and down like the proverbial toilet seat? Capital planning requires CERTAINTY, some eight years plus of it, and cannot be risked by political whim.

I hold the privilege of being the only person in Canada to serve as Chief of Staff to a Federal and Ontario Minister of the Environment with an environmental policy background – back in a time they call the ‘80’s. Then, partisanship did not permeate environmental issues to the same degree. A few lived examples are in order.

On the number one subject of the day – Acid Rain – a non-partisan discussion of an environmental reality birthed the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, a critical weapon in Canada’s domestic and international arsenal. As aptly described in Corporate Knights, current and former federal environment ministers and leading environmentalists met in mid-October 1980 to plan a strategy to combat acid rain.

The coffee party at Toronto’s Royal York included John Roberts (the then Federal Liberal Environment Minister), John Fraser (his predecessor, the former Conservative Environment Minister), George Rejhon (Canada’s environment counselor from the Embassy in DC), Adèle Hurley (head environment researcher for Ontario’s Liberal opposition leader Dr. Stuart Smith), Michael Perley (Canadian Environmental Law Association), Monte Hummel (head of WWF), and yours truly, a grad student of Monte’s.

The politicians outlined the scenario: on November 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan will win the election. The Canadian government cannot attack him. Canada needs a third-party to raise the acid rain issue and sustain a campaign. Offices in Canada and the US will be required to build support for action against acid rain in the US with US officials and in Congress.1

How often do current and past environment ministers of different party stripes gather to plan measures, let alone “conspire” with a bunch of environmentalists?

My days on the acid rain file exhibited numerous other moments of non-partisanship. Indeed, when the then Ontario Liberal Premier, David Peterson, and his Environment Minister, Jim Bradley (my boss), announced the Countdown Acid Rain program to the Ontario Legislature on December 17, 1985, all 125 MPPs of all party stripes rose for a two-minute standing ovation. The Countdown Acid Rain program called on Inco, Falconbridge, Ontario Hydro, and Algoma Ore to cut their SO2 emissions. By 2004, the companies’ SO2 emissions were reduced by three-quarters from 1,389 kt/yr to 356 kt/yr.2

And, when we travelled to Washington D.C., (today’s exemplification of partisan politics) to urge American action, with whom did we meet? We engaged with the Democratic Senator from Maine (and future Senate Majority Leader), George Mitchell, and the Republican Senator from Vermont, Robert Stafford. They proved to be Canada’s biggest allies in the fight against acid rain. In late 1990, the United States Senate passed the bill amending the Clean Air Act by an 89-10 margin (bi-partisan) and the House passed it by a 401-25 vote (bi-partisan). Finally, in November 1990, President Bush (the father) signed the bill amending the Clean Air Act into law. The new legislation mandated significant reductions in sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides and, by extension, in acid rain.

Does that collaboration routinely happen today? Sadly, the days of Democratic Senator, John Kerry and Republican Senator, John McCain collaborating represent but a distant glance in our rear-view mirror.

Closer to home on another issue, non-partisanship prevailed in the Greenbelt, prior to recent shenanigans by the Ford government. Bill Davis, the former Progressive Conservative Premier of the Province of Ontario; and, David Crombie, a former Progressive Conservative Cabinet Minister in the Mulroney government and Toronto’s own “tiny perfect” mayor became two of the biggest supporters of the Greenbelt, an initiative advanced by Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty in 2004. 2 million acres of land remain permanently protected to ensure ecological integrity and mitigate climate change, preserve agricultural lands, and provide us with fresh air, clean water, and world class outdoor recreation experiences.

As we can see, it remains possible to protect the environment with people of different political stripes, and we must. But how do we get there in today’s partisan-heated environment with internet platforms spreading disinformation?

“As we can see, it remains possible to protect the environment with people of different political stripes, and we must.”

Mark Rudolph

Frankly, as citizens, we must DEMAND better not just from our politicians but from all leaders in society, especially the business and banking community, from ourselves as environmental practitioners, and as individuals. Consultation must be reworked and genuine. We need to rebuild RESPECT between stakeholders (even when agreeing to disagree) and for our institutions, LISTEN to alternate points of view to understand other perspectives, and ADVANCE our goal(s), addressing as many issues as feasible.

Businesses and banks rely on numbers produced by accountants – which are rarely questioned when making strategic decisions for their operations and shareholders.

So why do we accept attacks on scientists’ knowledge when questioned by various societal leaders with little to no expertise in the field – including political and corporate ones?

When will scientific evidence claim the same stature as the almighty dollar?

Too often, whether it be in politics or business, policy becomes oriented solely to the voter or the shareholder in the short-term, rather than looking at the public good over the longer term.

Too often, we become caught up in the “Me,” not the “We”.

In December 1968, Garrett Hardin published his iconic economic and ecological piece “The Tragedy of the Commons”. It is now 2023 – we should learn from it. Citizens, businesses, governments & institutions, as well as our environment will be the better for it. There are no sides when it comes to the environment, only solutions.


  1. Toby Heaps, The acid rain formula, Corporate Knights, Spring 2006, hXps://
  2. Source: Countdown Acid Rain: Government Review of the 1994 Progress Reports Submitted by Ontario’s Four Major Sources of Sulphur Dioxide (PIBS # 646E17)