This week, Canada’s environment commissioner Julie Gelfand closed out her five-year term with a damning audit.
And yet, for all the commissioner rebuked the federal government’s climate policies, none of the information released in the report is all that new.
The vast majority of scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades now. The problem is people seem to be disconnecting from the issue and its possible solutions, says Amber Bennett, a Canadian associate with Climate Outreach, which specializes in helping organizations get better at talking about climate change.
“This is definitely about polarization and identity,” Bennett said.
“It’s definitely about the fact that it’s complicated and it’s definitely about the fact that we have been talking to people about something that doesn’t feel relevant to them.”
So is this the unicorn report that has the magic to power the country into caring?
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The answer, says Matthew Hoffmann, director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, is a very firm … maybe.
“This report has some potential to maybe shake things up a bit,” he said, but “it’s almost more the timing of the report than the content.”
By timing, Hoffmann is referring not just to the federal carbon tax, which kicked in this week to hike gas prices in four provinces, but also the youth-led activism that recently saw kids around the world walk out in protest over government inaction on climate change.
“The contrast between what’s going on in politics and what the climate science says we need to do can be powerful,” Hoffman said. “Whether it’s going to be or not, that’s an open question.”
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The big stumbling block, both Hoffmann and Bennett agree, is that fact that climate change remains a polarized issue in North America.
The countries that have made the most progress in reducing emissions are the ones that have engaged with it as a non-partisan issue, Bennett says — places like Germany and the U.K., where “it’s no longer a political advantage to not have a strong climate platform.”
We’ve moved past the need to present “both sides” of the anti-vaxxer debate and the flat earth debate, says Diane Beckett, an environment and development consultant, and yet we still see climate change deniers given platforms to rebut a phenomenon that scientists almost unanimously say is real.
Part of the problem boils down to language, she says.
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“She speaks so clearly,” Beckett said. “Governments have to start speaking that clearly and saying, ‘Yes, we are going to take action.’”
It would help if we saw climate change as an immediate threat, Bennett says.
“We are often kind of hardwired to deal with immediate threats … and for a long time, we’ve been able to push climate change and the problem of climate change well off into the future,” she explained.
If countries are going to successfully coax people into taking action on a complicated issue long relegated to the back burner of public policy, Bennett says we’re going to need to change tactics.
“People relate to large, complex problems through their values and their friends and family,” she said. “What we need to be doing is drawing a much stronger connection between values that they have and how climate change affects the things they already care about.”